Thomas Hardy and Charles Darwin: Far From the Madding Crowd

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The influence of Charles Darwin on Thomas Hardy is palpable. Basudeb critiques Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, in this context, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

The hint, given by Darwin, at the origin of the world with all its contents, contradicts the principal premise of all cosmogonies. The theory upsets the age-old belief of the people in the basic tenets of Christianity. And Hardy was not an exception. The anti-Christian spirit in Hardy is suggested in his novels.

This assessment of the novelist, persisting through decades, is the result of a communication gap between the novelist and his readers. Hardy’s real meaning was misread by many of his readers. Roy Morrell’s comment on the matter is perhaps pertinent: “…For a long time, however, Hardy had clung to the optimistic belief that people would be eager enough to understand his books…Hardy may have been underestimating, then, the difficulties of communication”.

Readers and critics of Hardy tend to view the novelist as pessimist without making a meaningful evaluation of the contexts in which the of the novels make certain speeches or take certain steps. Another of Roy Morrell’s comments seems strikingly relevant in this connection: “We may recall Troy blamed Fate, and surrendered to it; Henchard, in his weaker moments, does the same thing: he gambles on his luck, puts himself. In The Return of the Native Hardy refers, quite definitely though in different words, to the same ‘President of the Immortals’ when he says of Eustacia: ‘Instead of blaming herself for the issue, she laid the fault upon the shoulders of some indistinct Colossal Prince of the World who had farmed her situation and ruled her lot’. In blaming Eustacia thus, Hardy makes it clear that he does not himself believes in this ‘colossal Prince of the World’; but that he regards this Personage as merely the invention of those who wish to shift the blame from their own shoulders, as Troy and Eustacia and Tess’s mother do.”

A careful examination of Hardy’s novels shows that such an interpretation of Hardy’s vision is totally acceptable. In Hardy’s novels, chance and accident undoubtedly play an important role. Those chances and accidental happenings which are beyond anybody’s anticipation or comprehension evoke a sense of helplessness in the reader’s mind and ultimately lead Hardy’s readers to believe that Hardy has attempted to delineate in his novels the inevitable defeat of the grand in the hands of an inexplicable force.

To illustrate this idea about Hardy, one may refer to an incident in Far From the Madding Crowd. In this novel also, the role of chance is of great importance. Joseph Poorgrass is assigned to carry the coffin of Fanny Robin to Weather bury. It is expected that everything will follow in its usual course, but he is late in reaching that place. The consequence is terrible. To bury the dead body of Fanny Robin that evening is almost impossible, for it is too late. Owing to this unavoidable delay, the dead body of Fanny Robin is kept in Bathsheba’s house for that night. This arrangement is made with the assumption that the body will be buried next morning. If Fanny Robin’s dead body had arrived in time and had been buried that evening, Bathsheba could not have learned the true identity of the wretched woman with whom her husband had a love affair before their marriage. Many of Hardy’s readers consider this accidental delay of Joseph Poorgrass as a deliberate design, which malignant fate has masterminded against Bathsheba.

Boldwood and Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd are mentally prepared to marry each other and to begin a happy conjugal life. They have no doubt that Troy had died in the sea. The society to which they belong accepts the remarriage of Bathsheba with Boldwood after the widely believed death of Troy. On the day of their engagement, Troy unexpectedly appears on the scene. The sudden arrival of Troy totally upsets Boldwood and wrecks his nerves. In a fit of anger and despair, Boldwood then commits the crime of murdering Troy in the presence of all who have come to their engagement party. Now, if anybody thinks that Hardy presents this situation in Far From Madding Crowd only to show that the unknown fate has determined everything in the life of Boldwood, his of this novel will not be complete. Situations like the sudden reappearance of Troy in the life of Bathsheba when she is about to be engaged with a person like Boldwood are the stuff of life. What Hardy wants to communicate through this situation is that there are certain things in life, and in our environment, which happens without any apparent reason. Even in the world of nature, many things happen which are beyond human comprehension. Darwin shows series of chances and accidents taking place in the world of nature, but he does not present any reason for those happenings. There is no answer to the sudden arrival of Troy at that engagement party, except that this is the pattern of life; this is the reality and one must reconcile oneself with this reality if one wants to survive in this world. Boldwood cannot reconcile himself with the situation, arising out of the unexpected arrival of Troy during his engagement and so in a fit of frustration he kills Troy and invites life-long imprisonment for himself. What Hardy wants to convey is that Boldwood has no right to live in this society because of his failure to adapt himself to the changed situation.

Hardy describes what happens to Boldwood after he has gunned down Troy: “Boldwood passed into the high road, and turned in the of Caster Bridge. Here he walked at an even, steady pace over Yalbury Hill, along with the dead level beyond, mounted Mellstock Hill, and between eleven and twelve O’clock crossed the Moor into the town…. He turned to the right and halted before an archway of heavy stonework, which was closed by an iron-studded pair of doors. This was the entrance to the goal, and over it a lamp was fixed, the enabling the wretched traveler to find a bell-pull. The small wicket at last opened, and a porter appeared. Boldwood stepped forward, and said something in a low tone, when, after a delay, another man came. Boldwood entered, and the door was closed behind him, and he walked the world no more”.

Boldwood has failed miserably in his struggle for existence. So he has to quit this world. He is incapable of adapting himself to the changing climate with which he has been confronted after the unexpected arrival of Troy at that engagement party.

All living things including plants are struggling with each other for survival, and there is an link between the living and non-living things of the world. Inter-dependence is the day to survival. Thomas Hardy was influenced by this idea. His portrayal of his character’s failure to adapt themselves to changing circumstances shows that they are not capable of handling the situations of their lives and as a result, they suffer. This is a clear evidence of the influence of the theory of Charles Darwin upon Thomas Hardy. The and women in the novels of Hardy fail to adjust themselves to the changing circumstances and this failure results in their extinction. In The Return of the Native, Eustacia and Clymer are examples of this failure. Clym’s mother cannot rise to meet the new situation arising out of Clym’s falling in love with Eustacia and they all suffer. If Clym’s mother could accept the situation, – Clym’s marriage with Eustacia, – there would have been hardly any tragedy in their lives. Eustacia also fails to adjust herself to the changing circumstances. When she comes to know, after her marriage, that Clym is reluctant to lead a city life in Paris, she should have tackled the situation adroitly; but instead of doing that, she opposes Clym who intends to settle down in his village; and she allows the rift between then to grow. Their union turns out to be unhappy. On the other hand, it is often found in Hardy’s novels that those who reconcile themselves to the changed situation become happy and hardly suffer anymore. At the end of Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba finally realises that she has no alternative but to extend her help to Gabriel Oak in the changed circumstances brought about by the pathetic death of Troy and the inevitable conviction of Boldwood. At the end of the novel, she reconciles herself to the idea of marrying Oak, though she had hardly thought of this when she saw him in the countryside. With the change of circumstances, Bathsheba also changes herself. Her ability to assess the changed situation objectively enables her to survive. Had she been reluctant to accept the changed reality, arising out of the death of Troy and the conviction of Boldwood, she would probably have had a difficult time to live with her property. She knows that Gabriel Oak is her only steady well-wisher and unfaltering admirer. She accepts Oak and marries him. Her ability to adapt herself to the environment saved her from a disaster.

Darwin’s influence on Thomas Hardy is formidable. Florence Emily Hardy’s statement on her husband’s responses to the letter, addressed to him by Dr Grosart, reveals Hardy’s familiarity with Darwin’s theory of evolution she says: “Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to suggest any hypothesis, which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer and other agnostics.”

This shows Hardy’s familiarity with Charles Darwin. J. Comyns Carr dramatised Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and it was staged at the Globe Theatre, in April 1882. To witness the production Hardy went to London. While he was in London, he ‘attended, on April 26, the funeral of Darwin in Westminister Abbey’. Mrs. Hardy comments in this connection: “As a young man he had been among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species.”

The influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is an important factor in Hardy’s attempt to show the extinction of some pivotal characters of his novels owing to their failure to respond appropriately to changed situations. The pattern of human life continually undergoes change and a man’s task is to reconcile himself to that changed situation. Hardy shows in his novel and short stories that a man’s failure to adapt himself to change will result in his extinction. This concept of Darwin influenced Hardy and so, examples of failure on the part of different characters to adapt themselves to changed environments, resulting in their elimination from the world, abound in his novels and short stories.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti