The idea of fate is one of the most prominent themes in tragic writing. Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare and many others wrote about the extent to which our actions are predetermined by divine providence, one of the many forms of what we now call ‘fate’. This idea is summed up by Gloucester’s oft-quoted reflection, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods.” But Thomas Hardy lived in the early twentieth century in a world that doubted providential action, so for him, fate was more a question of fortune than celestial foreknowledge. Hardy’s reflections on the perils of fortune and fate reach their pinnacle in his novels The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, novels that also question the roles of society and personal autonomy in our lives. Though Hardy has often been branded as pessimistic in his tales of life’s cruelties and injustices, he himself denied this allegation, humorously arguing that he had adopted “a higher characteristic of philosophy than pessimism… which is truth.” Thus, the truth or ‘impression’ that Hardy’s novels convey is that, though his protagonists are complicit in their downfalls, there are a number of contributing factors they were powerless to prevent. As Jean Brooks persuasively argues, “In the tragic universe human errors become tragic errors which co-operate with Fate…”
The extent to which Michael Henchard, the protagonist of The Mayor of Casterbridge, is responsible for his tragic fall, is one of the most hotly debated questions in all of literature. Indeed, it is hard to know whether he is an admirable character or a loathsome one, since throughout the novel Hardy encourages us to see him in different lights. Robert Schweik identifies four movements in the novel, and in each there is an initial situation that seems to offer hope for Henchard, encouraging us also that he is a good man. The first movement begins with Henchard as the affluent Mayor of Casterbridge, an apparently reformed man, grown older and more mature. His earlier harshness to Susan and Elizabeth Jane, in selling them to Newson as his “goods”, is made less significant by his kindness to Farfrae and his care for the returned Susan and her daughter, whom he gives five guineas and sets up as a genteel new arrivals in town.
However, as the movement continues, Henchard becomes more ruthless and his “temperament which would have no pity for weakness” begins to show more prominently. When Farfrae sets up his own corn business, Henchard cruelly decides that he wants to “grind him into the ground” and “starve him out.” This one-sided rivalry increases as Henchard begins to feel more and more threatened by Farfrae, particularly because of his relationship with Elizabeth Jane, a relationship that Henchard attempts to prevent. When he discovers that Elizabeth Jane is not his daughter (after the death of his wife), he begins to be cruel to her, too. Finally, Henchard’s courting of Lucetta reveals to both her and the reader his impulsive and uncaring approach to other people as he tries to force her to marry him.
Thus, though Henchard appeared to be reformed, the introduction of a rival and of financial danger arguably reveals his true personality, and his cruelties are, to an extent, revenged: Schweik marks the end of this movement with the furmity woman’s public disclosure of Henchard’s past. When the people learn of his drunken selling of his family, “public disgrace and bankruptcy come like a retribution and precipitate him to social and economic ruin.” (Schweik) As Hardy explains: “On that day – almost at that minute – he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side.” This first of Schweik’s movements seems to reinforce the dictum that “character is fate”, that the good succeed and the wicked suffer. After all, as Henchard is forced to admit, his actions directly cause his suffering: when he disregards his wife’s last wishes and reads the letter revealing that Elizabeth Jane is not his child, though at first he believes that events had been caused by “the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him,” he realises that the events “had developed naturally” and that “If he had not revealed his past history to Elizabeth he would not have searched the drawer for papers, and so on.”
This model of goodness and relative success, followed by ruin, is repeated again and again. The second movement begins with Hardy’s stressing Henchard’s generosity and integrity: for example, Henchard sells his watch in order to repay a needy cottager. He also tells his rival and employer Farfrae “I – sometimes think I’ve wronged ‘ee!” But then Henchard undergoes another “moral change” and his drinking brings a new “era of recklessness.” However, he does begin to show a sense of inherent moral goodness in that he cannot bring himself to tell Farfrae that the letters he reads to him came from Lucetta (“Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him”). Furthermore, he does not kill Farfrae in the fight, even though he could easily do so. Indeed, after the fight, he takes “his full measure of shame and self-reproach,” and we arguably begin to pity him at this point. Schweik is right when he argues that Henchard now appears to have an “incapacity for callous destructiveness which repeatedly frustrates his reckless antagonism.” Hardy now sees him as less of a Faust figure, who is to blame for his fall, and more of a “less scrupulous Job,” a man at the mercy of external causes, such as Jopp’s vicious decision to make Lucetta’s letters public, letters that Henchard wanted to be returned discreetly.
The third and fourth cycles similarly encourage us to pity Henchard, particularly in his moral struggles and his pathetic subjection to Elizabeth Jane (he takes on his duties in her house with “housewifely care”). Indeed, Elaine Showalter argues that Henchard undergoes an unmanning throughout the novel and experiences a typically “female suffering”. Hardy notes that “he was not now the Henchard of former days”. We also sympathise with him in his vow not to interfere with Elizabeth Jane’s marriage, even though he is “doomed to be bereft of her”. Henchard’s intense love for his wife’s daughter can also be used to explain his lie to Newson which, though cruel, was motivated by sincere affection. When he is rebuked by Elizabeth Jane and departs from Casterbridge once again, we come to view Henchard as the victim of fate’s nonchalant cruelty. As Elizabeth Jane ponders, there is a “persistence of the unforeseen” in men’s destinies, and “neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given” while “there were others receiving less who had deserved much more.” Henchard is surely one of those beings that deserved more than his lonely, exiled death, especially considering his “new lights” and “wisdom” upon which Hardy remarks. Thus, whilst the first movement suggests that Henchard deserves his suffering, the novel’s ending seems to imply that Henchard, though undeniably flawed and partly responsible, is more the victim of fate than the victim of his own actions.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles also suggests that, whilst human autonomy can be partly to blame for the tragic falls of Hardy’s protagonists, fate and society also play a significant role. To an extent, Hardy emphasises Tess’s passivity in his descriptions, for example, of how there has “been traced such a coarse pattern” on her “feminine tissue,” a pattern which he says “it was doomed to receive”. As Kristin Brady argues, she is presented as more of “a passive victim of male aggression and idealization than an active participant in her own disastrous fate.” However, there are, in fact, various instances in the novel for which Tess can be held partly responsible. Though Alec admits that he played a “trick” on her, she is described by Hardy as a “victim of seduction,” and thus it is unsure whether she really was raped. Indeed, as Brady explains, “Tess’s real thoughts and feelings are rarely presented in the novel, except when she suffers the consequences of her actions.” Again, this makes her seem more passive than she may really be. She is, for Brady, “both the betrayed maiden and the fallen woman.” Tess herself says that she had “succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness.” This, of course, makes Alec’s actions no less cruel, but it does suggest that the events in the Chase did not quite amount to a rape.
This argument is also supported by the fact that, to an extent, Tess seems to like Alec: she stays with him for a few weeks after the loss of her virginity in the Chase, and she accepts various gifts from him. She even tells him: “My eyes were dazed by you for a little…” Tess eats Alec’s strawberries “in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state,” and though she resists his whistling lessons, she finds herself smiling “involuntarily” at her “momentary pleasure of success”. It is also possible to argue that Tess’s sense of pride contributes to the events in the Chase, perhaps explaining why she accepts Alec’s offers to “rescue” her from Car Darch and the other revellers. She feels both “indignant and ashamed,” showing a wish both to triumph and to escape, a wish that Alec’s arrival fulfils when she goes off with him “in triumph”. And so, one can argue that this will to triumph in part led to the events of the Chase. Moreover, Tess’s partaking in the laughter of the other revellers can be seen as her entering into the world of sexual depravity amongst Alec’s other victims. This idea is reinforced by the names The Queen of Hearts and The Queen of Diamonds, and by the earlier description of sexual frenzy in the barn (Tess is at the door, described by Hardy as “on the momentary threshold of womanhood”). It is also worth adding that, in an earlier draft of Tess, she is described as drinking a cordial that Alec gives her before they arrive at the Chase, perhaps suggesting Tess’s complicity and her willing entrance into this sexual, adult world. And so, Tess is not completely the victim of fate: her personality and actions can be held responsible, too.
It also helps to look at other examples throughout the novel of Tess’s self-assertion and pride because, as J. Hillis Miller points out, Tess’s life seems to be a constant re-enactment of the night in the Chase. The most obvious example of this is the incident with Prince, the family’s horse. Though it is obviously not her fault that her father gets too drunk to drive to the market, she is certainly to blame for taking on too much responsibility and “proudly” refusing her mother’s suggestion that a young man take the carriage. She also allows Abraham to fall asleep because, although she “was not skilful in the management of a horse… she thought that she could take upon herself the entire conduct of the load for the present.”
This is not to say that Tess is wholly to blame for her tragic fall – that would be a ridiculous assertion. But it is true that personal responsibility, along with external events, contributes to her tragedy. As I have outlined, she is partly responsible for the death of the family horse, which leads to her being forced to visit Alec. She is also partly responsible for her seduction, though it is difficult to blame her for her innocence and naivety. However, it does seem throughout the novel that the world is conspiring against Tess: for example, the letter that she slips under the door to Angel is hidden under the carpet so that Angel never sees it, and this event causes the suffering of both on the night of their wedding. Moreover, there is an omen of a cock crowing at the wedding, and there is also an ill-omened stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand as Tess meets Alec for the second time. All of these events suggest that, though Tess may be responsible in not preventing the disasters of her tragic fall, she was the victim of terrible misfortune.
Thus, Tess is undeniably the victim of fate, but also the victim of society itself. It is the stringent and unjust mores of Victorian traditions that lead to Angel hypocritically leaving her despite his own ‘sinful’, pre-marital relationship. It is also because of the difficulties women faced in her time that Tess is inevitably forced to return to Alec in order to survive, and we can certainly pity her in her decision to kill him (though, again, this could be seen as another instance of her personal responsibility for her fate). As Tanner notes, “Throughout the book Hardy stresses that Tess is damned, and damns herself, according to man-made laws which are as arbitrary as they are cruel.” But he also goes on to add that Nature itself seems to turn on Tess, and just as Tess is tortured by man-made laws and orthodoxy (as represented, perhaps, by the violent, man-made threshing machine), she is also tortured by the forge of the sun, the “steely stars”, and the “glass splinters” of rain at Flintcomb-Ash. Incidentally, the policeman that arrive to arrest Tess appear at sunrise, and so it is as if the sun is bringing forth Tess’s doom.
And so, it seems clear that both Tess and Henchard are in part to blame for their tragic falls, but that they are also both unfairly treated by the cruelties of fate. They both acted in such a way as to encourage their doom, but that surely does not make them deserving of the immense suffering and lonely deaths they experienced. Henchard does not deserve to be ostracised because of his reckless and impulsive personality, and nor does Tess deserve to be ostracised and killed for her pride and her naivety. This is the skill of Hardy: he allows his characters a certain amount of autonomy, and he allows them to sin and make mistakes, whilst also encouraging us to see their falls as unfair and unjust. As F. Manning argues, in order to truly sympathise with a character, they must have exercised their freedoms and they must have sinned, because only then can they be human. This is what makes Hardy, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists.”