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george eliot and thomas hardy

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Middlemarch & Far From the Madding Crowd:

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is, as Schorer says, a novel of religious yearning without object. Set in a time where, as reviewers often noted, Dorothea’s implied ‘lost belief’ would be anachronistic, it is nevertheless marked by Eliot’s sense of ‘hypothetical objectivity’. Similarly Hardy’s FFMC has often been seen in terms of a turn towards the view of an uncompromising hostile universe which marks Huxley and Darwin’s writing. 

Hardy’s belief in an unconscious will is problematised by his feeling that ‘old fashioned revelling is less possible as we discover the defects of natural laws’. Both novels indicate this shift from the earlier mood of ‘honest doubt’ towards the feelings of disinheritance brought about by theories of evolution. Herschel’s phrase the law of higgledy-piggledy indicates this sense of confusion in Victorian society as an ‘interfering god’ was replaced by either a ‘absolute empire of accidents’ or ‘an immanent god’ in Kingsley’s words. Hardy's growing gloom can be seen as a parallel to Eliot's and in a sense Middlemarch is the darkest of Eliot's novels. As Wright has argued, Middlemarch moves beyond Dinah’s capitalised human qualities to a world where there is no suggestion that a god might exist, despite Dorothea’s yearning and faith. 

Critics have often pointed to the deterministic plot which interrupts Dorothea’s story with the introduction of the "sarcastic" figure of faith. This insertion of destiny, as well as the moral stupidity of taking "the world as an udder" undermines the capacity for change, and in this sense, Dorothea and her Theresa complex have, as Kettle pointed out, no place in the novel. 

A similar tendency is visible in Hardy’s work, which has often been seen as fatalistic or cynical. An often cited example is the ending of Tess, with it's echo of Lear ‘as flies to wanton boys’ in ‘the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess’. 

This sense of a destiny the individual is powerless to change is pervasive, even in FFMC which has a relatively happy conclusion, there are constant references to Gabriel’s "malign star", and Bathsheba being subject to a force strong her than her own. 

Both novels portray an unredeemed universe where the characters have to face not only the Adam in the self, as Farebrother tells Lydgate, but also those around them. 

The sense of ‘man as an alien’ in an indifferent universe, as Marden put it, is however ameliorated by the ‘necessity of taking up an attitude’ which can lead, if not to change, then at least to a relative good. 

In Middlemarch this perhaps differentiates Dorothea from Mary Garth who Diaches had argued is the moral centre of the novel. Other critics point out that Dorothea’s philosophy of ‘desiring what is perfectly good even if we do not know what it is’ can be seen in terms of the positivist faith in working for the ‘growing good’ of the world. 

In both novels, there is a recognition of the Victorian readers need for reassurance. In FFMC, as Seymour Smith says, Gabriel's association with nature, like Dorothea’s link with Theresa, in part makes him one of the most obvious examples of what Wing referred to as Hardy's ‘astonishingly good characters in an astonishingly evil universe’. 

Both Eliot and Hardy often depicted such characters. In Eliot’s case the multitude of reformists and philanthropists in Middlemarch are coalesced in the figure of Daniel Deronda in her last novel. Deronda, as Hardy remarked, could be seen as a character who represents the modern man. Such characters perhaps indicates the shift in the understanding of faith in both novels, from a relationship between god and the individual to society. 

In Eliot this is particularly marked. Her argument that "if we have lost the hope of heaven we have also lost demeaning fear" stresses the idea of justice in that moral actions have moral consequences. This account stresses free will and adaptability in a way which counters the pessimism of a static world view. As Kettle says, determinism conflicts with the novel’s moral core which suggests that characters do not have to meet choices the way they do. Fred for example, adapts to the blow of fortune and discovers the necessity of working. 

This can be paralleled to Gabriel’s adaptability in the early scene when the sheep die. This scene invites an allegorical reading, with the description of the pool which glittered like a dead man’s eye. It perhaps suggests the redemption which is found in the move beyond the egocentric belief in a providential scheme which will ensure a happy ending. 

An anthesis is set up in both novels between characters like Gabriel and Dorothea, who show some awareness of a larger life, and the self-preoccupation of the others. As Wright points out, Rosamund looks at her mirror while Dorothea looks out of the window. This is similar to the early scene in FFMC where Bathsheba is introduced and condemned for her vanity. But self-preoccupation is also seen on a larger level in Hardy and Eliot’s novels, in terms of a religion which sees the arbitrary scratches on a pier glass to be concentric circles.

In Middlemarch this is seen in the many characters who cling to a belief in ‘a providential thing’ in Raffles words. The irony with which Eliot treats this is similar to Hardy’s in Tess, where as Beer has noted the morbidity which has Tess seeing her own life in terms of the nature around her is a whimsical fancy which is a product of misplaced and anachronistic ‘confidence’. 

Tess's story to some extent parallels Fanny's in FFMC, whose confidence of an end which is unsure is seen by some fo the characters as na´ve. Her struggle on the road can be seen as a literal ‘dark night of the soul’, like Dorothea’s mourning her ‘lost belief’. Both scenes however end somewhat positively, with the dog who guides Fanny to the end of her journey, and with the vision Dorothea is granted. 

The relativism in both Eliot and Hardy's novels is a product of the view that ‘only individuals exist’ as Lewes put it. Gilmour argues that Eliot replaced god by society, by the ‘web’ of human interaction. This to a large extent informs Hardy’s text as well, in his vision of humanity as ‘one great network’. This web imagery in both novels extends to structure and is a common Victorian motif

While both writers are cynical of a religion which places the individual as the centre of life in an age where the disproportion and transitory nature of the human in the evolutionary scheme was pervasive, there is a sense that something is needed to bind together. 

Seymour Smith argues that this looking for a pattern invalidates views of Hardy as a naturalist – the need for religion as a binding force is perhaps suggested in Gabriel’s hut being called an ‘ark’, a place of peace which contrasts with Bathsheba’s ‘wretchedness’.

Middlemarch is also full of characters who seek to connect the world. Ladislaw’s criticism of seeing history as a set of boxlike partitions, Lydgate search for primitive tissue and Casaubon’s key are all examples. However Lydgate and Casaubon’s failure seems inevitable. They are, as Wilhelm argues, either resistant to adaptation or anticipate it too soon, but more importantly they locate history and fame on a higher plane than the individual. Lydgate’s impatience with Bulstrode's questions about his health is an example of this, and defines perhaps Eliot’s sense of what is immoral. As Shiller has argued Middlemarch locates significance and binding on the human level, and Bulstrode and Dorothea’s redemption comes through a rereading of their past which reveals this. 

Dorothea’s desiring fame can be seen as a substitute ambition, a need to have a purpose, to ‘ennoble some man to high aims’ as Sue says to Jude in Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Dorothea ultimately fails but finds that good is closer at hand than she expects. This seems typical of the philanthropy pattern in Victorian novels. However unlike the Dickensian characters whose "generosity costs nothing" as House says, yearning for good is differentiated from the philanthropists "plans" in Middlemarch by the sacrifice and pain it implies. 

Something very similar to Dorothea’s story can be seen in Hardy’s poem Reproach where the speaker asks whether ‘wisdom’s cold words’ are more important than ‘to water love’. This again links to faith on the human level rather than an aspiration to an absent god or impossible ideal. 

As Wilhelm says, Eliot mediates between such ideals and what is possible, and as in her poem finds some relief in being the one who offers the ‘the cup of strength.’ Eliot’s comment to Meyers that god and immortality are impossible but duty necessary is a central late Victorian concept which informs both Middlemarch and FFMC. 

In Eliot's novel, the idea of exalted action is intertwined with vocation as Mintz has argued, and similarly in FFMC Gabriel’s work is what distinguishes him from the other characters. The sense that ‘God is palpably present in the country’ while the devil has gone with the world to town is made literal in FFMC where Troy is the outsider whose entrance into the novel brings changes as ‘reversals’. 

The attraction to the outsider figures in both novels can be seen in terms of a moral scheme: Troy and Ladislaw are Byronic heroes whose immorality or amorality is an escape from the strictures of a hypocritical society. Gabriel’s saving the ricks shows his placing of duty above passion, and this can also be seen in Boldwoods’ overlooking the ricks in his preoccupation with Bathsheba. In this sense Gabriel echoes Caleb's ‘work is my delight’. Both characters can be seen as a nostalgic look back at an imaginary rustic life. Work, for Caleb and Gabriel, and in a different sense to Dorothea, is not only delight but a substitute for faith, a model which reinterprets Arnold's comment "religion is three quarters conduct"

The prophet figures in Middlemarch are not all successful however, as Schorer notes. Casaubon is a false Aquinas, Lydgate fails, and Ladislaw's depiction as the true prophet omits the elements of sacrifice. Similarly in FFMC Gabriel’s power is static, it is Bathsheba, like Dorothea, who learns through emotional convulsions to have the nerves of a stoic. 

The conversion which Mintz sees as the female model in Eliot's novels begins with an account of suffering which reveals the power of prayer even in a world where there is no god. Dorothea’s countering her lost belief with meditating on the needs of others, her "clutching" of her own pain in selfless altruism is not an unproblematic ideal, but it is in a sense a parallel to Eliot’s own work in that the ‘pictured sorrows’ are presented in aesthetic terms, imagining the other as equivalent centre of the self. Imagination, for Eliot, allows us not only to fill in the gaps, but to reach out to others.

In FFMC, Bathsheba imitating Gabriel and praying by Fanny’s coffin similarly suggests the peace which can be found in a religion which functions on the level of individuals. At the same time, it suggests the "diffusive influence" of the good character, Gabriel, in a similar way to Dorothea's "widening the skirts of light." 

Ultimately, Eliot and Hardy both present a qualified positive. In Hardy, the adoption of the human scale and the appetite for joy counters apprehension as fear by an account of awakening, while in Middlemarch Ladislaw’s philosophy of enjoyment which ‘radiates’ balances that of Dorothea’s struggle for good. She ultimately seems to find relative solace in the human group she sees from her window. ‘Perhaps the shepherd’ here, as in Gabriel’s ‘only the shepherd’ allegorically suggests loss and doubt in faith, but this is countered by the affirmative action Dorothea and Gabriel undertake. As Hornback points out, when Dorothea walks to Middlemarch, she is going to work, although her diffusive influence does not necessarily result in Rosamund's conversion. Similarly Gabriel’s giving money to Fanny does not save her, and Troy’s remorse does not lead to reformation. As in Hardy’s poem Oxen there is a pervasive bleak cynicism, which describes belief as a fair ‘fancy’ which ‘few would weave/in these years’. Readers are left with nothing more than ‘hoping it might be so.’

The ‘involuntary sigh’ which Hutton said ends every part of Middlemarch despite its happy ending can be heard in FFMC as well. The tension between the tragic story and the comic scenes which Edwards points to in Middlemarch can be seen as true of FFMC as well. The ending of Middlemarch in ‘evasive glow’ is a parallel to FFMC, but the questions and doubts do not disappear. The morning of Bathsheba’s wedding is ‘depressing’, she smiles because she no longer laughs readily. In part, this is symbolic, and points to the "darkening gloom" of the novel, for her development is traced by her two smiles, the first when she looks in the mirror to the final smile - one half in joy and half in sorrow. In Middlemarch this mixture of sorrow and joy is similarly emphasised in the end, as the narrator suggests Dorothea’s absorption into society is a loss. As Cecil said the dissatisfaction this leaves is not dispelled by the moving of Dorothea’s adjective to Ladislaw, who becomes ‘an ardent’ reformer. This end of both sorrow/joy in the novels end not with a promise of happiness but with acceptance in Poorgrass’s ‘happy sight’ ‘it could have been worse’ and in the narrator’s last words’ things are not so bad…as they might have been.’


written: 2007
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