The Implicit Theme in the Works of Thomas Hardy

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

decorated initial 'I' n Hardy, theme (a unifying observation about the human condition) is generally implicit (understood) rather than explicit (overt or stated). Rarely is a Hardy theme as easily stated as "The virtuous though humble will inevitably triumph over the corrupt, greedy, and oppressive of the middle and upper classes," a statement that would be satisfactory for Victorian melodramas such as Black-Ey'd Susan; or, All in the Downs and The Rent Day. The triumph of Dick Dewey over his higher-class rivals Farmer Shiner and the minister for the hand of Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree, although it is one of Hardy's simplest prose narratives, cannot be stated so simply, for example, because personal as well as class issues occupy the minds of the young lovers. Although it is almost axiomatic that the briefer a work, the simpler its theme, and that the longer the work the greater the number of themes it is likely to embrace, even a relatively short Hardy poem such as "The Channel Firing" is likely to communicate a number of observations about or insights into human nature: "The dead regret their inability to advise, correct, or reprove the living," "God, knowing all, cannot help but be a little cynical about human morality," and "Nominally Christians, by the early twentienth century, Europeans had permitted militant nationalism to overwhelm any recognition of Christ's teachings" are but three possible statements of theme that logically arise from several readings of "The Channel Firing." Conversely, in a short story considerably longer than the poem, "A Tradition of 1804," Hardy is ironically observing that, when one has the chance to seize a significant opportunity (here, the assassination of Napoleon), he may well lack the means (a suitable firearm).

However, before we can accurately examine any Hardy text for its themes, we must first determine the meaning of the term "theme." Since a student's knowledge of literary terms should gradually become more sophisticated over the secondary grades, studying a novel such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the senior year a student cannot appraise the themes of the novel with the limited definition of "theme" given in The Concise Oxford Dictionary:

N. Subject on which one speaks, writes, or thinks; school composition, essay, on given subject; (gram.) Stem of noun or verb, part to which inflexions are added; (mus.) Melodic subject usu. developed with variations; (hist.) any of 29 provinces in Byzantine empire; ~song, recurrent melody in musical play or film. [Middle English, from Latin from Greek thema -matos (tithemi set, place); partly through Old French].

Junior secondary English students often tend to think of the theme of a literary work as a single word, such as "War," "Friendship," or (at best) a phrase such as "The anxieties of romantic love." In fact, in formulating the theme of a literary work, the student should pick the central insight--for example, in "The Channel Firing," Hardy uses the dialogue among the dead and God to point out that the world hasn't changed fundamentally because humanity, despite its technological sophistication, has not developed morally or spiritually and still relies on violence to solve its disputes because all too often it is blinded by anger and hatred, as suggested by "all nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder." Words such as "war" or "hatred," however, are mere motifs, frequently recurring elements or ideas that may form the basis for a statement of theme. As Laurence Perrine explains in Story and Structure (1959),

The THEME of a piece of fiction is its controlling idea or its central insight. It is the unifying generalization about life stated or implied by the story. To derive the theme of a story, we must ask what its central purpose is: what view of life it supports or what insight into life it reveals. (117)

To illustrate the concept, Perrine offers the following joke:

"Daughter, your young man stays until a very late hour. Hasn't your mother said anything to you about this habit of his?" "Yes, father. Mother says men haven't altered a bit."

Consider how many themes (or, more properly, how many statements of theme) we might generate if we each wrote down what we thought the joke-teller was driving at:

A. As men grow older, they tend to grow more conservative.

B. Fathers of daughters are apprehensive about the kinds of young men their daughters date.

C. Fathers tend to scold their children for doing the very things they themselves once did.

D. Women see men more clearly than men see themselves, and judge them more acutely.

Although it is impossible to determine which of these remarks most accurately reflects the intention or narrative purpose of the joke (or, if you subscribe to hegemony of the author, of the jokester), we recognize that all of the above share certain features:

1. Each is statement, a complete sentence with subject and predicate.

2. Each accounts for the principal elements in the joke, the censorious tone of the father and the witty rejoinder of the daughter.

3. Each is less amusing and far more dry than the joke itself.

4. Each statement is implied by the final line of the joke.

5. No detail within the joke contradicts any of the statements.

6. None of these statements relies upon details not furnished by the joke itself.

7. None of these statements is some familiar adage, proverb, or gnomic remark.

8. Each statement ratifies the opinions of teenaged daughters about their fathers!

Theme, then, is neither a cliched moral nor a framework on which to hang the other elements of the work; rather, it arises naturally from an interaction of all the other elements of the work: characters, setting, conflict, atmosphere, imagery, symbolism, ad even narrative perspective. It is not a preachment such as "people from different social backgrounds and with different career aspirations and life goals should not marry" (Jude the Obscure). Tempting as it may be to bring in such biographical details as Hardy's unhappy marriage with Emma, the student must not permit such extraneous matters to colour his or her statement of theme. Even though such a jaded relationship as that of the Henchards at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge may be related to the Hardys' marital problems, one should not assume that the persona or narrative voice is that of the historical Thomas Hardy himself. Therefore, it would be unwise to say that in The Mayor of Casterbridge the theme concerns the impossibility of finding personal fulfilment inside a conventional marriage–after all, Elizabeth-Jane's and Donald Farfrae's is a conventional marriage, but (insofar as the narrator describes it) it seems happy since the partners are intellectually and emotionally well- matched.

The central theme of the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge may be as enigmatic as "anything [is] possible at the hands of Time and Chance, except, perhaps, fair play" (Ch. 1). However, the novel's subtitle, A Study of a Man of Character, suggests that it must be related to Henchard's capacity for suffering, since for Henchard--in part owing to his failure to communicate his true feelings and to his tendency towards "introspective inflexibility" (an inability to understand his own motivations)--"happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain" (Ch. 45), for that is the lesson that the youthful Elizabeth-Jane apparently learns from her step-father. And yet the "unbroken tranquility" she enjoys in maturity, as Farfrae's wife, forces her "to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen. . . ." Thus, Hardy's essentially gloomy, nihilistic view of the human condition colours even the conventional "happy ending" in a second, better marriage that Hardy may have derived from Dickens's David Copperfield. Certainly, neither Henchard nor Lucetta realizes any satisfaction from an existence (and, apparently, a pleasant existence socially and materially) founded on a lie. Both characters' fates illustrate the pattern of a secret in the past unexpectedly being brought to light and blighting present happiness. Lucetta refuses to "be a slave to the past" (Ch. 25), and determines to bury the secret of her former relationship with Henchard (and, therefore, her social obligation to marry him) in order to satisfy her present passion. Similarly, Henchard's lieing to Newsome about the death of Elizabeth-Jane is directly responsible for her rejection of him. Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae both escape the tragedy because, although they too are guilty of minor duplicities, they are essentially altruistic and "single-hearted." It is not enough, Hardy seems to imply in this novel, to meet the vicissitudes of life heroically or defiantly--one must do so with love, compassion, and charity.

Again, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, there are a number of themes, but a single unifying principle of (or observation about) human existence emerges from the relationships of the principal characters. Although suffering and death are inevitable, Angel Clare through his lack of empathy for Tess on their wedding night and his apparent rejection of her (as suggested by his trip to Brazil) brings upon Tess more suffering than she deserves and unwittingly drives her towards the final catastrophe, the murder of Alec D'Urberville. Only after it is too late does Angel, realising Tess's true worth, accept responsibility for his own actions. Tess is an odd combination of contraries: a fatalistic who nevertheless struggles for happiness and fulfilment in a world bent on denying her both. This attitude is summed up in her remarking at Stonehenge "This happiness could not have lasted" (Ch. 58). Like Tess, each of us is defined by our past, which (together with our upbringing and social pressures) limits our choices and conditions the kind of people we become. And yet, Tess struggles against the past and believes she has the power to overcome it; this belief may be a phantasm, but holding fast to it is what makes Tess worthy of our sympathy, for it lies at the core of her personal heroism..

In brief, then, theme must be a statement with a complete subject and predicate, and it must be a generalization about life or human nature that is clearly supported by the text and that contains the unifying and central concept of the work. While this thematic statement should account for all the major details of the text, it should not be contradicted by any of these major details and should not rely upon supposed facts. For example, if a student, having read Hardy's "The Three Strangers," were to say that "From the first for the Fennels' visitors the 'hangman's horror' hovers about the mysterious stranger in cinder-grey," the student should not go so far as suggesting that the other visitors immediately realize that the second stranger is the hangman from Casterbridge Gaol. Although there is never just a single correct statement of theme, various critics' statements of theme may isolate certain common features, such as the economic hardships that have resulted in Timothy Summers' becoming a criminal in "The Three Strangers." Finally, students should avoid making thematic statements that tend reduce theme to some familiar saying, such as (with respect to Summers' appearing to be a countryman rather than a middle-class urbanite because of his fustian clothing and hobnailed boots) "You can't judge a book by its cover."


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Last modified January 8, 2002