Aristotelian Tragedy and the Novels of Thomas Hardy

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

Aristotle's Dramatic Unities of Time, Place, and Action and Hardy's Use of the Ballad Tradition

Writing in The Poetics about 330 B. C. E., the philosopher Aristotle sought to analyze the structure of Athenian tragedy using as an example his favourite play, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. He held that the essence of drama was action, which took place in one situation, in one place, at one time (i. e., within 24 hours). There would be no change of scene, no stage violence, and no mixing of comic and tragic elements. Of course, Aristotle would have objected to Hardy's being a writer of prose rather than a dramatist or playwright. The origin of that very English conception of the dramatic writer alerts us to the fact that an acting company's resident writer revised and revamped existing texts as well as wrote new ones. The story of Tess, in particular, smacks of an oral tradition, the seduction of a maid in a great house...or, the rape victim bringing her attacker to justice. Can we experience Aristotelian catharsis in our armchairs as opposed to seats in a theatre?

Hardy's Michael Henchard as an Aristotelian Tragic Hero

According to Sidney Lamb in Tragedy (CBC: Toronto, 1964), although the form of tragedy written in Elizabethan England differs somewhat from that written in ancient Greece, in both eras tragedy was a reflection of a hierarchical society. Even late in the twentieth century with the tragedy of the average man well-established critically, we still tend to think of a tragedy as "the story of the fall from greatness of an exalted personage"--a king (Sophocles' Oedipus or Shakespeare's Lear), a general (Aeschylus' Eteocles or Shakespeare's Macbeth), or a man of great wealth, rank, and social prestige (The Old Testament's Job or Shakespeare's Romeo). Consequently, the fall of Michael Henchard from prosperity and power to obscurity and alienation is certainly the stuff of Aristotelian tragedy. Even though the French tragedian Beaumarchais argued that "The nearer the suffering man is to my station in life, the greater is his claim upon my sympathy" (Essay on the Serious Drama, 1767), whether there can be a truly tragic middle-class hero is highly debatable. Aristotle in The Poetics (330 B. C.) required two things of the tragic protagonist: he must be noble (whether in spirit or social status), and he must be responsible for causing his own suffering (not necessarily death). Making references to his favourite tragedy, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the Greek philosopher proposed that a tragic hero usually is

1. a leader in his society, exemplifying both the good and bad elements of that society ('a person neither wholly good nor bad').

2. disclosed to the audience at the height of his prosperity, power, and influence in that social group so that his fall from its favour will seem that much greater (and, therefore, more tragic).

3. driven to his fall (social alienation, suffering, death, or exile) by some innate flaw (Greek: hamartia) in his nature, yet appear to have the ability to alter his course. (In other words, he should appear to possess free will, and yet be a victim.)

4. made a scapegoat for the sins or errors of his people--and accordingly be exiled or punished by them in such a way that his suffering is irreversible (since Oedipus is blinded, his suffering cannot be reversed).

5. the cause of his own punishment through his own pride (hubris).

6. ready to take upon himself the burden of his society's (and hence the audience's) sense of guilt, shame, or short-coming.

7. grander and more noble as the result of his futile struggle with fate.

8. through his suffering instrumental in the resolution of a problem that plagued his society at the outset, and in the restoration of a harmony that was not present at the opening of the play. Our grieving over the destruction of the hero but our relief over the restoration of social harmony produces in the audience what Aristotle termed "catharsis" or "tragic satisfaction" through the purgation of pity and fear.

Despite the fact that The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a drama in which we vicariously participate by watching an action and identifying ourselves with certain characters on stage, we may argue that Michael Henchard satisfies many of the Aristotelian requirements for the tragic hero. His physical power and strong-willed determination to succeed, to expiate his sin, and to do what he feels is best for Elizabeth-Jane are consistent with the usages of his society--as are his impulsiveness, quick temper, and manly pride. Hardy reveals Henchard first as itinerant hay-trusser burdened by a wife and child as a sort of prologue; this antecedent circumstance renders his corporate and municipal rise all the more impressive, but also reveals how tentative this outward success is. As the suffering outcast whose daughter cannot reciprocate his affection, Henchard is far grander--and far more sympathetic--than the leader of the town council at the King Arms' dinner. As he falls socially, we tend to accept his sullenness and temper as part of the emotional makeup of this complex character. I am never sure as I re-read the novel's conclusion, however, as to whether Henchard satisfies the eighth point, except that his fate enriches Elizabeth-Jane's understanding of the human condition.

In order that he appear to have the illusion of free-will in determining his fate, Michael Henchard's fate does not seem "inevitable," but the result of a very Victorian series of coincidences that result in his poverty, exile, and alienation. Like Shakespeare's King Lear, even in his youth Henchard is one who but scantily knows himself (Hardy's phrase is "introspective inflexibility"), and permits his passions, especially the desire to save face in the furmity vendor's tent, to overwhelm his common sense. His is a pathological tragic flaw, for he makes much the same mistake when he fires Farfrae out of jealousy. Hardy himself seems unclear about the nature of Henchard's hamartia when he quotes Novalis: "Character is fate"--certainly a useful aphorism for a Victorian novelist, though something about which Aristotle in The Poetics does not address. To the Greek critic, the catastrophe is the result of those external forces which he called "Fate," and which we might call "determining psycho-social contexts." Still, among Hardy's would-be tragic heroes Henchard is rare; as the title page announces, he is "A Man of Character," a local economic leader as well as the town's mayor whose initial social and economic eminence render him more properly an Aristotelian tragic hero than Giles in The Woodlanders or Tess. However, in terms of emotional response, the ultimate fate of Tess, scion of once-proud aristocratic family brought low by Hardy's twin enemies of humanity (Time and Chance), arouses more pity and fear in a modern reader than does Henchard's. Somewhere between the two on my emotional response scale lies Eustacia in The Return of the Native, for her fate results from the very twentieth-century error of marrying entirely the wrong person. A dazzling figure from the beau monde of the Parisian boulevards, Clym is gradually diminished in her estimation as he pursues the goal of becoming a rural schoolmaster. Yet Eustacia herself remains worthy of our interest from beginning to end because she never abandons her dream.


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Last modified 2 March 2002