Darwin, Evolution and Unity of Life: Far From the Madding Crowd and Hardy’s Ambivalent Vision of Nature

Oindrila Ghosh, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata

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Thomas Hardy’s concerns as man and as artist highlight his immense love and sympathy for the flora and fauna of the natural world as also his keen eye for detail. Hardy’s deep communion with Nature and the animal world is evident everywhere in his literary creations. Hardy’s vision of Nature was both multifarious and inclusive and his minute observation of those signs which Nature produces silently, and which mankind often ignores, makes him a writer of regional and yet universal sensibilities. It would be difficult to understand Hardy’s vision of Nature independent of his reading of Darwin and the Evolutionary debates of the early Victorian period. Darwin’s vision of Man and Nature was based on his theory of evolution through ‘natural selection’. Darwin’s theory shifts the focus from man and rather emphasizes upon the natural unity which binds all species in the natural world. Darwin’s theory also envisions a possibility of eventual ennoblement in the unity of life. This essay attempts to explore this ambivalent attitude to Nature marked by a transition from Romanticism to Darwinism in Hardy’s novels with special emphasis on Far From the Madding Crowd, which completed one hundred and forty years of its publication last year.

Key Words: Hardy, Darwinism, Nature, detail, ambivalence

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”? (Collected Poems)

The lines from the poem ‘Afterwards’ where Hardy describes himself thus, sums up his concerns as a man and as an artist — one which highlights his immense love and sympathy for the flora and fauna of the natural world, as also his keen eye for detail. The trapped swallow in the furmity tent, trying to escape, in the memorable wife-selling scene in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the earthworms which the sensitive young Jude tries to avoid stepping on, the dog which lovingly supports the heavily pregnant Fanny to the workhouse and is later spurned away, the injured pheasants whom Tess kills to put them out of pain are all suggestive of Hardy’s deep communion with Nature and the animal world. Growing up and living all his life in the beautiful county of Dorset, among the heaths, slopes, trees and agricultural surroundings, Hardy’s vision of Nature was both multifarious and inclusive. His minute observation of those signs which Nature produces silently, and which mankind often ignores, makes him a writer of regional and yet universal sensibilities. This essay attempts to explore this ambivalent attitude to Nature in Hardy’s novels with special emphasis on Far From the Madding Crowd, which completed one hundred and forty years of its publication last year.

It would be difficult to understand Hardy’s vision of Nature independent of his reading of Darwin and the Evolutionary debates of the early Victorian period. Darwin’s vision of Man and Nature was based on his theory of evolution through ‘natural selection’. Darwin’s theory shifts the focus from man and rather emphasizes upon the natural unity which binds all species in the natural world. Darwin’s theory also envisions a possibility of eventual ennoblement in the unity of life. It is this optimistic vision which shapes Hardy’s unique vision of Man and Nature and makes him a ‘meliorist’ (Hardy’s own words) even while it breeds pessimism, as Man no longer is in control of anything but is merely floundering in a Natural world that seems to act against, or is indifferent to, his grandest efforts. Nature in Hardy is, thus, an ambivalent force, one which exists not in conjunction with but independent of human existence and one to which human beings can at best adapt but never successfully control. Thus, from very early years his fiction came to reveal man’s constant struggle to fit himself in the uncontrollable scheme of the Universe and this made the tone of his works sombre to the point of being recognized as pessimistic. That there is a disjunction between the laws of nature and of the human world, causing the ironies of fate and tragic mischance which punctuate the novels and short stories, is reiterated again and again in the Hardy universe. The famous evening walk scene when a pregnant Tess returns to her village and mostly stays indoors to avoid the disdainful looks of society, she can only take walks at the fall of dusk, and a beautiful passage sums up this anomaly between the world of nature and that of the human world with its ‘unnatural’ moral codes:

“The only exercise that Tess took at this time was after dark; and it was then, when out in the woods, that she seemed least solitary…But this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy—a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism, she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.” (Tess 107-108)

It is not nature which here is the cause of pain and misery to Tess but society whose laws are not in tandem with those of nature. Nature here emerges as a non-judgmental and amoral force which soothes Tess in her misery and different from the Nature which had watched without protest Tess’s seduction/rape in The Chase. Although Hardy often wrote of the beauties of Nature, especially in his earlier novels, where the pastoral element is present, he could also see its cruelty or rather, its indifference to human fates. There is constant reminder in the Hardy Universe that though man may live in conjunction with nature, he can never control or change it at his own will. In the novel, The Return of the Native, for instance, the narrator describes the inability of civilization to tame or encroach upon Egdon Heath, the chthonic and primal force that it is:

“. . .Wildeve’s patch, as it was called, a plot of land redeemed from the heath, and after long and laborious years brought into civilization. The man who had discovered that it could be broken up died of the labour: the man who succeeded him in possession ruined himself in fertilizing it”. (35)

And Clym later feels ‘barbarous satisfaction’ :

“at observing that in some of the attempts at reclamation from the waste, tillage, after holding on for a year or two, had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves.” (176)

We wonder if this ‘satisfaction’ is merely one felt by Clym and not the author himself? In this ambivalent natural world it is no wonder then that Mrs. Yeobright is killed by an adder’s bite amid the sunshine of a bright summer’s day. Similarly, in The Mayor of Casterbridge Henchard’s crops are destroyed by the whimsical and unpredictable forces of Nature:

“All these transformations, lovely to the outsider, to the wrong-headed corn-dealer were terrible. He was reminded of what he had well known before, that a man might gamble upon the square green areas of fields as readily as upon those of a card room.

Henchard had backed bad weather and apparently lost”. (213)

In a later novel like The Woodlanders, which shows the strong influence of Darwinism, the opening description of the Woodlands shows how far English Fiction has come from the Romantic view of Nature as peaceful, serene and one of peaceful coexistence:

“Here as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum. The leaf was deformed, the curve was crippled, the taper was interrupted; the lichen ate the vigour of the stalk, the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling”. (41)

Thus, the lasting impression one takes away from The Woodlanders is of the gloom and decay which exist in the natural world, and which is mirrored in the lives of the woodland characters. This overwhelming feeling of pain and decay results from Hardy’s insistence on the Darwinian struggle for survival within the woods, built through numerous references throughout the novel. Hardy’s vision of nature combines a Romantic with a Darwinian view. In this novel Hardy searches primarily for the intention behind nature, whether this intention is beautiful or grotesque, Romantic or Darwinian. If nothing else the very description of the trees trying to compete with each other for the basic life-sustaining resources is reminiscent of the evolutionary debates going about in Britain since the 1930s. It is thus evident that all of Hardy’s fiction is replete with his vision of nature that is fraught with ambivalence.

The earliest novel which reveals Hardy’s close communion with Nature and the animal world and also the emerging ambivalence in the way which he envisioned Nature is Far From the Madding Crowd. While most readers and critics discover pastoral elements in the novel, and where tragedy is supposedly averted in the end with Bathsheba Everdene getting remarried to the Pastoral hero Gabriel Oak, a closer look only reveals how the sombre ingredients of tragedy are already present in the offing. In fact Michael Squires correctly comments:

“In Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) there is no perpetual summer, no frolicking sheep, no piping shepherds w ho live without care. Instead, there are many realistic details of actual rural life: sheep die, storms threaten, shepherds have misfortunes both “amorous and pastoral, “peasants work, and unhappiness and despair are spattered over the second half of the story. Before the novel’s essential realism, prettiness disappears.” (299)

The earliest description in the novel of Norcombe Hill refutes any assumption that this is going to be an idyllic pastoral romance. It is not a place of serene beauty, but a place of desolateness, loneliness, and sadness. It is with the description of Norcombe Hill that the reader becomes well-aware of the pessimistic note that Hardy’s writing now begins to incorporate into his ideas concerning the Nature he has known and has loved as a child:

“The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying plantation of beeches, whose upper verge formed a line over the crest, fringing its arched curve against the sky, like a mane. Tonight these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through it with a sound of a grumbling,, or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes….A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them, and in falling rattled against the trunks with smart taps” (46)

One looks for the light, tripping note present in some sections of Hardy’s earlier novels, but it cannot be found in the passage just cited. Gabriel Oak, the pastoral hero, who is attuned to reading the signs and signals of nature in the novel, becomes one of its chief victims too. He loses his sheep and the dream of being an independent farmer to his dog. This dog tries with tragic eagerness to carry out the tasks assigned to him, but the results are disastrous. Nature becomes the impenetrable, inexorable force, ordering man’s life, pinning man to the wheel of fate. Gabriel Oak, in his most tragic moments, becomes a victim of Nature’s unerring course. And Hardy ends the chapter on the dog with the following exquisite comment:

“George’s son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day – another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.” (74)

There is a kind of wistful understanding on Hardy’s part of the dog being a mere cog in the scheme of Nature, where he is as much victim as Gabriel. This same love of the animal world can be seen in many of Hardy’s novels always mixed with the consciousness of the inexorable force of Nature. This episode sets about a chain reaction whereby Oak is forced to encounter Bathsheba again. Later with Bathsheba’s sheep poisoned with ivy and almost dying, Nature plays a dual role of destroyer as well as a bridge which brings the pair together again, as Oak has the know-how to treat the sheep. Oak’s tragedy is the tragedy shared by most of Hardy’s characters — a tragedy in which man is acted upon by the forces of Nature and becomes and is tossed about in whimsical fashion by a Fate over which he has no control.

Hardy’s close relations to the natural world had deeply attuned him to the sounds of a even a thrush singing a mournful song in the night, “singing each note twice over,” and he had almost come to understand the language of animals, birds, and even insects which play such major roles in his fiction – such as the moth-signal in The Return of the Native, or the gambling in the light of glow worms, or the spiders which forebode rain in Far From the Madding Crowd. Therefore, in each of his novels he displayed a parental wistfulness in regard to the tiniest creatures. There seems to be division of Hardy’s moods concerning Nature, where initially there is mostly pastoral loveliness, with only a small hint of the sinister tone Nature would take in his later novels. But no matter where the eyes light Nature is always the immutable controller of man’s actions, whether it is helping or hindering him.

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Nature acts both as the ‘great mother’ who provides clear signs for those who will read to warn them of natural calamity, as well as the nonchalant avenger who destroys blindly. Thus it is Gabriel Oak who reads into the signs of the approaching storm and the details devoted by Hardy to the reading of the signs offers fascinating insight into a man “who noticed such things”:

Gabriel proceeds towards his home. In approaching the door, his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery, and distended, like a boxing glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path. Oak took it up, thinking it might be better to kill the creature to save it from pain; but finding it uninjured, he placed it again among the grass. He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant. And soon came another (272).

This sign is followed by the brown garden-slug which seeks a safe haven indoors to find protection from the approaching storm, the dropping of black spiders from the ceiling to the floor and finally Oak’s reading of the reaction of the huddling sheep which confirms his fear of the approaching natural calamity:

“Every voice in nature was unanimous in bespeaking change. Apparently there was to be a thunder-storm, and afterwards a cold continuous rain. The creeping things seemed to know all about the later rain, but little of the interpolated thunder-storm; whilst the sheep knew all about the thunder-storm and nothing of the later rain’.” (272-73)

Nature, ready with her warning signs, is yet destructive in its fury and the storm is literally a ‘dance of death’ from which Gabriel and Bathsheba narrowly escape and save her grains. Nature is almost always in the Hardy universe an ambivalent force; as an entity with a mind of its own which often makes the best human plans go awry. The violent face of nature, one which shows that atonement is impossible for past actions in her scheme of things, is symbolically shown in the episode of the repentant Sergeant Troy placing flowers at Fanny’s grave and those being washed away by the gushing Gargoyle:

“The persistent torrent from the Gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance into the grave the rich tawny mound was stirred into motion, and boiled like chocolate. The water accumulated and washed deeper down, and the roar of the pool thus formed spread into the night . . . The flowers so carefully planted by Fanny’s repentant lover began to move and writhe in their bed.” (341)

The influence of Darwin and of The Origin of Species is present everywhere in Hardy’s work. There are thus, constant juxtapositions of the comforting and menacing aspects of Nature in Hardy. The much-quoted passage from the Origin of Species, of the ‘tangled bank’, points out the codependency of species and life. Darwin presents a Nature full of energies and teeming with life forms:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (459)

Gillian Beer makes an apt comment comparing the styles of Darwin and Hardy when she says: “Hardy like Darwin places himself in his texts as observer, traveler, a conditional presence capable of seeing things from multiple distances and diverse perspectives almost in the same moment” (230). Hardy too pays a lot of importance to detail and intricacies. Especially in the episode in the novel when Nature acts as a retreat and a place for comfort where, spurned by a conscience-stricken Troy, Bathsheba leaves her home and finds shelter in the darkness of night among a ‘brake of ferns’. The place which gave comfort to her full and palpitating heart on an emotionally turbulent night, on waking up in daylight evokes a different reaction in Bathsheba. It is only the narrator or Hardy who can see the beauty latent within the apparently dangerous swamp:

“She looked further around. Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast. She perceived that in her lap, and clinging to her hair, were red and yellow leaves which had come down from the tree and settled silently upon her during her partial sleep. Bathsheba shook her dress to get rid of them, when multitudes of the same family lying round about her rose and fluttered away in the breeze thus created, ‘like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.’

There was an opening towards the east, and the glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung over it now — a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil, full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque — the hedge behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great, in the immediate neighbourhood of comfort and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.” (329)

Far From the Madding Crowd thus presents a picture of Man and Nature related to each other in a precarious balance. Despite the beauty of nature captured in Far From the Madding Crowd the pastoral elements are often eclipsed even here by the painful episodes of real tragedies for an agricultural community – related to storm and rain, harvest, farmers losing sheep and of unwed mothers and their dead newborns. Hardy’s vision of Nature remains too elusive and impossible to be pinned to a single ideology and reflects the transition or evolution from the Romantic view of Nature to the Darwinian. Hardy’s vision, which was to become much more well-defined and gradually darker, finds its initial shades in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Work Cited

Beer, Gillian, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Fiction, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984, rev. ed. 2010. Print.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species By means of Natural Selection or the preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). London: Macmillan (New Wessex Edition), 1974. Print.

—-. The Return of the Native (1878). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

—-. The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). London: Macmillan (New Wessex Edition), 1974. Print.

—-. The Woodlanders (1887). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

—-. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). London: Penguin, 1994. Print.

—-.Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, London: Macmillan, 1930.

xtf. lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=chadwyck_ep/uvaGenText/t. N.p. Web.

Squires, Michael. ‘Far from the Madding Crowd as Modified Pastoral’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Dec., 1970), pp. 299-326 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933436 Accessed: 01-07-2015 08:27. Web.

Dr Oindrila Ghosh is currently Assistant Professor in English, School of Humanities, Netaji Subhas Open University. Her PhD is on the treatment of motherhood in the short stories of Thomas Hardy. She has been a Charles Wallace India Trust UK, Scholar, 2009 and recipient of the Frank Pinion Award, 2014 from The Thomas Hardy Society, Dorset, UK. She has presented papers and published widely on Thomas Hardy in reputed International journals including Hardy Society Journal, and The Hardy Review and is also the only Checklister from India for The Directory of Thomas Hardy’s works for The Thomas Hardy Association, USA. She has also delivered several invited lectures on various aspects of Hardy’s works in Colleges and Universities West Bengal, including the Centre for Victorian Studies at Jadavpur University. She is currently Associate at the Inter University Centre of UGC at IIAS Shimla (2015 onwards).

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

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