Class Issues in Hardy's Work

Jennifer Sabatini Class of 1997
Maureen Cleary Class of 1997
Gettysburg College

The works of Thomas Hardy reflect the ideas of a man who was clearly obsessed with the issue of social class throughout his literary career. From his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady (the very title of which indicates class differentiation), to his final work, Jude the Obscure, class issues are woven into every novel which Hardy wrote. Furthermore, his works are personal in the sense that they depict Hardy's own lifelong struggles with social mobility and the class structure as a whole throughout his life.

Hardy was born the son of an independent mason in the rural area of Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. As he was growing up, he felt that the circumstances surrounding the working class limited the opportunities by which he could fully develop his talents. Thus, in order to create a place for himself in society, he pursued architecture for nearly twenty years while writing on the side. Only when Hardy had firmly established himself as a writer with the success of Far from the Madding Crowd did he completely devote himself to his literary career.

However, like many who rise in society, Hardy experienced what might be called a double bind. While he had connections to both the working class and the upper classes, he did not feel that he belonged in either. He could no longer identify with members of the working class, and in spite of the fact that he made new friends in higher circles, he never truly adopted the attitudes and values of the upper classes. In fact, Hardy writes in Jude the Obscure, that "To have a good chance of being one of his country's worthies," a man "should be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig" (Chap. 43). Therefore, he felt that rising in society was like a double-edged sword: in rising, one must leave others behind and in a sense compromise one's beliefs; yet, by failing to rise, one does not fulfill one's potential. This double bind acounts for the clear evidence of Hardy's frustration and pessimism towards social mobility and the class structure in his works.

Hardy also incorporates class issues into his novels through the creation of protagonists somewhat modeled after himself. These characters feel that their talents cannot be fully used and developed within the world to which they are born. Driven by a strong sense of ambition and self- discovery, these figures pursue their talents in a world socially higher than their own. Specifically, Stephen Smith in A Pair of Blue Eyes, Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native, Grace Melbury in The Woodlanders, and Jude in Jude the Obscure represent such figures. Through such situations, Hardy's works demonstrate the precariousness of social mobility, the arbitrariness of class differentiation, and furthermore, the impossibility and the fruitlessness of completely disassociating oneself from one's origins in an attempt to move up the ladder of social class hierarchy.


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