Thomas Hardy's Tragic Stories
For centuries, various writers have endeavored to encapsulate the constituents of tragedy, and create works of literature that adhere to their understanding of an ostensibly universal system of tragic structure, tragic plot, and tragic theme. Nevertheless, the etymology of the word, "tragedy," proves to be as elusive and arcane as the tragic construct is seemingly concrete and unequivocal; indeed, the word, "tragedy," can be traced to the Greek word, "tragoidia," which literally means, "goat-song." We do not know whether actors in the Choral Odes read their lines clad in goatskins, or if goats were bestowed as prizes; we do know, however, that Aristotle reconfigured the more bucolic play tradition, and, in his Poetics, developed a technique founded on the tradition of regal grandeur, sweeping scope, and cosmic power.
Thomas Hardy, one of the few Victorian tragic prose writers, undoubtedly draws from the tradition of Aristotelian Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, our thesis expresses skepticism in the precision and alacrity with which Hardy is equated with tragedy and conventional tragic form. In a post-Shakespearean nineteenth-century world, writers were acquainted with two tragic traditions: Greek and Christian. The Greek tragic tradition is founded upon the ritual feasting of Dionysus (or the Roman version, Bacchus); the Christian mystery play tradition is rooted in the Passion of Christ. Both traditions bind themselves inextricably to forces larger than themselves - either to gods and goddesses, or to the Holy Trinity - and structure their plays around the rituals inherent in these traditions. Hardy's own novels comprise elements of both Greek and Christian tragic conventions, thus eliciting great difficulty in delineating a specific tragic form that is Thomas Hardy's.
One can argue that Shakespeare was the most influential literary figure in Hardy's life - setting, plot, and themes all have their nativities in Shakespearean plays. Nonetheless, while Shakespeare's own tragedies adhere to the tradition of Seneca and to the medieval morality and mystery play conventions, it seems that Hardy paradoxically structures his tragic form on a pre-Christian, and even pre-Aristotelian tragic mode. He reformulates his tragedies based on the idea of the Immanent Will, even while he incorporates, so tenaciously, the tragic elements of his predecessors: Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, the mystery play tradition, and, of course, Shakespeare. Hardy, therefore, is a figure who stands on the abyss of modern tragedy even while he plants himself firmly in...