Rustic Characters of Thomas Hardy are the Son of Soils and Full of Life in The Return of the Native as if Descendants of Shakespeare’s Rustic Characters

 The peasants in the novels of Hardy may be regarded as the chorus. We meet these rustic characters in The Return of the Native (Fairway, Christian, Grandfer Cantle, and the rest), Far from the Madding Crowd (Joseph Poorgrass, Henry Fray, Billy Smalibury, Jan Coggan), and so on. They cannot be compared with the central figures in the drama, because they are placed in the story to provide a chorus. They always appear in a group, seldom separately. They are not full-length portraits. Moreover, they are drawn in a different convention. Here Hardy is in the straight tradition from Shakespeare. These rustic characters are the direct descendants of Bottom and Dogberry and the rustics who gather in response to Falstaff’s call to arms at the house of Justice Shallow, and are made up of a few strongly marked, deliberately caricatured personal idiosyncrasies. Rich fragments of rusticity, they are as entertaining as any of the classic comic characters of Fielding or Goldsmith. But, unlike theirs and like Shakespeare’s, they can also stir serious emotion. Mrs. Cuxsom’s account of a death has the same pathos and eloquence as Dame Quickly’s account of Falstaff’s death.

These characters are necessary to set Hardy’s main and serious drama in perspective with human life as a whole. The chorus is the symbol, of the great majority of humdrum mortals, who go on living through their unconventional life, whatever misfortunes may overtake the finer spirits placed among them. Henchard and Eustacia may love and suffer and die, but the rustics go on. It is they who bring the children to birth, dance at the wedding, mourn at the graveyard, and speak the epitaph over the tomb. They are eternal as the earth by which they live. And their very profaneness binds the story to reality. It gives the reader a standard of normality by which he can gauge the tremendous heights and depths to which the main characters rise and fall. In his last two great novels, Tess and Jude, Hardy leaves them out. And the novels lose by this omission. Hardy’s rustic characters are thoroughly real, even though they are drawn according to a stylized convention. Taken individually, they may seem exaggerated, but taken as a group they build up a picture of average mankind in its rural manifestation and are perfectly convincing.

This chorus provides also the chief occasion for Hardy’s humour. Humour is not the quality that the reader would normally expect to find in him because he is so grand and gloomy. But it is there all right. This humour rustic; it is elemental; it is grotesque; it is Gothic; it is traditional. Like the Characters who are its subjects, it descends directly from Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. This humour is not satirical. Hardy does not make us laugh by exposing the foibles and follies of his characters. His are the jokes and anecdotes that enliven the evenings in a cottage and in a village inn, and his primary aim is simply to make us laugh. The mood which inspires them is simple, genial enjoyment—the countryman’s slow relish of the absurd for its own sake. The main themes are the themes of most country humours—the simple credulity of yokels and of crusted old eccentrics. We are made to laugh at the immemorial butts of village life—garrulous, reminiscent old grandfathers, henpecked husbands, ludicrous, timid simpletons, and the Incongruity between the facts of life and the countrymen’s ignorant comment on them. Hardy’s mode of conveying this humour is also Elizabethan. It is leisurely—there is nothing sharp or slick about it—and it is adorned with a flourish of whimsical fancy. Occasionally it is suggestive of a taste for the macabre. Hardy’s sense of the irony of human destiny enables him to get a good deal of hearty fun out of coffins and funerals. Another point about it is that it is verbal humour, dependent for its effect upon the particular words Hardy uses.

 There are three grades of characters in Hardy’s novels: first, those who are protagonists of the whole human drama; then, the people in contact with them or who have some part in their affairs; these are cogs in the machinery and of small interest in themselves; and lastly, the rustic bystanders, who provide comic relief, but also fulfill a much more important function. Their services in making the machinery run smoothly and perspicuously are invaluable, and they also help to bring out not only the immediate but also the heroic significance of all that is taking place. In a sense they represent Hardy himself. They are quiet but deeply interested observers who see more of what is going on than the gentlefolk are aware, and they are continually dropping shrewd comments. Diggory Venn, in The Return of the Native, is a spacious example. Thomasin’s tutelary genius turns himself into a regular spy and detective, watching over her affairs. He knows all that is happening, before and behind the scenes, and through him the reader obtains a perfect understanding of the most complicated and mysterious occurrences. The protagonists are usually of a superior class to the peasants.

Hardy’s rustics are among his artistic triumphs. Thomas Leaf and Christian Cantle, Joseph Poorgrass, William Worm, Mark Clark, Cainy Ball, Moon, Creed, and Coggan are such minor characters that they might be regarded merely as so much background, furnishing a racy comment and rich clinic relief to the matters in the forefront; yet they are by no means drawn an mere bumpkins and clodpolls, as similar as two peas. Their minds are revealed but it does look as if there really were minds behind those gnarled, weather-beaten, and merry or sardonic faces. They are not by any means an unthinking herd, no mere stage-furniture, but like Shakespeare’s peasants have a droll logic of their own. And they impersonate the spirit of place; they are soaked in tradition, the traditions of a primitive class, rooted in the soil, which it is their function to typify. They are as eternal as the woods and fields I and heaths; whereas the different lovers, the weak or faithless women, the anguished victims of despair, are symbols of a present phase of disturbance, restlessness, and maladjustment. Three of Hardy’s best examples of the countrymen, Oak, Venn, and Giles Winterborne, are only a shade or two superior socially to the rest of these. But these three have a real inner life, which raises them to another level of existence from the artistic point of view.