Thomas Hardy and the Church

Article excerpt

Thomas Hardy and the Church. By Jan Jedrzejewski. (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1996. Pp. ix, 243, $49.95.)

G. K. Chesterton once spoke for many when he dubbed Hardy "a sort of village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot." Few readers would deny that Hardy was "anthropomorphic out of sheer atheism," that his Victorian agnosticism pervades virtually all that he wrote. Today, unlike those of so many of his contemporaries, his novels are still being read, not only because they are set texts on university reading-lists and examination syllabi, but his characters, plots, settings, dramatic and picturesque scenes are clearly the stuff of good literature.

This latest addition to an endless stream of books and articles on Hardy's life and works begins by noting that his attitude toward the Christian faith has received scant attention from critics and scholars. What is requisite for a proper understanding of Hardy's religious opinions, Professor Jedrzejewski posits, is a recognition that the complex nature of his responses is not only a function of the multiplicity of influences that shaped his vision, but also a consequence of the varying intensity of those influences throughout the nearly eighty-eight years of his life. In short, Hardy could not fully accept Christianity nor live his life without it.

To discuss Hardy's religious views in terms of a static system of negativesnonconformist, nihilist, infidel, immoralist, heretic, pessimist, and so on-is about as helpful as labeling him a Christian agnostic or agnostic Christian. Is there any value in reducing him to an epigone of Victorian disbelief? Jedrzejewski thinks not, and he recommends an inquiry into the evolution, or devolution, of Hardy's religious thinking. Accordingly, Jedrzejewski first considers Hardy's early acceptance of Christianity; then his rather timid refusal to accept the supernatural; and lastly, in his middle period, an expression of bitter criticism of Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic, for the emphasis they placed on the letter of the faith rather than on its spirit.Toward the end of his life, however, Hardy came to a recognition of the ethical values of Christianity despite what he continued to consider a questionable ontological basis. …