The Aristotelian Tragic Hero in Thomas Hardy´s Novels. A Comparative Study

Analysis of "The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved" and "The Well Beloved"

Academic Paper, 2013

43 Pages


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Concept ofthe Tragic Hero
2.1 Thomas Hardy's tragic heroes
2.1.1 Heroes' tragic flaw
2.1.2 The realisation of the hero's downfall

3 TheWell-Beloved
3.1 Jocelyn Pierston
3.1.1 Pierston's character and social standing
3.1.2 Pierston's tragic flaw
3.1.3 The extent of Pierston's downfall
3.1.4 External forces affecting Pierston
3.4 Pierston in ThePursuitOfTheWe l -Beloved

4 Conclusion

Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

The aim of this paper is to analyse the character of Jocelyn Pierston as a tragic hero. The thesis focuses on two novels - ThePursuitoftheWell-Beloved and TheWell-Beloved and is divided into two main chapters, while the latter novel is preferred. The first half of the work is dedicated to the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero, its usage and the conditions for a protagonist to be labeled as such. In addition, some of Thomas Hardy’s opinions on humanity, fate and nature will be shown and discussed with several sources, as well as his attitude towards tragic heroes. In the second half the main protagonist is thoroughly examined in both novels in order to find his tragic flaw and understand his character. By the analysis of various tragic effects depicted in the source texts the thesis tries to argue whether Pierston fulfills those conditions and is a tragic hero or whether he simply lacks the needed qualities.

1 Introduction

Thomas Hardy was an English novelist, poet and a short story writer living in the 19th and 20th century. His works are still discussed and are considered as cornerstones for many novelists or groups, such as John Cowper Powys or Philip Larkin from The Movement poets. He is famous for both his poetry and novels - his most recognised novels are probably Tessofthed'Urbervilles and FarfromtheMaddingCrowd. After the criticised, yet famous JudetheObscure he wrote his last, TheWellBeloved, in 1897. After that he stopped writing novels and focused on poetry. He was a part of the Naturalist movement and tried to depict everyday life, its harshness and social injustice. Naturalists were influenced with the thought that heredity of a person and social environment mould one's character and their work was often deemed as inappropriate forthe usageofsexuality1. Theyalso believed in Darwin's theory of evolution and, among other characteristics, many of their works were labeled as pessimistic. In agreement to his views, he was a critic of Victorian morality and social conditions, as is projected in his novels. In contrary to some writers, such as Charles Dickens, he preferred to centre his attention on rural areas. He set his novels in an imaginary area called "Wessex", which had a real basis in the south and southwest of England. According to Louise Collier Willcox's article ThomasHardy, which contains pieces of knowledge about Hardy’s life, "to read Tess here in America and to read it in Wessex [...] are not comparable experiences." (423).2

This thesis tries to propose an analysis of ThePursuitoftheWell-Beloved and TheWe l Beloved with focus on the main protagonist Jocelyn Pearston/Pierston3 as a tragic hero, who is tormented by fate in his pursuit of an ideal woman, his well-beloved. The aim of the thesis is to fathom whether Pierston is a tragic hero, what defines such a hero in length and to probe further into his character, the thesis will discuss various parts of both of the texts. The former book was written earlier in 1892 as a short serialized novel and in five years it had undergone various changes to transform into the final form, which allows the reader to experience a similar story twice - similar, yet different, as the changes are not only relevant to the plot, they also enhance the solidity of the work and bring a peculiar experience. Not less importantly, they alter the ending and interactions between the characters.

The thesis is divided into two chapters. The first chapter is focused on the term "Tragic hero" as seen by Aristotle and tries to capture what is needed for a protagonist to be labeled as such; examples will be shown with opinions and text from various writers and scholars. Furthermore, a sub-chapter is dedicated to Hardy’s view on tragic heroes, their appearance in his novels and his own life.

The second chapter will deal with the analysis of Jocelyn Pierston and his search for love, which is embodied by several women: three of them are heroines. They are slightly different, yet blood-related. Individual sub-chapters will be concerned with a discussion about their relationship, examination of his everlasting struggle, an analysis of his character and the extent of his downfall. It will also deal with the differences and alternations between the books when necessary, while The Well-Beloved will be considered as the major source. The aim of this will be to illustrate and explain major changes and implications of Pierston being a tragic hero.

2 The Concept of the Tragic Hero

The origins of the term "Tragic Hero" can be found in the Ancient Greece and although this archetype of hero was used in uncountable dramatic works ofvarious writers, it was Aristotle who established the view on this type of protagonist in his Poetics. It contains his ideas on dramatic theory and its usage, concerning the basic elements as well. Though it may appear complete, it was originally made together with Rhetorics, which dealt with the genre of comedy, but is lost nowadays (Murray preface). In essence, a tragic hero is the protagonist of a tragedy. According to Aristotle, the character must possess several traits, a tragic flaw that will mark his doom and the plot "must imitate actions that arouse pity and fear" through this person (13). After the play, the audience should reach catharsis, the state of, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, purification or expurgation of the emotions through art. To give an example of such heroes he mentions Oedipus and Thyestes. As Charles H. Reeves states in his Aristotelianconceptofthe TragicHero, everything in a tragedy must be suited for the sake of play to evoke already mentioned emotions:

The hero, the course of the plot, the character, the convolutions of discovery and reversal, and all the machinery of the practical creation of the tragic effect must be adjusted to the moral nature of man and the moral origin of the tragic emotion. (187)

There is a problem in the proper elucidation of Aristotle’s Poetics to a great extent because of its translation into English: "Because of a rather puzzling use of certain terms the concept of the tragic hero in the Poetics by Aristotle presents a problem" (Reeves 172). Also, as explained by Gilbert Murray in the preface of Poetics: "[s]carcely one in ten of the nouns on the first few pages of the Poetics has an exact English equivalent." (Murray preface). Ancient Greek, which is used by Aristotle, is harder to translate correctly than other languages because of the different era and the time gap between the two civilisations. A discussion regarding the meaning still endures even after thousands of years. As Reeves argues, differences between the versions in translation may change the whole meaning, especially if one takes into consideration Ingram Bywater’s, Alfred Gudeman’s and Samuel Henry Butcher’s translation and their discussion about the key words, for instance the word "good" (180). In order to clear the confusion the thesis will use professor Bywater’s, which is used by Reeves as well.

There are four basic requirements that the protagonist must meet to be branded as a tragic hero. At the outset, he "shall be good" (Aristotle 15), which should be understood "in the ethical or moral sense to mean virtuous, honest or upright" (Reeves 180). There are three restrictions that the author of a tragedy should follow if one wants to arouse pity and fear concerning the protagonist: The tragic hero must not be a villain or a bad man that will go from misery to happiness or a good man who will plunge into darkness and misery. These situations would not work because of human nature; while the first situation does not follow the rules of tragedy and the people would not be moved by it, the second one is condemnable. Also, he should not be a truly bad person who goes through happiness to misery. Although this might bring affection toward the person, it will not bring the desired effect (Aristotle 13). From these conditions Reeves observes that "the plot must not show a bad man under any circumstances" (174). To answer how the protagonist should look like Aristotle gives this statement:

There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently evil and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and responsibility... (13)

From this quotation one can uncover what kind of person the hero should be: His moral status should be somewhere in the middle, without any extremes: he should not be a bad person, nor should he be a paragon of virtue. Only then the audience will be moved by his actions.

In addition, he should be somewhat different from an ordinary man. Either a noble or an extraordinary person different to the others, as "[t]ragedy is an imitation of personages better than the ordinary man" (Aristotle 15). Furthermore, he should be "in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity" (Aristotle 13). This will provide the needed contrast between the greatness and despair. In Spivey's Hardy's tragic hero, which summarises his inquiries about Hardy's tragic hero and tragedy, he claims that "the glory of man cannot be fully realized except at the sight of the fall of a great soul" (183).

An important point is to make tragic heroes appropriate: when the character is acting manly, he should be a man, not a woman (Aristotle 15). Similarly, if he is wise, he should be old, as wisdom usually comes with age. Valour is appropriate for a fighter, not for a coward.

In addition, characters should be consistent: The writer is supposed "To make them like reality" (Aristotle 15). It is inappropriate for a soldier to be scared of brawls or blood unless it is explained somewhere in the play to clear the confusion. However, it is not the same as "being good and appropriate, in our sense ofthe term". (Aristotle 13).

The last requirement for the tragic hero is to "be consistently inconsistent." (Aristotle 15). They should not change opinions often and if they ever do, it should be visible in the play, not out of it, so the spectator will understand these changes and will not be confused.

The tragic hero should have a tragic flaw ("hamartia" in Greek) - a peculiarity that will cause his downfall. Although there are discussions about the term, consensus has not been found yet. According to Aristotle, the demise must happen because of "some error in judgement" or a "great error on his part" (13). However, the character's fall is not only the protagonist's fault; there is usually an external force present, most commonly Gods or fate. This can be seen in Oedipus Rex or in Iliad, where in the latter Achilles is anguished by his fate of early decease and Gods are intervening on an occasional basis - it is worth noting, though, that Gods played much more important role in the plays of Ancient Greek playwrights than in the contemporary plays and in the stories many protagonist were related to either divine or mythical creatures, such as the Nymphs. While the tragedy often ends in death, in the modernist literature this may not be the preferred ending. Nevertheless, there is a self-realisation of the protagonist right before the end of the novel. These protagonists' wishes may not have been accomplished, but they will not bow before anyone and their resolve will not be devastated. Often a crowd will gather to lament how great the character was only to evoke more feelings of pity from the spectators. Furthermore, the hero may or may not be aware of his flaw until the very end: while Shakespeare's Hamlet knows of his weakness and is constantly questioning himself, in Sophocles' Oedipus the protagonist is not cognisant of it for most of the play.

2.1 Thomas Hardy's tragic heroes

Spivey comes with an idea to understand a tragedy: "before all else the critic of tragedy, I believe, must examine the author's tragic hero" (180). It is often disputed whether Hardy's heroes are tragic and while many critics agree, there are those who think otherwise, arguing that "[Hardy's] philosophical view of the world makes it impossible for him to write tragedy" (Spivey, 179). For example, Ernest Baker believes that: "Hardy's tragic heroes suffer not defeat but paralysis of will" (Spivey 179). With the analysis of the previous chapter, one may conclude that without defeat, the audience will not experience the necessary catharsis. But an inevitable question arises: what it means for Hardy's heroes to be defeated and what is tragedy for Hardy himself. On this topic Spivey concludes that: "[t]ragedy for Hardy is the defeat of the romantic hero's desire to reach a higher spiritual state" (188). In opposition to this, Baker considers that there is no ethical significance, "such as characterizes genuine tragedy since personality is at a minimum" (Spivey, 179). However, Baker is not the only one who thinks that Hardy was not capable of creating a tragic hero. For example, Arthur Mizener, who is one of such men, charged Hardy with having no tragic tension in Jude the Obscure (Spivey 179).

Even Spivey, who believes that Hardy's heroes are tragic, concludes that "[t]here is still, however, the problem of just how Hardy's heroes are tragic and what the nature of Hardy's tragic effects is" (182). To answer this question it is important to compare Hardy's tragic heroes with others from various eras, as they are different from their counterparts in ancient Greece and early England. On this topic Spivey observes that "[t]here is certainly neither an Oedipus nor a Lear in Hardy" (Spivey 182). Unlike the heroes of Sophocles or Homer, Hardy's usually are neither of a noble status nor of a great wealth. Of course, there are exceptions, as can be seen with the character of Jocelyn Pierston, who is both famous and possesses enough money to live comfortably without any worries about his economic situation, yet is by no means noble. As Al-Asmar observes, this is the main difference between Shakespeare and Hardy: "Hardy's novels are full of rustic characters and ordinary people4 " (304). On the other hand, there are many similarities, as Spivey notes:

In his great novels - The Return ofthe Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D ’Ibervilles, and the Mayor of Casterbridge - Hardy saw man beaten down by forces within and without himself and sought to record man's eternal struggle with fate. (181)

This perfectly fits Aristotle's idea of tragic heroes if one takes into consideration the information in the previous chapter. Concerning Aristotelian tragedy, Marlena Tassone in her article ThomasHardy'sTheMayorofCasterbridgeAsan Aristotelian Tragedy compares Michael Henchard, the protagonist of TheMayorofCasterbridge, to the hero of Sophocles' OedipustheKing. According to her, in this very book Hardy creates an epitome of Aristotelian tragedy and indeed "does satisfy many requirements for an Aristotelian tragedy" (Tassone). Furthermore, Al-Asmar shows that Shakespeare's and Hardy's usage of nature is similar: "both prepare us as readers to what [is] coming next through the element of nature" (307). Spivey himself, who does not deal with comparison in such length, concludes his thoughts with a statement that "[a]lthough Hardy created a kind of tragedy which is peculiarly his own, he was working in the great tradition of tragic poets" (191).

It has been written in the introduction that many naturalists inclined towards pessimism - and if one does not go into details, Hardy was not an exception. At first glance, it is obvious why Hardy was often accused of pessimism, as is noted by Willcox (424). It may be important to find out who he really was, as it may help to understand his tragedies and their endings. Al- Asmar in his comparative study Hardy'sConceptionofa TragicHerocomparedtoShakespeare concludes that "[it is] very often said that he is a pessimist that he presents a tragic view of life where there is no hope for mankind" (301). Hardy's heroes, who are often unable to reach any sort ofpermanent happiness and will undoubtedly meet their downfall, may stand as a testament for this. Furthermore, as Al-Asmar presents, Hardy in his early years witnessed numerous deaths of famine or by hanging and the ravages of cholera (301-2). It is understandable that for a young boy to experience death in such manner is bewildering and may alter his views about humanity. In addition, the same author thinks that Hardy got confused because he "found that nature was indifferent to human values" (302). If one takes into consideration these arguments, it is not hard to understand why he could be viewed as such. In agreement, Al- Asmar states that "[Hardy’s] novels and poems are tragic […] and he himself was a melancholy man" (302). Richard Beckman in his Character Typology for Hardy’s novels writes that "Hardy’s novels create a world of limited opportunities, a world which threatens to become diabolically perverse and which always is systematically ironic" (70), which only furthers these notions about pessimism.


1 For instance, one of Hardy's novels, JudetheObscure, was sometimes called JudetheObscene. It was also said that some booksellers sold it in brown bags to avoid exposure of the cover.

2 As this thesis does not deal with the area of Wessex, for more information the author recommends the article "Wessex, Hardy and the nature novelists" by B. P.Birch.

3 In the PursuitOfTheWell-Beloved the main protagonist goes by the name Jocelyn Pearston, while in the latter book TheWell-Beloved he is named Jocelyn Pierston. The thesis will use the second name when mentioning the protagonist, for the book is preferred.

4 For instance Jude in JudetheObscure, who is an ordinary boy, Henchard in TheMayorofCaster Bridge is a hay-trusser and in Farfromthe MeddingCrowd there is Gabriel Oak, a farmer and shepherd (Al-Asmar 302).

Excerpt out of 43 pages


The Aristotelian Tragic Hero in Thomas Hardy´s Novels. A Comparative Study
Analysis of "The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved" and "The Well Beloved"
Masaryk University
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English, Literature, 19th, Aristotle, Hero, Tragedy, Thomas Hardy, Victorian, Romanticism
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Martin Mares (Author), 2013, The Aristotelian Tragic Hero in Thomas Hardy´s Novels. A Comparative Study, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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