(2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928)
Thomas Hardy was an English novelist and poet.
Born into the Anglican tradition, Hardy lost his faith in Christian dogma early in life and became an agnostic. He described himself as ‘among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species’ and, indeed, turned to the work of figures like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer for an alternative view of the world and man’s place in it.
Hardy’s novels often engaged with religious themes and he featured many negative portrayals of members of the clergy in them, as well as exploring what he saw as the potentially damaging effects of Christian moral teachings.
In many of his novels he referred to Christianity as being outdated and redundant, with no relevance to the everyday lives of the masses, although he also used Biblical imagery and Christian concepts of charity approvingly in some of his work.
Modernism and Christian morality
Engaging with the work of Matthew Arnold and the late Victorian debate about modernism and the Church, Hardy rejected the idea that Christianity could be adapted to modern thought, and neither could it be blended with a return to a more ‘natural’, pagan religion.
Ultimately, the retention of Christian morals and sexual codes by his ‘modernist’ characters, including Clym in Return of the Native (1878), Angel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude in Jude the Obscure (1895), sees their tragic downfalls, and Hardy was principally concerned with the effects of Christian morality on individuals trying to adapt to an otherwise changing world.
In his complex exploration of the decline of the Christian religion, Hardy made a significant contribution to the debate about the changing nature of religious faith in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain.