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Paganism and Christianity: Differences and Affinities

Paganism in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure: The Possibility of Faith and Ethics in a Darwinian World

Le paganisme dans Tess d’Urberville et Jude l’Obscur : la possibilité de la foi et de la morale dans un monde darwinien
Marie Panter


Cet article cherche à explorer la représentation hardyenne du paganisme dans Tess d’Urberville et Jude l’Obscur, à la lumière du darwinisme de Hardy. Alors que l’adhésion de Hardy au paganisme a été beaucoup discutée, la comparaison entre ces deux romans montre que tout y converge vers un éloge univoque du paganisme qui apparaît comme une alternative possible au christianisme. Hardy interprète le paganisme comme un panthéisme et une morale fondée sur la « loi de la nature », ce qui rencontre sa vision darwinienne de la nature. À travers le thème païen, ses dernières œuvres montrent que l’homme peut remplacer Dieu par la nature et que la religion, bien qu’elle doive être profondément renouvelée, reste nécessaire à l’humanité pour fonder une société morale. En se référant à Darwin, il retrouve ainsi les débats du premier romantisme autour du déisme, de la philosophie naturelle et de la fondation d’une morale et d’une politique républicaines.

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  • 1 This statement is immediately followed by a development about the necessity of ‘a readjustment of a (...)

1Hardy’s late novels are very critical towards Christianity, and Tess and Jude both end up professing their atheism. However, Hardy’s fictional world is not merely materialistic, and his relationship towards faith and transcendence is made up of resentment and regret rather than atheistic conviction. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Christianity is constantly opposed to paganism, which appears as a conceivable alternative to the former. In his fictional Wessex, nature worship often replaces that of a hidden God, and paganism is also associated with a positive set of practices and values, in harmony with nature. Hardy thus represents paganism as a religion as well as a view of life, so that he could be ranked among the well-known Victorian champions of paganism and Hellenism to whom he refers in these novels: Shelley, Swinburne, Arnold, Gibbon, Mill, among others. For all of them, the desire to found a new society and culture implies a return to earlier beliefs and practices of humanity. As far as Hardy is concerned, this interest in paganism must be read in the light of the implications of a Darwinian conception of the world. For him, ‘few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of a common origin of all species is ethical’1 (Florence Emily Hardy 349). Convinced by Darwin, Hardy believes that it is man’s responsibility to make up for the absence of God. Through the pagan theme, his late works show that man may replace God with nature, and that religion, though it needs to be deeply renewed, remains necessary for humanity to be able to found an ethical society.

2However, Hardy’s fiction is not unambiguous in its praise of paganism. Many critics have shown that Angel, who defends this paganism, might not be a reliable character, even if his theoretical position does seem to be Hardy’s. Likewise, Jude’s rejection of Christianity, which goes together with his growing support of Sue’s pagan ideas, has often been regarded as a projection of Hardy’s disappointment with Christianity. But Jude’s momentary defence of paganism finally turns into the sheer rejection of all systems of religion. After Tess’s death as a pagan heroine in Stonehenge, a heathen temple, are Jude’s blasphemies on his deathbed to be read as Hardy’s last words on the matter? By comparing Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, I would like to show that a unified representation of paganism does come out as a specific relationship towards nature. It becomes a positive model to found a new ethical model on a religious basis. Professed by Angel and Sue, characters who represent freethinkers, paganism is however better emblematized by Hardy’s eponymous characters, Tess and Jude. I will then argue that Hardy expresses through fiction—a mode of writing which implies a refusal of systematic discourse—his original vision and participation in the Victorian debate over religion and ethics. Hardy calls for a new system of values, based on an original view of nature and inspired by a Darwinian conception of the world. Paganism eventually appears as a worship of life, which Hardy sees as the running principle of nature, and which matches his own interpretation of Darwinism.

Influences and Peculiarities: Hardy’s Theoretical View of Paganism

3Hardy was a great erudite, but he was also very much self-taught. His literary and cultural references are thus eclectic and sketchy. His Literary Notes provide precious information about what he knew, and what he did not. As far as paganism and Hellenism are concerned, he seems to have been mostly influenced by Matthew Arnold’s essays, especially his Essays in Criticism (1865). For instance, Hardy copies down the following lines from the chapter ‘Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment’:

The ideal, cheerful, sensuous pagan life is not sick or sorry. [. . .]
It is natural that man sh.d take refuge in his heart & imagin.n from his misery. [. . .]
The Renascence. . . a return toward the Pagan spirit... The Reform.n the very opposite to this— (Hardy 1974, 134)

  • 2 This echoes Arnold’s statement about Hellenism and Hebraism in Culture and Anarchy (1869). See belo (...)
  • 3 Entries 500 to 580 in The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy.

4Hardy undoubtedly retains Arnold’s positive notion of paganism, regarded as an accomplishment of the individual. He also adopts Arnold’s trans-historical conception. For both Arnold and Hardy, paganism is mainly a view of life, the spirit of which may, or at least should be revived.2 They both use the terms ‘Hellenism’ and ‘Paganism’ as quasi synonyms to express an ideal view of life. In their writings, these two key words are abstract concepts, which strictly oppose other terms: ‘Hellenism’ vs. ‘modern life’, ‘paganism’ vs. ‘Christianity’. Though Hardy’s notions of paganism are mainly linked to ancient Greece, his vision is ‘palimpsestual’ (Ribeyrol 59) and rather imprecise. He may have found everything that he knew about it in Mahaffy’s Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander (1874).3

5Hardy also approves of Arnold’s admiration for Greek authors, considering they provide models for a renewal of poetry. In his note 1018, he copies Arnold’s following words:

  • 4 Hardy’s admiration for Aeschylus also shows in his essays, in particular in The Profitable Reading (...)

the four great names are Simonides, Pindar, Aeschylus4 & Sophocles . . . [. . .] no other poets so well show to the poetry of the present the way it must take; no other poets have lived so much by the imaginative reason; no other poets have made their work so well balanced; no other poets, who have so well satisfied The thinking-power, have so well satisfied the religious sense (Hardy 1974, 110)

  • 5 See Björk’s Critical introduction to The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy, p. XXVI, and Hardy’s note (...)

6Hardy indeed regarded the Greek poets as models, and certainly agreed with Arnold’s praise of a literature that should be able to please and meet the ‘thinking-power’ and ‘the religious senses’. More generally, Hardy’s conception of literature as a moral interpretation of life was very much influenced by Arnold’s views.5 This conception, which Hardy exposes thoroughly in The Profitable Reading of Fiction (1888) and his other essays, clearly establishes a link between aesthetics and ethics. Hellenism and paganism, as views of life, are to be revived ethically and poetically; paganism appears as the source of ideal aesthetics, that is to say, ideal ethics, and vice versa. From Mahaffy’s Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander (1874), it is striking to see that he also copies the following lines:

No modern theology has developed higher & purer moral notions than those of Aeschylus & his school, developed afterwards by Socrates & Plato, but first attained by the genius of Aeschylus . . . (Hardy 1974, 57)

  • 6 Shanyn Fiske also insists on Hardy’s self-made vision and imprecise vision of Hellenism.

7Hardy does seem to believe in a specifically pagan ethics whose spirit should be renewed in Victorian Britain. His writing therefore aims at renewing his notion of a pagan imagination and literature endowed with a moral mission. In his later novels, paganism thus appears as a theme or a keyword, and stands for an ideal view of life, which associates poetry and ethics. Even if Hardy also read Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets, he seems to have been much more influenced by Arnold than by Symonds or Pater, whom he never quotes or refers to.6

Paganism as a Theoretical Alternative to Christianity

  • 7 The adamic myth runs through the novel, whose last chapter has often been discussed from that point (...)

8In both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, a freethinker tends to overshadow the eponymous characters. Angel and Sue, as intellectuals, have a lot in common, starting with their concern for religion and ethics. Pagan Greece, as a model of a civilization characterized by a primitive and tolerant religion, is a constant reference in their discourses. Angel’s decision not to go into the Church comes after an intense consideration of Christian dogmas, to which he rationally prefers Greek paganism: ‘Once upon a time Angel had been so unlucky as to say to his father, in a moment of irritation, that it might have resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilization, and not Palestine’ (Hardy 2005, 175). This consideration about an alternative origin of ‘modern civilization’ points to an important theme of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which reflects on the possibility of seeing the present time as a new origin, from which civilization might be renewed.7 Through Angel’s counterfactual hypothesis, Hardy seems to ask his contemporaries: what if Greece could now be the source of the religion of modern civilization? When Angel reflects upon his own reaction to Tess’s confession, he regrets his narrow-mindedness and shows again his sincere support for paganism: ‘He had persistently elevated Hellenic Paganism at the expense of Christianity; yet in that civilization an illegal surrender was not certain disesteem’ (Hardy 2005, 361). In this particular quotation, paganism refers to an ethics rather than a religion: while Tess, as an unmarried mother, is blameworthy according to Victorian morality, she would be innocent in the eyes of a pagan. Angel’s theoretical opposition between Hellenism and Christianity clearly echoes Matthew Arnold’s famous opposition between ‘Hellenism’ and ‘Hebraism’. In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Arnold reads the history of humanity in the light of a tension between these two tendencies. To him, as he is in favour of a return to Hellenism, the Victorian era is to be read as a triumph of Hebraism, that is ‘strictness of conscience’ (Arnold 128). In the course of the novel, Angel experiences Hellenism, as defined by Arnold:

To get rid of one’s ignorance, to see things as they are, and by seeing them as they are to see them in their beauty, is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and for the simplicity and charm of this ideal, Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aërial ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we call sweetness and light. (Arnold 130)

9At Talbothays, Angel indeed discovers a new way of life, in harmony with nature, and his desire for Tess blends with it perfectly. This discovery is explicitly that of real life (‘things as they are’), and the idealised beauty of Talbothays is only the sign of its superior degree of reality:

Latterly he had seen only Life, felt only the great passionate pulse of existence, unwarped, uncontorted, untrammelled by those creeds which futilely attempt to check what wisdom would be content to regulate . . . Such was the contagion of domiciliary fellowship with the Talbothays nymphs and swains. (Hardy 2005, 176)

10The narrator’s comment underlines the fact that Angel identifies this way of life with Greek paganism. His vision of it is poetical and abstract: calling Tess ‘Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names’ (Hardy 2005, 146), he speaks to her about ‘pastoral life in ancient Greece’ (Hardy 2005, 141) and tells her that she is ‘a heathen’ (Hardy 2005, 416), as she will remind him at Stonehenge. Talbothays is a pagan place, but Angel fails to understand it fully, for paganism remains a fantasy for him, in as much as he acts as a Christian as soon as he is confronted with Tess’s confession. His knowledge of paganism comes straight out of books, and he seems, above all, to adhere to a theoretical utopia, whose realization is stopped by the persistent strength of ‘Hebraism’. Tess indeed ‘regards Angel as an intelligence rather than as a man’ (Hardy 2005, 141), and the whole novel does tend to denounce his submission to intellectual systems and his bad judgment. His final understanding of Tess’s innocence appears ineluctably to him when he gives up theory under the influence of the strong emotion caused by the murder of Alec.

  • 8 Hardy’s interest in the question of women’s rights is certain, but I would like to focus here on hi (...)

11Sue’s support for paganism is more impulsive and provocative. The first gesture that suggests her heterodoxy is the purchase of two pagan statues, representing Venus and Apollo. She buys them in a moment of confusion: ‘being almost in a line between herself and the church towers of the city they awoke in her an oddly foreign and contrasting set of ideas by comparison’ (Hardy 1998, 93). Her preference for paganism is clearly linked with a strong and impulsive rejection of a Christianity which she does not fully accept, as the narrator’s comment shows: ‘Well, anything is better than those everlasting church fal-fals! But she was still in a trembling state, and seemed almost to wish she had not bought the figures’ (Hardy 1998, 94). Afraid of her own impulsion, she hides ‘her heathen load’ and pretends that she has bought statues of ‘St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalen’ (Hardy 1998, 95). In other words, as a woman, Sue cannot dare to have a man’s free opinions.8 However, her knowledge of paganism may challenge Angel’s. Reading a chapter about Julian the Apostate in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she quotes from the famous apostate in Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ (1866):

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean:
The world has grown grey from thy breath! (Hardy 1998, 96)

  • 9 See Dictionnaire philosophique, which is also one of Angel’s readings in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
  • 10 Hardy's admiration for Swinburne is mainly linked with the provocative image of the poet.

12Knowing this famous text by heart, Sue quotes from it again when Jude tells her about his will to enter the Church: ‘O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods!’ (Hardy 1998, 150). In Voltaire’s wake,9 Gibbon and Swinburne have turned Julian the Apostate into a hero, for having criticised Christianity and tried to restore paganism. Hardy’s own admiration for Swinburne, whom he saw as a ‘brother-poet’ (Florence Emily Hardy 349) in as much as they were both victims of censorship, seems to indicate Hardy’s support for this specific text.10 Sue is said to be ‘quite Voltairean’ (Hardy 1998, 152) and approves of this heterodox promotion. Like Angel, she has an abstract idea of paganism, which she mainly sees as the fulfilment of human existence. For instance, she regards her happy life with Jude as life in pagan Greece: ‘I feel that we have returned to Greek joyousness, and have blinded ourselves to sickness and sorrow, and have forgotten what twenty-five centuries have taught the race since their time, as one of your Christminster luminaries says’ (Hardy 1998, 297). To Sue’s mind, Christianity has brought ‘sickness and sorrow’ and erased happiness, which echoes Arnold’s idea that ‘the ideal, cheerful, sensuous pagan life is not sick or sorry’ (Hardy 1974, 134). But if Sue and Jude have managed to go back to an anterior state of civilization, their forgetting of Christianity can only be temporary. After their children’s death, Sue is full of remorse, and recalls their past beliefs, which she now regards as foolish:

We said—do you remember?—that we would make a virtue of joy. I said it was Nature’s intention, Nature’s Law and raison d’être that we should be joyful in what instincts she afforded us—instincts which civilization had taken upon itself to thwart. (Hardy 1998, 339)

13This passage clearly shows Sue’s idea of paganism, which is similar to that of Angel’s: more than a religion, it is a view of life and an ethics, based on ‘Nature’s Law’. On the contrary, civilization is supposed to have brought Christianity, and with it a complete negation of nature. If Sue’s convictions, just like Angel’s, do not resist a deeply-rooted Christian education, which comes back in the form of guilt and remorse, Sue tries to give life to her ideal. She even convinces Jude to give up Christian traditions and laws to live in harmony with nature. When she evokes ‘Nature’s intention, Nature’s Law and raison d’être’, she alludes to sexual desire, which is something that she has decided to accept outside marriage. Paganism refers to a cultural model in which sexuality is seen as a natural instinct.

14Though linked to a criticism of Christianity, paganism thus refers essentially to a system of ethical values for both Angel and Sue. No doubt that, from a theoretical point of view, these two characters represent a rightful criticism of the Victorian ‘strictness of conscience’ (Arnold 128), and an attempt to find an alternative system of values. Yet, their incapacity to live in accordance with the liberal ideas that they profess seems to condemn the possibility of restoring paganism, which remains theoretical. From this viewpoint, Talbothays may be read as a pagan utopia: it shows Angel what real life is, but remains a parenthesis in his life and in the novel. Both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure may be read in the light of Arnold’s conflict between ‘Hellenism’ and ‘Hebraism’, the former being undoubtedly positive.

Practising Paganism: Natural Faith and Ethics

  • 11 The subtitle ‘A pure woman’ is reinforced by the narrator’s leitmotiv: ‘Poor Tess’. While it is les (...)

15Charlotte Bonica emphasizes Hardy’s ‘sympathetic treatment of the rural pagans’ (Bonica 850), but challenges Bruce Johnson’s statement that ‘Hardy’s intention in Tess is to suggest that the pagan relationship with nature offers modern individuals a useful replacement for Christianity’ (Bonica 851). However, it does seem that Hardy’s fictional setting tends to make rural pagans unambiguously good. This first rests on an opposition between speech and action. While paganism is mainly professed by Angel and Sue, it is spontaneously experienced by Tess and Jude, who are Hardy’s real heroes, and with whom the reader is incited to sympathize.11 At the beginning of Jude the Obscure, Jude learns Latin and Greek through the study of ancient classical authors such as Homer. In the chapter before Sue’s purchase of pagan statues, he acts as a pagan himself, as if Hardy wanted to suggest that Jude and Sue were soulmates, who share the same attraction to paganism. Reading ‘Carmen Saeculare’, by Horace, in honour of Apollo and Diana, Jude is suddenly overwhelmed by an ‘impulsive emotion’ (Hardy 1998, 33):

16He turned first to the shiny goddess, who seemed to look so softly and critically at his doings, then to the disappearing luminary on the other hand, as he began:

Phoebe silvarumque potens Diana!
The horse stood still till he had finished the hymn, which Jude repeated under the sway of a polytheistic fancy that he would never have thought of humouring in broad daylight.
Reaching home, he mused over his curious superstition, innate or acquired, in doing this, and the strange forgetfulness which had led to such a lapse from common-sense and custom in one who wished, next to being a scholar, to be a Christian divine. It had all come of reading heathen works exclusively. (Hardy 1998, 33–34)

17Unlike Sue, Jude is not inclined to worship nature because he rejects Christianity, quite the contrary. He is driven by the beauty of the surroundings and of Homer’s ‘heathen’ poetry. His paganism is described as a ‘polytheistic fancy’, which relies on an instinctive perception of the divinity of the moon and the sun. There seems to be no contradiction between his Christian education and his paganism, even though he regards his own act as blasphemous. If he attributes it to his heathen readings, it rather seems that this sudden need to worship nature is inspired by the beauty of nature itself. At this point in his life, he does not profess paganism, and has not read what Angel and Sue have read. Unlike them, he has discovered paganism in poetical works only, and is emotionally and aesthetically seduced by a worship which is both natural and poetical. According to Hardy’s view, this instinctive paganism, defined as an ability to see the beauty of nature, is also an indication of Jude’s superior morality.

18Jude’s attitude may indeed be compared with Tess’s unconscious and spontaneous paganism, which comes from no book at all. When she leaves Marlott for Talbothays, the beauty of nature alone gives her inspiration for psalms, and the narrator explains:

And probably the half-unconscious rhapsody was a Fetichistic utterance in a Monotheistic setting; women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race of later date. (Hardy 2005, 120)

19Tess sings a Christian song in honour of nature, so that her Christian faith combines with her paganism, which seems to be a form of pantheism. She has ‘a Pagan fantasy’ because nature itself inspires a natural faith. While Jude wonders if his superstition is ‘innate or acquired’, Tess’s attitude clearly indicates that it is at least natural, that is to say, deeply linked with her familiarity with nature. Besides, the idea of a natural culture transformed by ‘the systematized religion taught their race of later date’ clearly echoes Sue’s alluding to ‘instincts which civilization had taken upon itself to thwart’ (Hardy 1998, 339). Tess embodies the possibility of reviving old instincts and beliefs, which is actually Sue and Angel’s wish. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the narrator constantly presents country people as pagans—according to the etymology of the term—in spite of their professing Christianity. He gives a positive vision of their polytheistic beliefs, as in the harvest scene. Having described the sun, the narrator proceeds: ‘His present aspect, coupled with the lack of all human forms in the scene, explained the old-time heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion had never prevailed under the sky’ (Hardy 2005, 99). In this passage, the narrator clearly sides with paganism, defined as a ‘sane’ religion of nature. The sun has a beneficent and benevolent action on country people. Described as a ‘godlike figure’ (Hardy 2005, 99), it is a natural power, whose worship is harmless. In the same way, the narrator praises the ‘Cerealia’, in honour of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, harvest and fertility. It is ‘a gay survival from Old-Style days; when cheerfulness and Maytime were synonyms—days before the habit of taking long views had reduced emotions to a monotonous average’ (Hardy 2005, 19). This tradition has endured without being seen as dissident and opposed to Christianity, but in the narrator’s discourse, it is praised in opposition to the latter, which is implicitly blamed for having ‘reduced emotions’. Tess, whose ancestor was named ‘Sir Pagan D’Urbervilles’, thus behaves like a pagan, because she has been raised in a rural region. The name ‘Durbeyfield’, in which one can hear the word ‘field’, also echoes the etymology of the word ‘pagan’. The main consequence of her paganism is her attitude towards sexuality, which is innocent and natural, to the point of accepting Alec’s advances. However, her sexual desire really blossoms at Talbothays when she falls in love with Angel. Significantly, the narrator underlines in that episode that Tess and her country female friends are ‘impassioned, summer-steeped heathens’ (Hardy 2005, 174), and that Angel experiences there an ‘aesthetic, sensuous, Pagan pleasure in natural life and lush womanhood’ (Hardy 2005, 175). Jude is also a sensual character, attracted by women and unable to experience platonic love with Sue. On the contrary, Angel and Sue are particularly non-sensual and never driven by their desire, as if Hardy wanted to underline the distance between what they profess and what they put into practice.

20Tess and Jude both turn into freethinkers in the course of the novels, but their theoretical position only ends up matching their practice. Unlike Angel and Sue, their faith always remains in harmony with their action. Tess becomes more virulent than her lover against Christianity when she becomes fully aware of how responsible Christian morality is for her misfortune and moral condemnation. Telling Alec ‘The Convert’ that she no longer believes his ‘scheme of religion’ (Hardy 2005, 329), she finally decides to give herself up at Stonehenge and affirms her paganism: ‘And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home.’ (Hardy 2005, 416). Tess’s gesture, which may be regarded as a symbolic suicide, echoes another entry of Hardy’s Literary Notes:

Ethics of Suicide
The Stoics represented the old Pagan virtue in its highest form: it was teras atque rotundus, based on a self-complacent faith in the perfection of human nature & the dignity of man, & taking no account of that sense of sin & need for repentance & pardon which lay at the root of the Evangelical system of ethics . . . (Hardy 1974, 458)

21Hardy turns Stonehenge, a quintessentially English place, into the cradle of a renewed civilization, based on Greek pagan virtue. Tess’s stoic death may thus be read as a defence of her heathen experience with Angel, as she dies with no remorse.

22In a similar way, Jude resists Sue’s heterodoxy and even intends to take the holy orders, until he realizes that his acts are in contradiction with his vocation. Burning his ‘theological and ethical works’, he gives up ‘a religion in which sexual love was regarded as at its best a frailty, and at its worst as a damnation.’ (Hardy 1998, 217). Convinced that his sexual desire for Sue is innocent and natural, he adheres to a system of values that does not condemn sexuality. When he discovers that his lover has become a churchgoer, he expresses his support for paganism and points out Sue’s contradictions:

Can this be the girl who brought the Pagan deities into this most Christian city?—who mimicked Miss Fontover when she crushed them with her heel?—quoted Gibbon, and Shelley, and Mill? Where are dear Apollo, and dear Venus now! (Hardy 1998, 351).

23For both Tess and Jude, paganism becomes a necessary acceptance of nature, which corresponds to their spontaneous behaviour. What distinguishes them from Angel and Sue is also that their paganism is first a form of pantheism, based on a sincere faith, before it becomes an ethics. Even if their faith is seriously put to the test in the course of each novel, their ability to embody the possibility of living as pagans seems to be related to their natural tendency to believe, whether it be in God, in nature, or in love. This very ability seems to be maintained by Hardy as the necessary foundation of ethics.

Paganism as a Darwinian View of Nature?

24Hardy’s representation of paganism is fundamentally linked with the concept of ‘Nature’. As the previous remarks show, it mainly refers to two abstract realities: nature worship, through pantheism or polytheism, and an ethics based on ‘Nature’s law’. In any case, paganism is based on a vision of nature as good. I suggest that we read this promotion of paganism in the light of Hardy’s representation of his Darwinian conception of the world. First, Darwinism has made the divinity leave the heavens, and Hardy is desperately looking for an alternative on which to found a new ethics. Secondly, Darwinism offers a new view of nature that may echo Hardy’s idea of paganism. Indeed, in Hardy’s text, the central notion of ‘Nature’s Law’ is related to pagan Greece and paganism, but it also echoes Darwin’s view of nature. Darwin does more than just establish the common origin of species. He also describes nature as an organism, based on the complementary laws of competition and solidarity. Robert J. Richards has shown that Darwin’s view of nature as an organism is Romantic, and that Darwinism may be read as a new sort of pantheism: ‘his Romantic assumptions led him to portray nature as organic, as opposed to mechanistic, and to identify God with nature, or at least to reanimate nature with the soul of the recently departed deity’ (Richards 516). Hardy’s numerous descriptions of nature, and of the merging of man and nature, recalls this representation of nature. The idea of a force that moves the natural organism, and man within it, is very frequent in Hardy’s late novels, in particular in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. When Tess sings psalms in honour of nature, she also returns to life: ‘some spirit within her rose automatically as the sap in the twigs’ (Hardy 2005, 113). The comparison between Tess and a ‘twig’ makes her a part of the natural organism, both being moved by the same ‘spirit’. When, in spite of her past, she accepts Angel’s proposal, the narrator evokes again a ‘force’ that moves her as it moves the whole ‘creation’: ‘The “appetite for joy”, which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric’ (Hardy 2005, 208). In Jude the Obscure, this vision of nature is less present and the end of the novel is much more pessimistic, but Jude is also driven by a force that controls him. The narrator comments his desire for Arabella in these terms: ‘In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold on him—something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and will . . .’ (Hardy 1998, 44). As a brute force, desire leads Jude to disaster with Arabella, but combined with love, it is an overwhelming energy that drives him to his soulmate Sue, with whom it is possible to live a pagan utopia.

25What characterizes Tess and Jude is that they live spontaneously in harmony with nature and the force that moves them. Their main faith is in this force that they do not try to understand or question. Their understanding of sexuality is to be read from this viewpoint: being the expression of their belonging to the natural organism, desire overwhelms them completely but innocently. On the contrary, Sue and Angel, who are more educated and less incarnate, are no longer in contact with nature, and significantly, with desire. It seems that, in Hardy’s words, this force can equally be called desire, energy, life, or love. Tess and Jude’s spontaneous faith is in all these forces, which they can contemplate in nature and which moves them in return. The innocence of this force explains Hardy’s exoneration of Tess from guilt and his simultaneous approval of paganism, which accepts sexuality as natural. His strong condemnation of marriage, in both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, is also linked to this support of nature’s force, which is life. Hardy mainly criticizes an ethics based on marriage and the unnatural fixity of its laws:

And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore. (Hardy 1998, 58–59)

26Hardy’s irony denounces the impossibility of grounding ethics and society on a negation of nature, that is to say life. He puts up against this negation of nature an ethics of life, that is to say love: Tess and Jude’s great ability to love shows the possibility of transforming this natural force into the foundation of a new ethics. In order to be positive, it seems that the strength of desire must be turned into love. To return to Hardy’s statement about the ethical consequence of Darwinism, it is noteworthy that he calls for the ‘application of what has been called “The Golden Rule” beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom’ (Florence Emily Hardy 349). Symbolically, Tess and Jude show the way and already apply this rule: Tess puts an end to the suffering of birds at the point of death, and the young Jude refuses to kill birds.

27In Hardy’s late novels, everything shows that the fictional representation of paganism is to be taken seriously. Though convinced by Darwinism, Hardy throws light on a reality that can act as a substitute for the principle of divinity, and that is in fact, in his eyes, the driving force of nature. For man, left alone under the empty heavens, there remains the possibility to believe in nature and to worship it. Hardy finds in paganism a view of life and nature that suits his imagination and his own view of the consequences of Darwin’s upsetting discoveries. By using Darwin, he relates to the early Romantic debates with Deism, natural philosophy, and the foundation of republican ethics and politics. Angel’s poetical and fanciful view of paganism is doubtless also partly Hardy’s, for whom Tess and Jude are beautiful pagans. But this aesthetic vision of paganism is also the sign of a true belief in the possibility to renew ethics on this basis. Hardy thus accomplishes in his later novels his desire to write a moral fiction.

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Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings. 1869. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

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1 This statement is immediately followed by a development about the necessity of ‘a readjustment of altruistic morals by enlarging . . . the application of what has been called “The Golden Rule” beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom’.

2 This echoes Arnold’s statement about Hellenism and Hebraism in Culture and Anarchy (1869). See below.

3 Entries 500 to 580 in The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy.

4 Hardy’s admiration for Aeschylus also shows in his essays, in particular in The Profitable Reading of Fiction.

5 See Björk’s Critical introduction to The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy, p. XXVI, and Hardy’s note 1171, p. 133.

6 Shanyn Fiske also insists on Hardy’s self-made vision and imprecise vision of Hellenism.

7 The adamic myth runs through the novel, whose last chapter has often been discussed from that point of view.

8 Hardy’s interest in the question of women’s rights is certain, but I would like to focus here on his treatment of the ethical issue, which is to be read as a concern for mankind—men and women.

9 See Dictionnaire philosophique, which is also one of Angel’s readings in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

10 Hardy's admiration for Swinburne is mainly linked with the provocative image of the poet.

11 The subtitle ‘A pure woman’ is reinforced by the narrator’s leitmotiv: ‘Poor Tess’. While it is less obvious in Jude the Obscure, the whole novel tends to show a condemnation of the injustice experienced by poor Jude.

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Marie Panter, « Paganism in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure: The Possibility of Faith and Ethics in a Darwinian World »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2015, consulté le 05 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Panter

Marie Panter, a former student of the École Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences humaines and holder of the Agrégation in modern literature, wrote a doctoral thesis about Hardy, Hugo and Fontane’s thought of the novel as a poetical form. She currently teaches Comparative Literature at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

Marie Panter, ancienne élève de l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon et agrégée de lettres modernes, a soutenu une thèse de littérature comparée portant sur la pensée du roman comme forme poétique chez Hardy, Hugo et Fontane. Elle enseigne actuellement la littérature comparée à l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

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