Thomas Hardy's tragedies are historically specific narratives that represent significant social tensions and transitions. Their representational effects can best be understood when preoccupation with plot and character is supplemented by a consideration of social meanings and conflict within late nineteenth-century England. The issues listed by Williams - custom, education, work, ideas, change - span numerous social spheres and are central to Hardy's tragic novels, constituting many of the historically specific tensions that occasion the downfalls of his protagonists. In particular, the tragedies can be understood in terms of Williams' latter opposition, "conflicts of desire and possibility": the opposition between individuals' ideals and the complex social reality that surrounds them (99). This thesis will examine three novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), less of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895), to demonstrate that the tragic downfall of Hardy's protagonists results from insurmountable tensions between illusory desires and the actual possibilities available to him or her, within a period of historically specific social transition.
Hardy, like his protagonists, was operating within a context of change - first, a tension between older and more modem publishing practices, and second, a transition in the English novel, particularly in terms of content and moral purpose. Similar forces of social convention that drive the downfall of Hardy's protagonists also spur the censorship to which Hardy himself was subject during the 1880s and 1890s (Taylor, "Introduction" xviii). In late nineteenth-century England reviewers did not merely appraise texts, they also decided their social value and, in his capacity as a writer of tragedies. Hardy was subject to harsh judgment of his narrative content. Examination of Hardy's own historical experience not only provides a context for the tragedies; it demonstrates the tension between the social issues Hardy sought to portray and the socially sanctioned reality promoted by censors and critics. It establishes the significant conflict between desire and possibility that Hardy himself experienced as a writer operating in a contentious social context.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge Michael Henchard's tragic fall results from his inability to adapt to changes in the economic landsc^e of mid-nineteenth-century England, as old-fashioned agricultural practices are usurped by a new rationalised commercialism. Specifically, he fails to reconcile two of the central tenets of nineteenth-century middle-class life: commercially driven economic success and a reverence for family. Specifically, Henchard is unable to treat these two spheres as separate yet interdependent aspects of modem life: his business decisions are informed by personal considerations, and his domestic life is infused with commercial concepts of acquisition and possession. Henchard's commercial battle with Farfrae is central to his tragedy, demonstrating the gulf between old-fashioned business expectations and the possibilities and pressures created by a new social system.
It is a mark of the historical specificity of Tess of the d'Urbervilles that Tess's tragedy is largely imposed on her through the tensions between male expectations and her own social, historical reality. Tess's gender and sexuality, like her complex, transitional class position, are instrumental in her experience of late nineteenth-century England. Alec and Angel define Tess according to two notions of female sexuality and identity dominant in the late nineteenth century: Alec perceives a temptress. Angel a Magdalen.i Such expectations are superficial and idealistic in comparison with Tess's complex experience as a modem rural woman, educated yet forced into manual labour to support her family. Williams' opposition between "custom and education" helps to illuminate Tess's transitional experience.
The conflicts between reality and idealism, custom and education, reach a climax in Jude the Obscure. The novel depicts stonemason Jude Fawley's idealised desire for a university education and his eschewal of marriage. The opposition between these aims and dominant social institutions of late nineteenth-century England creates conflicts that lead to Jude's fall. While Jude the Obscure vividly represents the impacts of the institutions of education and marriage, it also signals its own place within historical process. The novel demonstrates Hardy's shift in influence from accepted Victorian discourses of morality and religion, to newer, internally focused discourses such as psychology, which would be embraced by modemist literature.
i For further discussion of the temptress and Magdalen as two central categories of female sexuality in the nineteenth century, see Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 353-72