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Society in Thomas Hardy’s and Samuel Butler’s Novels

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Topic: Compare and contrast the nature and function of society and social forces in `Tess of the D`Urbervilles` and `The Way of All Flesh`

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urberville and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh were written towards the end of the 19th century and they both represent the Victorian society in the maximum perspective. In these novels both Hardy and Butler showcase the social norms, concerns, delusion, pretensions and prejudices of not only the Victorian era but which span through the society of the 1700s and 1800s.

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Socially the works witness the death of naïve peasantry English life; economically they foresee the coming of bourgeois values of the material age that replaced the previous simple economic life set-up, morally a degradation of social values and finally the hypocrite religious norm. Nature and civilization have died.

When Hardy and Butler framed the genesis of their characters the society was yet conventional. The people were squeamish and behaved and acted under the limited tradition which might have any affect good or bad.

They were conservative in the real sense of the term. Though they did neither believe in Christianity in the true sense, nor did they have due love and respect to the fellow beings. Yet they followed the imbecile convention. This can be gauged by the fact that Hardy’s primary effort seemed to eulogize the heroine: he sees Tess largely as a victim of the new atmosphere. She is not suitable to this changing society or rather she is at the mercy of the circumstances for she has no worldly knowledge. She is an innocent.

Hardy wants to sympathize with Tess and tries to hint on the false  prejudice of the society which makes her victim. He is in support of Tess and criticizes the changing age but because of social apprehension he had to rethink over the characterization of Tess as well as he had subsequently to excise some of the portion on the ground of morality.

Then he added an adjectival sub-title to the main title “A Pure Woman” which though he himself did not like much for he showed regret ten years later in 1912.

In the then society a woman who was victimized was not sympathized rather she was subjected to social criticism and aloofness. A victimized woman was regarded a stigma and was never supported in any condition. She was left to her fate.

The very words used in Hardy’s novel ‘history’, ‘decline’ and ‘family’ are the alma-meters of social life, historicism and psychoanalysis of the late 1900-society. This society was peasantry and the family was the dominating feature than individuality. Above all morality was gasping its last breath which is more explicit in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh.

Hardy’s chief characters Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare and Alec Stoke D’Urberville represent a true mirror of the society in respect of the mixed up dynamism. Tess represents ‘the English peasantry’ under transmition. Alec stands for the ‘bourgeois values’ of the haves and is a ‘melodramatic villainy’ who is opportunist at the same time.

While Angel represents a false provincial morality without much sense and lacks maturity. He is the Victorian society on the micro level. He does not support his own wife Tess like the relevant society which does not seem to tolerate a fallen woman.

When he hears from her that she was rapped by Alec; he leaves Tess to her fate and runs away to Brazil. Neither has he realized over that fact that he too had committed the same sort of sin. Had he supported Tess she would not have suffered such an ill luck and had not become a victim of Alec yet again. Neither had she committed murder and was hanged.  In Hardy’s view the death of Tess is the death of false prejudice.

The economy of the English peasantry is weak which is so remarkably depicted by Hardy’s tackling of his subject. Tess’s father John Durbeyfield hates the economic condition of his family; he is a peddler. But by accident he comes to know that he is a descendant of a rich dynasty. He is very excited and soon assumes the role of a rich man; his so soon changed behavior shows the craze of the age which is running after wealth without a sense of good or bad.

The poor get poorer in the new economy! John’s horse dies and when John himself dies with him his lifelong lease of the cottage is terminated. Consequently Tess is on the road without a shelter. This brings Tess to Alec once again from whom she had run away and she meets the result of the dead economy.

John sends his daughter Tess to a different province, to the d’Urbervilles, to bring money and get a suitable rich husband. Hardy hints here that people began to move to far off countries to earn money at all costs in the new age of economy. But the pride comes a cropper when Tess gets to know that the d’Urbervilles are not the original family; they have adopted the title instead. So apt a hint by Hardy that the age saw the beginning of a make believe era when people craved for upgrading themselves on the rung of social values as well as a jeer at false prejudice of the breaking away from the past linkages.

Since now all hell falls. She had come back home but yet she goes to the d’Urbervilles to get a job. She is a soft target of Alec. Alec is a sophisticated witty man who gives Tess shelter only in return of physical pleasure.

Hardy foresees the age when the nihilism is spreading across the society. People are demoralized and the joint or large family structure has broken up. Haplessness, loneliness, individualism, strife and pessimism are the factors to stay in. It is the age when cheating, shrewdness and Machiavellianism are characterized in the frame of Alec D’Urberville and Ernest’s parents.

S Butler shows the family as a tormented institution. People live together only because they are carrying the bound based on affinity or kinship relation which is nothing more than an illusion. Instead the mutual love between different members is wanting; they hate each other.

Butler does not stop by just talking of the social institution he interrogates the validity of the institution of marriage. Marriage fails to hold on the couple and adultery is increasing.

The Victorian society is the symbol of the declining morality. Man is vulture in disguise. Here are two different perspectives dealt with by Hardy and Butler but in both of them the religion does not seem to be as sacred as the Conformist’s of the Jacobean period.

Almost all the Victorian writers from Jane Austin to Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, to William Thackeray have hinted upon the present society in their own ways. Apart from all Butler is terser in his approach which makes his writing more lively. His protagonist Ernest is the real one person among the common people.  He is vigilant and cannot decide on any thing so easily. He is influenced by the people he comes in concern with. Most of his acts are influenced by others. He is not as independent.

The Victorian people are hypocrite and are conservative in nature. Alec in Tess had committed adultery moreover he becomes a priest

and preaches the believers! But as soon as he sees Tess once more, he is tempted. He abandons priesthood and wants to marry Tess. Alec makes advances to her repeatedly but Tess rejects the proposal. Alec hints on her and uses all tactics to own her. He even threatens her and says lies about Angel that he would never return from Brazil in order to make his way clear for marrying Tess.

But then Tess is in the dire need of help when her family members are in problems Alec helps her and thus he gains what he wanted: the hand of hapless Tess. What morality a lonely woman could protect under the dire or hapless condition in the then society.

Likewise Butler hints at the diminishing faith. Earnest Pontifex’s parents are wicked yet they project themselves as the true believers. Their religious hypocrisy and motivations are on the extremes that any can be baffled. In this respect they are a sort of villains not different from Alec. People show up they are God fearing but in acts they are not so. What they assert is nothing but the self-righteous hypocrisy.

Joan Durbeyfield Tess’s mother is amoral; she accepts Tess’s ill begotten child. Nay she asserts: “Tis nater, after all and what do please God!” she does not show her anger at her being raped but surprisingly she is pissed at her not having married her rapist, Alec.

Hardy’s hint is more scathing when he criticizes ‘God’s law’: the illegitimate child is buried ‘in that shabby corner of God’s allotment’. This is an utter refusal of acceptance of an innocent child but the real sinner gets no punishment.

In the Jacobean era illiteracy was a common feature and Tess’s parents beeline this. But Tess is educated till the Sixth Standard which puts her at the threshold of a new age.

At the same time she symbolizes the end of the simplicity of the country life. She becomes the victim of the new age of materialism and new social values. Arnold Kettle remarks that Tess is largely a ‘moral fable’ which reveals the true society of the era.

One of the most striking features in Hardy and Butler is the patriarchal Victorian age. There is a danger in men! This Tess however takes a rather longer time to learn because of her lack of the worldly knowledge.

Alec is the symbol of the perfect machismo: he is a villain with a hard twirling moustache and behaves with Tess as if she is his: he refers her as ‘my beauty’ more often. Even if he abandons her after having quenched his thirst of physical pleasure.

Economically by the end of the 19th century the English peasantry had already died. The society has been transformed from the very root. It was to be composed of a variety of people like landowners, tenant farmers, dealers, craftsmen and laborers who were engaged in various works not subjugated to a single type of social fabric of farming age.

Tess symbolizes the death of the English peasantry both economically and morally. The simplicity of a single and continuous society is over.  The ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’ Tess fumbles for a safe space for herself. She first tumbles down creating immoral history and then finally reaches to a position of safety in the lap of death.

Butler’s Way is more vocal about the Victorian economic fads.  He satires the bourgeois values in more foul words. He even terms them savage. The people are mealy mouthed, money grubbing and do not realize what is right or what is right, morality apart?

History is always considered to have been influenced by economy and its factors. With Tess’s father’s death his ownership to the house ends and Tess is suddenly homeless. The occupation of farming is being replaced by services and business.

Technically the railways had gained favor as a means of transport, modern postal system made the communication faster and cheaper, power driven machines were on high demands everywhere, and the schooling was reaching to the people.

And the pre-pastoral society does not qualify in the age of modern means. It is terse but true that the Victorian peasantry society had the dogma of having large family. John, Tess’s father, has seven children. He could not fulfill their desire and is always in the need of money.  Tess’s fate is moulded but by economy.

Whereas Hardy depicts the social reality Butler even suggests a solution to the concern. His social gamut spans wider than Hardy’s as his Way depicts the lives of four generations under which comes at least two centuries.

The story is narrated by a third person Overton who is a family friend and the godfather of Ernest Pontifex. The protagonist character in Way is Ernest who has great respect for his great-grandfather John. Because of the third person’s involvement Butler finds it easy to tell the story. Ernest’s parents are contrasted by Overton who has a keen eye on the development going on around the Pontifex’s family. Overton is Butler himself in disguise. So his remarks are more striking and lively.

The story revolves round Ernest’s father Theo who first goes through ordination but later turns into a cruel and disciplinarian. His behavior is not as suitable to his parents which certainly affects the young Ernest.

Slowly we see Ernest grow; he gives away his money to a pregnant woman. He then becomes a priest but in the course of matter he is imprisoned for mistaking a socially respected woman a whore. Remarkably Ernest abandons priesthood and begins an illegitimate relation with the maid Ellen who he had once helped. Yet again Butler shows the breaking of the sacred incarnation and the declining marriage institution.

Both Hardy and Butler beeline the diminishing convention and religious faith. On one hand the sacredness of Christianity is declining, on the other hand Butler does not mystify it rather he mocks on the hypocrisy and weak moral force of fundamental religiosity.

One of the most practical things of his life Butler himself deals with in Way is he questions the Christian doctrines. He did not take up ordination though he was almost to in his personal life.

Butler’s characters represent the real people who are with many follies as well as many faults.  Hardly any other writers have shown the society so closely. Fun and comic scenes are to highlight the follies of the hypocrite people of the age. The social commentary is direct. Man is selfish for: “Every man for himself” paints a picture of the people.

Opportunism is one of the other striking features of Hardy’s novel. On the very first look at Tess Alec eyes her hot. He makes approach to her but fails. Getting her a job at a dairy farm is but the luring of money to create an opportunity for him!

Alec tries to provide her help each moment he gets an opportunity.  He raises pressure on Tess by many tactics. He makes her kiss him to which she shows disgrace. Alec saves Tess from her female friends but with a hope of advances. He even offers to marry her which she rejects. Ultimately he rapes Tess in the woods when she sleeping.

Tess is ruined yet she does not submit. She is the loose way-through; Hardy wants to create an atmosphere of freedom. She is the unique symbol of independent life. For her courage she suffers social stigma and public criticism. Still she fights.

Women had been working in farming sector for years along with men folk. But the labor class brings an age in which women are subjected to the bourgeois society. At farming most often the landowners themselves are engaged in their fields but at working fields like dairy farm or so people from different family are engaged which is not as strong a bound between them to help each other or at least sympathize to each other.

Patriarchal society has no relief for the women. ‘The Woman Pays’ and Tess is raped and she begets an illegitimate child. But her child is banned from being given funeral on its death. It is the religious hypocrisy of the age. On the contrary Alec is a rapist still he becomes a priest. Once more he gives up priesthood. It an easy life for men.

Butler shows how his character rejects ordination when Ernest does not accept it. Hardy is not behind. Angel’s father and all his brothers are priests but Angel loves a free life. He too has sex with an elderly woman but never pays for his sin. In the world of men the chauvinism is to think only one sided that is women are the ideals of purity and if a woman is howsoever tortured she would be considered frail than gain sympathy.


1.  Banducci, Diego. The Definitive Book About Dysfunctional Families, Sans Francisco, US, 2005.

2.    Hyman, Virginia R. Ethical Perspective in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, New York and London, 1975.

3.    Rytland, William, Thomas Hrady, A Study of his Writings and Bcakground, Oxford, 1938.

4.    Sankey, Benjamin. The Major Novels of Thomas Hardy. Denver, 1965.

5.    Sullivan, W Seymour. One of the Great Novels of All Time, New York, US, 2005.

6.    Thurley, Geoffery. The Psychology of Hardy’s Novels, University of  Queensland Press, 1975.


Cite this Society in Thomas Hardy’s and Samuel Butler’s Novels

Society in Thomas Hardy’s and Samuel Butler’s Novels. (2016, Sep 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/society-in-thomas-hardys-and-samuel-butlers-novels/

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