Study of Thomas Hardy

by Sam Alexander

D.H. Lawrence’s Study of Thomas Hardy (1914) began as a commission for the “Writers of the Day” series published by James Nisbet and co., but grew so far beyond its ostensible subject that Lawrence had to abandon the hope of publication. By 1915, he had even renamed it “Le Gai Savaire” (pseudo-French for “The Gay Science”), indicating the Nietzschean influence that is palpable throughout the work.[1] As Bruce Steele notes, Lawrence wrote the Study just before undertaking an extensive rewriting of The Rainbow, and seems to have used the essay to work through important aspects of his “philosophy of character and relationships” before returning to the novel.[2] Several of Lawrence’s attempted rewritings of his personal philosophy were either abandoned or have subsequently been lost, making the Study perhaps the most complete statement of his early philosophy. It was published posthumously in 1932-1933.

In the first two chapters, Lawrence develops the images of the phoenix and the poppy, life forms that achieve self-fulfillment in a spectacular culminating moment (the bloom of the poppy and the flame of the phoenix). He contrasts these images of spectacular self-realization with humanity’s subordination to what he calls throughout “the law of self preservation”— all the functional elements of social organization: “the struggle for existence, the right to work, the right to vote, the right to this and the right to that.”[3] The right to vote (the suffragette movement) comes in for extended criticism in chapter 2, where Lawrence argues that since the “perversion” of the state stems from the failure of its citizens to achieve individuality, rights are a secondary concern. This prioritization of aesthetic achievement over the various practical concerns he groups under the name “self-preservation” may have a biographical explanation: at the time he was writing, Lawrence was nearly unable to support himself and his new wife—in part because of Methuen’s decision to renege on the contract for The Rainbow.[4]

Lawrence was troubled by the war even more than by his own financial situation. On September 5, he wrote to J.B. Pinker, “What a colossal idiocy, this war. Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book about Thomas Hardy.”[5] Within the Study, Lawrence treats the war as proof that the English have become fed up with the over-cautiousness of “self-preservation” and are attempting, through violence, to achieve the self-realization discussed in chapters one and two. Although for the most part disdainful of this logic (he describes as “shameful” the “revelling … in the squandering of human life as if it were something we needed”), Lawrence appears at points to be almost complicit with it—as when he writes that “the only good that can result from the ‘world disaster’ [is] that we realize once more that self-preservation is not the final goal of life.”[6]

In the September 5 letter to Pinker, Lawrence himself acknowledges that the work on Hardy “will be about anything but Thomas Hardy,” and, the Study discusses its namesake only in chapters 3, 5, and 9; nevertheless, his selection of Hardy, and his highly imaginative interpretation of his novels, tells us much about the concerns that animate this work. At first, Hardy seems to have attracted Lawrence’s attention because so many of his characters “burst” — again, like the poppy or the phoenix—out of the confines of society, into individuality. For Lawrence, this self-realization leads directly to their tragedy: “How to live in [‘the great self-preservation system’] after bursting out of it was the problem these Wessex people found themselves faced with. And they never solved the problem.”[7] Lawrence calls these exceptional characters “aristocrats,” since traditionally aristocrats were the only individuals able to stand outside the struggle for survival that he equates with society. His argument is that Hardy’s private “prédiliction d’artiste” favors his aristocratic characters (who include both villains and heroes: Manston, Farmer Boldwood, the Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude, and others), but because he knows that he must side with the community against those who transcend it, he takes care that all such characters die (“every single one”).[8] Again, this theme seems appropriate to the war and Lawrence’s own wartime situation. As Mark Kinkead-Weekes writes, Lawrence felt increasingly alienated as the war progressed, since he felt able to “neither join in war hysteria nor identify with the pacifists.”[9]

At the same time, Lawrence refuses to grant full tragic status to Hardy’s novels because they are purely social in their scope, unlike the tragedies of Sophocles or Shakespeare, in which the hero battles against macrocosmic forces like Nature and Fate. Hardy’s attention to natural setting, the “great background,” of which Egdon heath in The Return of the Native is Lawrence’s principal example, constantly reminds the reader of the “vast … primal morality” beside which the human morality that condemns the characters is insignificant.[10]

In this attention to the nonhuman, I think, lies a large part of Hardy’s appeal for Lawrence (even though he discusses it in terms of the way it weakens the tragic element of the novels)—as Lawrence indicates in the attention he gives to The Return of the Native. This novel focuses the nonhuman “background” to a degree that is unparalleled even in Hardy. Its first chapter, entitled “A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression,” is devoted entirely to the “face” of Egdon heath, and it is only subsequently that “Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble.” The individual characters thus materialize out of the setting much as the characters of The Rainbow emerge out of the generalized past of the Marsh Farm.

This emphasis on the nonhuman may be attributable to the Futurist influence on Lawrence. Marinetti had written of the need to destroy the “man side” of literature and “put matter in his place” in a passage from “The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” that Lawrence praised in his letter to Edward Garnett on June 5, 1914.[11] In Marinetti’s call for an “intuitive physiology of matter,” Lawrence told Garnett, “I see something I’m after.”[12] Other traces of the Futurists’ influence include Lawrence’s oddly placed ode to the machine (“It can provide me with the perfectly mechanical instrument … Which is what I want”) and a discussion of the Boccioni sculpture “Development of a Bottle through Space.”[13]

The middle chapters of the Study leave Hardy behind and develop an antithetical path to the self-realization embodied by the poppy (“Where does my poppy spill over in red, but there were the two streams have flowed”).[14] The two “streams” refer, first of all, to the male and female aspects of life, the necessary coexistence of which Lawrence expresses through the image of the axel and wheel—one of the most memorable in the Study: “the male seethes and whirls in incredible speed upon the female, where the two are one, as axle and wheel are one, and the motion travels out to infinity.”[15] A metaphor of unification and symbiosis, this image nonetheless involves a certain degree of separation (no “blending” here), and this idea of simultaneous unity and personal independence anticipates Birkin’s descriptions of marriage in Women in Love and The Rainbow. His description of the joy of kissing, in fact, will reappear in very similar terms in the novel: “I feel joy when I kiss, because it is not me, but rather one of the bounds or limits where I end…”[16]

Onto this fundamental antithesis, Lawrence grafts a number of others, always insisting on the coexistence of both sides of the opposition. He suggests that civilizations tend to show the dominance of one side or the other—an analytical method that anticipates Yeats’s A Vision; in fact, Lawrence identifies the male and female principles at one point with centrifugal and centripetal force.[17] Further correspondences of male and female include: Christ and God the Father, motion and stability, the architectural column and arch (thus anticipating the cathedral imagery in The Rainbow), Renaissance and medieval spirituality, and the body and the spirit.[18]

Chapter 9, entitled “A nos moutons” (a French expression meaning something like, “to the matter at hand”) gives a sense of what the Study would have been like if it had remained the “interpretive essay on Thomas Hardy” commissioned by Nisbet and Co.[19] It consists of readings of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that seem to me to be of less importance for understanding Lawrence’s development than the earlier discussions. He devotes the most space to Jude, and refers the novel’s tragedy back to the distinctions he has drawn so far. Students of Hardy will find much of his interpretation here insightful, although Lawrence is remarkably willing to “re-write” Hardy, as Worthen puts it.[20] This often means treating the novels’ characters as if they were real people whom the author had misinterpreted (he accuses Hardy of exaggerating Arabella’s coarseness, for example).[21]

The final discussion of Hardy touches on one concern that does seem relevant to the very philosophical novels that follow the Study: Lawrence meditates on the degree to which a work of art should be dominated by the author’s “metaphysic,” or “theory of being and knowing.”[22] He concludes, “The adherence to a metaphysic does not necessarily give artistic form. Indeed the overstrong adherence to a metaphysic usually destroys any possibility of form.”[23] Lawrence seems to be skirting this pitfall by embedding his own theory of being in a study of Hardy.


  1. ↑ Bruce Steele, “Introduction,” Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), p. xxxvi.
  2. ↑ Steele, “Introduction,” xxvii.
  3. ↑ D.H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), p. 13.
  4. ↑ John Worthen, D. H. Lawrence and the Idea of the Novel (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979), p. 56.
  5. ↑ D.H. Lawrence, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. 2. ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 212.
  6. ↑ Study, pp. 16, 17.
  7. ↑ Study, p. 21.
  8. ↑ Study, p. 46.
  9. ↑ Study, p. 158.
  10. ↑ Study, p. 28.
  11. ↑ Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed., trans. R. W. Flint (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), p. 87.
  12. ↑ Letters, p. 182.
  13. ↑ Study, pp. 33, 75.
  14. ↑ Study, p. 53.
  15. ↑ Study, p. 54.
  16. ↑ Study, p. 42.
  17. ↑ Study, p. 67.
  18. ↑ Study, pp. 69, 72, 77, 77.
  19. ↑ Letters, p. 193.
  20. ↑ Letters, p. 57.
  21. ↑ Study, p. 106.
  22. ↑ Study, p. 91.
  23. ↑ Study, p. 90.