Can pessimistic novelists change the way they write? Thomas Hardy was one whose work seems to say “no”. Shortly before starting work on The Return of the Native, Hardy wrote down in his notebook a quote from the the poet-critic Theodore Watts:
“Science tells us that, in the struggle for life, the surviving organism is not necessarily that which is absolutely the best in an ideal sense, though it must be that which is most in harmony with surrounding conditions.”
Hardy lived according to these ideas. He himself was a committed atheist, and yet he persisted in attending church his entire life. His marriage was widely regarded as a failure, but he made no moves for a divorce. And from 1878 onwards (when The Return of the Native was published) his work reflects this stalemate: most of the ‘best’ characters in his novels meet unpleasant ends – largely because they are unable to break out of social conventions, financial woe or other difficulties.
The British novelist Tim Parks, writing in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, argues that while great writers can change their outlook, most don’t. Hardy’s struggles, says Parks, are clear evidence that “Most of our finest narratives, films as well as novels, however formally innovative and politically anti-establishment, are actually conservative, even inhibiting, in their consequences and implications”.