“If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.” — Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942 [10]


Existentialism, which has a much longer history than the modern existentialist thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, derives from the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Although we can hardly call Hardy an existentialist writer in the narrow meaning of the term applied to a group of writers after World War II, we can clearly find in his fiction a number of affinities with this conception of human life.

An existentialist outlook

Existentialism, a term applied to philosophical, religious, and artistic attitudes after World War II, first appeared in the writings of the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who initiated existentialism in modern philosophy. Kierkegaard emphasized human alienation — our feelings of separation from, and discontent with, society and our feelings of powerlessness in the face of indifferent and dehumanised social institutions. For him human beings find themselves in 'existential situations' when they have to make personal choices. Kierkegaard's writings reveal

a distrust of abstract dogma and a correlative emphasis upon the particular case or concrete example; an acute and imaginative concern with the forms under which human character and motivation may manifest themselves; and a passionate belief in the value of individual choice and judgment as contrasted with tame acquiescence in established opinions and norms. [Drabble 555].

Another source of twentieth-century existentialism appears in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose often-misinterpreted philosophy exerted a profound influence of modern thought. Nietzsche, who repudiated the Judeo-Christian tradition, rejected all religion, morality, values, and modern culture. Consequently, he held that human existence has no ultimate meaning. When Nietzsche infamously announced 'the death of God', he thereby also proclaimed that loss of traditional authority, stable moral absolutes, and norms and values. In other words, he asserted that there are no absolute truths, no inherent purpose of the universe, and no absolute morality, which led Sartre to infer that “When we speak of forlornness, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this” (129).

Hardy's existential perspective

Hardy viewed man primarily from the existential, if not existentialist point of view. The unifying element in Hardy's existential perspective was his preoccupation with human existence in metaphysical terms. For both Hardy and existentialists man is thrown into the world by chance. Hardy's pessimistic ideas in his major novels foreshadowed existentialism in modern literature, although he was probably not acquainted directly with the work of Kierkegaard, and he opposed Nietzsche's ideas. As Lennart A. Björk points out, “whereas Hardy may have felt some interest in Nietzsche's criticism of Christianity and views on tragedy and aesthetics, his overall attitude to the German philosopher was negative” (297).

Although Hardy disliked Nietzsche's philosophy, limited affinities with Nietzschean ideas do appear in Hardy's poetry (Williamson 403). For example, Hardy's poem “God's Funeral” (1908-1910) obviously alludes to Nietzsche's famous phrase, 'God is dead'. For Hardy, man exists alone in a universe that is neither malevolent or benevolent but simply indifferent to him.

Hardy referred to Nietzsche six times in his notebooks from about 1898 to 1914, and he also mentioned him in his letters (Williamson 403, 407). He agreed with Nietzsche's attacks on religious hypocrisy, but he rejected one of Nietzsche's key concepts, that the will to power was the main driving force in human beings. Another major difference between Hardy and Nietzsche lay in his understanding of compassion for all suffering people and other living creatures. “For Hardy human compassion was the only recourse from insentient or malign natural forces; for Nietzsche it was an element of slave morality” (Williamson 410).

All of Hardy’s novels function as parables about unfulfilled human aspirations. Like existentialist heroes, Hardy's characters try (in vain) to escape from determinism to personal freedom. In The Return of the Native, Eustacia tries to escape from the country, the wasteland of Egdon Heath, to sparkling Paris. In contrast, Clym tries to escape from an oppressive and dehumanised Paris to primeval Egdon Heath. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard tries to escape from an unsatisfying marriage. Tess, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, tries to save her dignity and escapes from the humiliating relationship with abhorent and amoral Alec. Jude and Sue, in Jude the Obscure, try to escape from the dehumanised public morality. But, as John Alcorn observed, “Hardy's roads which his characters hope will lead them to freedom ultimately become labyrinths” (19).

In his novels Hardy promulgated ideas which stood in strong opposition to the accepted values of the Victorian era. Almost all the prominent themes in existentialist literature are present in Hardy's fiction. The characteristic affinities between Hardy's philosophical outlook and existentialism can be summed up by the following statements:

1. Individuals live in a hostile and incomprehensible world and are alienated from their human and natural surrounding.

2. They feel a sense of hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety and lack of direction.

3. They experience such existential anxieties as unfulfilled love, fear and concern about death.

4. They search for meaning in life.

5. These individuals are free to choose how they will respond to the painful existence.

6. They feel responsible for their actions.

7. The prospect of death without the hope of transcendence (or of resurrection) reveals that man's existence is meaningless and ephemeral.

8. The indifference of the universe is the cause of man's alienation in a world devoid of meaning.

9. It is only through love that people can achieve fulfillment, however brief.

The search for the meaning of life was for Hardy, like for the existentialists, the search for self, its final outcome being self-awareness. There is enough evidence in his fiction to claim that Hardy believed that personal freedom exists in self-awareness. The more we are aware of our human situation the more we are free. As man becomes more free, the deeper becomes his awareness of limitations imposed by the external world. These limitations result from contradicting and conflicting aspirations of different aspects of the world. Hardy gave the following interpretation of one of the fundamental dilemmas of existentialism, free will versus necessity or determinism, in a letter to Edward Wright, later reprinted in his autobiography, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1892-1928):

The will of a man is [...] neither wholly free or wholly unfree. When swayed by the Universal Will (which he mostly must be as a subservient part of it), he is not individually free; but whenever it happens that all the rest of the Great Will is in equilibrium the minute portion called one person's will is free, just as a performer's fingers are free to go on playing the pianoforte of themselves when he talks or thinks of something else and the head does not rule them. [125]

This elaborate musical metaphor conveys Hardy's belief that although human beings exist as insignificant tiny atoms in a vast, indifferent universe, they nonetheless can occasionally achieve personal freedom. However insignificant such freedom might be in the context of the entire universe, it has great significance for the individual.


By the end of the nineteenth century English fiction challenged the moral and psychological assumptions on which the Victorian novel had rested. Thomas Hardy, along with Joseph Conrad, contributed significantly to the development of modern existentialist sensibility in fiction. He depicted the entrapments of the individual in an uncaring world with a pessimism similar to that of Conrad. Hardy's concern for the human predicament and existential dilemmas influenced many writers of the twentieth century, including D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, John Fowles, and others.

References and Further Reading

Alcorn, John. The Nature Novel From Hardy to Lawrence. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1935-1942. Translated from the French, and with a preface and notes by Philip Thody. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Casagrande, Peter, Jr. Hardy's Influence on the Modern Novel. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1987.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Sixth edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gensler, Harry J., Earl W. Spurgin, and James Swindal, eds. Ethics: Contemporary Readings. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Hardy, Florence. The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

Morrell, Roy, Thomas Hardy: The Will and the Way. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya, 1965.

Patil, Mallikarjun. Thomas Hardy's Poetry and Existentialism. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 1999.

Williamson, Eugene. “Thomas Hardy and Friedrich Nietzsche,” Comparative Literature Studies, 15(4) 1978, 403-413.

Last modified 6 September 2014