The Three Categories of Hardy's Characters
Hardy's characters may be divided into three groups or classes on the basis of their significance in the main action of a novel:
(1) First of all, there are the protagonists (hero and heroine) of the novel, who play a leading role in its action. As a matter of fact the action is chiefly concerned with their destiny.
(2) Secondly, there are characters of a secondary importance who are in contact with the chief figures and derive interest and significance from such contact. They play only a subordinate part in the development of action.
(3) Thirdly, there are the minor rustic characters who do not have much significance as far as the main action is concerned. They arc the rustic lookers on. They arc also called the, 'chorus group' or the, "philosophical party", on the basis of their function.
The Rustics: Representative Nature
These rural folks of Hardy are drawn from every walk of Wessex-life. They are shepherds, farm labourers, wood-cutters, fruze-cutters, domestic servants or those serving in some inn, dairy-hands, etc. In short, they represent every occupation of Wessex. In the Return of the Native, we have grandfather Cantle, Christian, Charley, Susan Nunsuch, Johnny Nunsuch, Oily Dowden, etc. In Far From the Madding Crowd, there is the grandest of this chorus group, Smallbury, Jacob, William, his son, Joseph Poorgrass, Jan Coggon, Mathcw Moon, etc. In the Mayor of Casterbridgc, there arc Solomon Longways, Christopher Coney, Buzzford, Able Whittel, Mother Cuxsom, Nance Mockridge, etc. Such a "rustic-group" is present in almost all the Wessex novels. Tess' of the D'urbemilles and Jude the Obscure arc the only exceptions and they lose much of their charm as a consequence.
They Impart Realism
These rustic characters are not full length portraits, but they are realistically drawn. As C. Duflln puts it, "their collective function precludes all individual realism." As they appear always in a group, they have neither been individualised nor drawn at length. They arc drawn in a convention different from the one used for the main characters. They remind us of the minor characters of Shakespeare, Sir Toby Betch, Sir Andrew, Maria, Feste, etc. they stand for real, Wessex country folk. photographer gives only an outside view of a person, though that view is accurate. Hardy also, in the case of these characters, presents only an outside, surface view and makes no attempts at diving deep into their souls or developing them at full length. It is only rarely that they are individualised. The episode of Charley and Eustacia's hand in the Return of the Native readily comes to mind in this connection. Jan Coggan, too, in Far From the Madding Crowd', plays a man's' part, though only for a moment, with Gabriel Oak.
Ignorant and Superstitious
Generally speaking, these minor characters are all ignorant, illiterate, orthodox and superstitious. They believe in ghosts and witches and black magic. Christian believes in the superstition, "no moon, no man", and is terribly afraid of ghosts. Belief in conjurers and forecasters is wide-spread. Susan-Nunsuch is a superstitious woman who regards Eustacia as a witch and burns her wax effigy. They oil their boots instead of blacking them and they dust their coats with a switch instead of with a brush. It is to improve these ignorant and superstitious people that Clym returns to Egdon Heath and becomes a schoolmaster. Although these rustics are realistically portrayed from real Wessex people, "there is thrown over them a veil of romantic glamour." C. Duffin rightly remarks, "They are in a degree idealised, the faintest atmosphere of poetry laps them round." They are divested to a great extent, "of that grossness and vulgarity which is seldom absent from rusticity in real life."
Depositaries of Customs and Superstitions
These country-folk of Hardy are permeated through and through with Wessex spirit and traditions. They are eternal like the woods and the dales which they inhabit. Man many come and man may go, but, like mankind, they go on for ever and ever. "We may in them read the spiritual history of a countryside : Feudalism and Catholicism and Protestantism, law and education and tradition, changes in agriculture and commerce, in traffic, society and living, all have worked and wrought upon these people." As Baker puts it, "They are as eternal as the woods and fields and heaths; whereas the different lovers, the weak or faithless women, the anguished victims of despair, are symbols of a present phase of disturbance, restlessness and maladjustment." They are the sole depositories of ancient customs and traditions. It is because of them that ancient festivities and celebrations, like the mumming at Mrs. Yeobright's house, the gipsying at Aldersworth, the Maypole dancing, the ceremonial bonfires, the various wedding customs and festivities, etc., continue from generation to generation. They may be ignorant, but they are also innocent and jolly. They drink and gossip, sing and dance and help each other in trouble.
Their Speech: Local Dialect
It is to emphasise their realism that they are made to speak in dialect. They speak the very language used by the rustics of Wessex. This shows them to be truly and completely as rustics. In this way, Hardy achieved not only a realistic presentation of Wessex life, but also created a sense of their aloofness from common civilised society and a sense of their nearness to nature, so necessary for the performance of their chorus-like function. In this way, they appear to be the emanations of the surrounding hills and dales, woods and heaths, and entirely different from the other characters. However, the dialect which they use is subjected to the same process of "selection and ordering of material" as is the key-note of Hardy's art. Their speech is free from much of the grossness and vulgarity which characterises real rustic speech.
It may also be mentioned here that their gestures, their facial expressions, their merry or sardonic visages, are as eloquent as their speech. Every word which they utter is imparted significance and effectiveness by the gesture which accompanies it.
Humour: Dramatic Relief
These rustics have been given an important role in the Wessex novels. The most important function which they perform is to provide dramatic relief. Whatever humour we get in Hardy's novels is provided by these rustics. Like the minor characters of Shakespeare, they, too, are funny in themselves and objects of great amusement for others. Grandfather Cantle, old and jolly with a reputation of being a fool, Christian, who is 'no man', for he was born when there was "no moon", Joseph Poorgrass who once said 'sir' to an owl, etc., are all perenially funny. These country-folk do much with their racy comments and comic actions to add cheer and sunshine to otherwise dark and gloomy atmosphere of Hardy's novels. Tess, otherwise a masterpiece, is deficient in rustic humour and so grows rather tedious and boring at places,
Their Chorus-like Function
The role of the minor characters is, in certain respects, very much like that of a chorus in a Greek Tragedy. Like the chorus, they, too, always appear in groups. They are observers, but deeply interested observers, of all that goes on around them. They pass shrewd comments on character and action; they are aids to understanding. They tell of many things that have happened off the stage, but the knowledge of which is necessary for a proper understanding of the story. By their timely remarks they serve to reveal the real significance of all that is taking place, or the real motives of the characters concerned. These were also the functions of a Greek chorus. It is for these reasons that these rustics are also called, "the Chorus group."
Represent the Novelist's Point of View
These rural-folks are also referred to as the "philosophical party", for in their comments they constantly rise from the particular to the general and give wise reflections on life. In their idle gossip, they frequently moralise. One instance of such philosophy, and perhaps the best one, we get in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The Mayor's wife is dead and at her request four pennies are burried with her. One of the rustics, Christopher Conny, digs out the coins and spends them on drink, for says he, "Why should death rob life of four pence ?" The rustics at once see the reason of it and agree that as money is scarce and throats get dry, it would be folly to waste even four pence on death. Often in their philosophic comments, they represent Hardy's own point of view. They often serve as the novelist's mouthpieces.
Represent the Norm
The rural-folk represent the norm, the commonsense point of view by which things are to he judged. When the main protagonists are carried off their feet by, the passions of the moment, these rustics, of the earth, earthy, keep their feet firmly planted, and judge things by normal human standards. They stand for sanity and normal healthy life. Excess of sentiment or passion always get adverse comments from them.
Further the Main Action
Not only that, sometimes they do actually help in the development of action. In the Return of the Native, the burning of their bonfires helps the meeting of Wildieve and Eustacia, and their 'mumming', brings together Eustacia and Clym. It is Jonny Nunsuch who informs Clym of the visit of his mother to his cottage and of the real facts about her death, and in this way hastens the final catastrophe. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the "Skimmity ride" causes the death of Lucetta and has far reaching repercussions.
Hardy's rural-folk, though not drawn at full length and not individualised, are, 'like similar characters of Shakespeare, among the immortals of literature. In the Wessex novels, they form the human background against which the drama of elemental passions is enacted. They are (a) The representatives of Wessex life, (b) The depositories of its customs and traditions, (c) Provide humour, (d) Comment on character and action, (e) Provide useful information, (f) Give expression to the philosophy of the novelist, and (g) Often play a direct role in the action of the novel and contribute to its development.