Humour: Defined and Explained
Humour may be defined as the kindly, amused contemplation of the incongruities of life, and their expression in literature. Hardy was not a humorist in any profound sense. His mind was not humorously built; humour did not enter into the substance of his thought. Therefore, one would not expect any humour in the Wessex novels, but it is there alright. As has been well said, "while passing through the gloomy regions of Hardy, we do reach some sunlit patches."
Evolution of His Humour: Rustic Humour
It may be mentioned in the very begining that practically all the humour, humour which is worth mentoning and preserving, that we get in the Wessex novels, is rustic humour. "The profoundest of Hardy's humour is to be found in those scenes in which the rustics exercise their chorus-function." Their remarks are not only replete with rustic wisdom but also with rustic humour. And the quality of this rustic humour grew richer and finer as the novels went on and the novelist acquired increasing mastery over his craft. The ground-work of his simple, genial humour was laid in Under the Green-Wood Tree, it is much richer and finer in Far from the Madding Crowd, and it reaches near perfection by the time of the' Return of the Native. Tess of the D'urbervilles and Jude the Obscure are deficient in this humour; there is no rustic chorus and so the intensity of tragic gloom is not relieved by any mirth-provoking and amusing remarks of these sons of the soil.
His Humour: Realistic and Verbal
Hardy's humour is realistic; it has been caught up with joy from the lips of the rustics themselves. It is pure unadulterated essence of the humour of the English peasantry of the 19th century. There might be a little, "selection and ordering of material", here and there, in keeping with Hardy's artistic ideals, but its essence remains the same. Besides this, Hardy's humour is verbal. It depends on its effects on the particular words used. The rustic chorus does not act : it is content to comment in a leisurely manner on all that goes around. Hardy listens to their comments and records what they say. Humour arises from their grotesqueries and from the words in which they express themselves. Couched in a different language, their observations would not strike us as humorous at all.
Hardy's Rustics: Grotesque and Funny
Humour results from an observation of the incongruities of life. Incongruity may be explained as the discrepancy between what is and what should be. Its essence is contrast. When any thing in thought, feeling, word or action, falls below the normal or expected level, humour arises. The comic characters of Shakespeare, his Toby Belchs and Sir Andrews, his Falstaff and Touchstones and Launcelots, are perenially funny, for their level of intelligence is much below the normal level. What they do and say appears to us as amusing only because it is in sharp contrast with that we think to be right and proper. And it is for this very reason that Hardy's rustics are so very funny. They are ridiculous; they are grotesque. They are funny in themselves and objects of great mirth for others. Their native credulity, their eccentricities, their simplicity, their backwardness and ignorance, their folly and frivolity, all make them objects of laughter in the Wessex novels. We laugh at butts of village life, old garrulous grand-fathers, henpecked husbands, superstitious fools, and timid, ludicrous simpletons. A few examples would serve to bring out clearly the quality and sources of Hardy's humour.
Their Folly and Eccentricity
rustics are grotesque, ludicrous, laughter-provoking in their ignorance and simplicity. They oil their boots instead of blacking them, and they dust their coats with a switch instead of brushing them. They hide their money in their boots. There is' the timid Thomas Leaf of the ghastly look, who, "never had no head," but who knew a moment of passing glory when he was allowed to tell his tale of how ten pounds became thousand (Under the Greenwood Tree). In A Pair of Blue Eyes, we get an extremely ludicrous, and so extremely amusing, account of pigs, some deaf and melancholy, others insane and rheumatic. In the Far From the Madding Crowd, there is the fearful Joseph Poorgrass of the "multiplying eye" with his blushes and with 'sir' said in reply to the hooting of an owl. There is also the aged malster, whose age added up to one hundred and seventeen. Indeed, the whole malt-house scene is crammed with humour. Wessex
The Fusion of Humour and Pathos
Hardy's humour grows finer by the time of the Return of the Native. It now mingles with pathos. There is Grandfer Cantle, a new figure, with his juvenility and his bounce. His reminiscences of his old glory, of the day when he was a soldier, "when he was afraid of nothing except Boney", are funny as well as pathetic. Then there is Christian, his son, who is as much an object of laughter as of pity. He cannot sleep at night for fear of ghosts, and alas ! the poor fellow can get no wife to sit up with him, for no woman would ever marry him as he was born when there was no moon : No moon, no man." He is ridiculous; he is pathetic. And equally pathetic and ridiculous is the episode of Charley and Eustacia's hand. In such instances —not in The Return of the Native alone, but also present here and there in his earlier masterpieces — Hardy's humour attains true Shakespearean heights.
Matrimony, Love and Woman as Objects of Humour
These sons of the soil have a keen eye for the funny side of matrimony love and woman. There is the comment, for example, of Christopher Cone; on the marriage of Henchard and Susan : "It is forty-five yean since I had my settlement in this here town," said Coney, "but daze me if ever I see a man wait so long before to lake so little. There is a chance even for thee, after this, Nance Mockridge."
Obviously, the fling is at poor Susan, lean and thin, and ghastly. Similarly funny are the remarks of the frequenters of the mallhouse from whom farmer Oak wanted to extract some information regarding Bathsheba. They do not tell him anything about his new mistress, but quite a lot about the love of her father for her mother :
"Used to kiss her in scores and long hundreds, so it was told here and there", observed Coggan.
"He was very proud of her, too, when they were married, as I have been told", said the Malster.
"Ay", said Coggan, "He admired her so much that he used to light the candle three times a night to look at her."
Humour Arising from Rustic Inaction
In these instances the humour arises from their comments: at other times it arises from their inaction : the chorus group does not act even at moments of crisis when prompt action is the urgent need of the hour. For instance, when Bathsheba's sheep are in trouble through eating poisonous weeds, the chorus stands round Bathsheba, "with oriental indifference to the flight of time." They reply disinterestedly to her frantic questions, point out the desirability of calling Oak, but not a soul stirs, to call him. Similarly, they gather round Boldwood's house, discuss at leisure the fact that Troy has been seen alive, but take no action at all. Humour in these instances arises from a contrast between their leisurely inaction and the urgent need for prompt action.
Nor does Hardy lack grim humour. Sometimes, we find him "Jesting in the court of death" in the manner of Shakespeare. The classical example is that of Christopher Coney, who digs out the four pence buried with poor Susan, for, says he, "Why should death rob life of four pence ? Death is not of such good report that we should respect it to that extent". And Solomon Long ways agrees with him and says, "Money is scare and throats get dry. Why should death rob life of four pence ? I say there was no treason in it." Commenting on this Duffin remarks, "It is rustic philosophy combined of covetousness and mother-wit'
There is another kind of humour also that we get in the Wessex novels, i.e., humour arising from Hardy's observation of the doings of animals. Animals are the perennial children in the family of nature, and Hardy's eyes take on a merry twinkle when they fall upon them, as do those of the grown-ups at the follies of their children. The classic example of such animal humour occurs in Far From the Madding Crowd, where we get an amusing analysis of doggy-motives. The young sheep-dog of Gabriel, learning the sheep-keeping husiness, is, under the impression that since he is kept for running after sheep the more he runs after the better." The result of his energy is disastrous and Hardy remarks humorously : "George's son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, in fact, taken out and tragically shot .......", and in this way he shared the fate of, "philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion'.
Alas ! poor sheep-dog ! He is as much a victim of the irony of life as man himself.
Thus Hardy's humour — mainly rustic —is kindly and genial. Its purpose is merely to amuse and entertain the readers. It is never satiric, for Hardy was not a moralist and his aim was not corrective. As Compton-Rickett remarks, Hardy, "is too much of a realist to take pleasure in caricature; too little of the moralist to make effective use of satire."
Thus humour runs like an under-current through the Wessex novels and does much to brighten their sombre atmosphere. It provides the much needed comic relief, but does not come in the way of the tragic effects the artist wants to create.