Hardy and the law

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Hardy’s interest in the law is well known. He dined with the judiciary, took a keen interest in the human stories manifesting in the courtroom and served as a magistrate himself. Legal characters appear throughout his work and legal themes are extensive. Though Hardy often demonstrates what William Davis describes as a “justice plot’ in the greater narrative fabric, the role of the law in the delivery of formal justice is frequently arbitrary. As a Magistrate, Hardy must have had occasion to deliver a “fair’ judgement and sentence; as a human being and novelist however, he was alive to the injustices of class, education and chance frequently creating terrible inequalities endorsed by the law. “Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can’t get out of it if we would!’ says Phillotson in Jude the Obscure (Jude: V.8), and this harsh reality is reflected again and again in the novels, echoing Hardy’s frequent intimation of the apparently malevolent “play’ between the laws of man and the laws of nature. Where Hardy might have been tempted to use the law, like Dickens, as an illustration or source of social injustice, he instead works it into the fabric of lives lived subject to the play of more powerful human forces. Though the legal motifs in his work are often far from minor, Hardy tends to situate them in terms of their primary genesis, as instances of social and human catastrophe in the relentless interplay between character, agency and fate befalling his human creatures. Thus The Mayor of Casterbridge, though dealing with transposed identities and wife-sales – topics clearly capable of interesting jurisprudential treatment – is recognised essentially as a tragedy of power, flawed character and custom. The terrible concatenation of events leading to the murder in Far from the Madding Crowd is focussed more upon the notion of spiritual growth: of Bathsheba learning that her power over men can have untold consequences, and that quiet loyalty is deeper than status, wealth or dashing shows of gallantry.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThomas Hardy in Context
EditorsPhillip Mallett
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781139048095
ISBN (Print)9780521196482
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2010

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