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This study of the influence of Charles Darwin on Thomas Hardy's tragic novels centers on two key concepts in the work of Darwin. The first is Darwin's narrative of the evolution of morality, which describes moral decisions as a struggle for survival between various instincts, habits, and customs, both within the individual and within society as a whole. Of particular importance is the role of reason and sympathy in overcoming base and selfish instincts. The second is the idea, introduced in Origin, that the work of scientific breeders represents an act of Conscious Selection, a separate form of evolution in which human ingenuity deliberately changes the course of Natural Selection to create new varieties and species.
Applying these ideas to Return of the Native, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, I argue that all three novels essentially follow the same Darwinian arc: an individual who demonstrates the next stage in intellectual and emotional development required for the advancement of morality is introduced into an unsympathetic society. The conflict of the novels proceeds from the struggles, both within the individual and between the individual and the larger society, for the survival of those traits. The tragic outcomes of the novels are rooted in the fact that Hardy places those new traits in opposition to more traditional instincts and customs, driving them to extinction either through the death of the protagonist or through an atavistic return to more traditional values on the part of the protagonist. These tragic endings are meant to engage the sympathies of the reader while also appealing to their reason through the dissection of those internal and external forces that overcome the protagonists’ new views. In this way, Hardy applies the principles outlined in Origin and Descent to a project of moral husbandry first suggested by Darwin.
Advisor: Linda Ray Pratt