Challenges to established religious belief

The growth of doubt

Victorian England was a very religious society and people generally believed Christianity to be true. However, towards the end of the century, a number of people became agnostics (doubters) and a few even became atheists (those from the educated classes were particularly prominent).

Reasons for this were:

  • Growing acceptance of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Thomas Huxley's Essays argued that this disproved the Bible, and he saw religion and science as being in conflict
  • Geological discoveries (often made by Christian ministers), which indicated that the world was much older than the literal interpretation of the Bible's dates suggested
  • New liberal theological ideas, mainly from Germany, which challenged traditional beliefs about the Bible and Jesus Christ. They saw both in humanist terms, rather than supernatural
  • The growth of philosophical ideas which viewed the world as being controlled by impersonal forces or by no force at all.

Faith and literature

Hardy's position

Hardy himself started as a Christian believer but became an agnostic. However, he still used the Bible, which he knew very well, as a source for references and allusions. He often seemed to regret the loss of his earlier faith, especially in his poems.

Hardy came into contact with a whole range of philosophical ideas, especially when he went to London. Some were from his reading of literature, especially the Romantic poets. Others were from science and philosophy.

Other authors

Not everyone shared Hardy's attitude. For example:

  • Hardy's older contemporary, Charles Kingsley, was a keen scientist, historian and social reformer, but was also a quite high-ranking clergyman
  • The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins became a Catholic priest
  • On the other hand, one of Hardy's close acquaintances, Edmund Gosse, a literary critic, documented his own loss of faith in Father and Son. Gosse's father was a scientist and a staunch Christian, but Edmund could not accept the way his father tried to reconcile his profession and his beliefs.
  • Other writers, such as Matthew Arnold and George Eliot, found themselves, often very reluctantly, in a similar position to Hardy: following the same path into doubt. Arnold's poem, Dover Beach illustrates their sense of loss.

An alternative belief framework

Hardy does not spell out an alternative philosophic system to Christianity. However, in his long poem about the Napoleonic wars, The Dynasts, he frequently makes philosophical comments, often mentioning ideas of Fate and Destiny. He does this, too, in Tess, but to a lesser extent.

Some scholars have tried to piece together a system from these comments. But Hardy himself only calls his comments ‘impressions'. One of the problems some readers have is that these comments do not always seem to match the themes or the plots of his stories. They can even seem to contradict them.

More on Hardy's beliefs:  To get a clearer idea of one aspect of Hardy's philosophy, see - Determinism and free will

Hardy's pessimism

Hardy is seen as a pessimistic writer, even though as a person he could be quite sociable, cheerful, and even ambitious. As his literary career progressed his novels and poems became increasingly tragic. Was this to do with his loss of faith or his fatalistic philosophy?

  • His beliefs suggest people want happiness, yet the universe appears structured to disappoint these hopes
  • However, this pessimism could just as easily be seen as coming from his sensitivity to people's suffering as from any set of beliefs about a blind and uncaring force of destiny
  • It has also been seen as something he inherited from his country roots. It is suggested many country people are fatalistic and appear to focus on what could go wrong. On the other hand, the country folk of Hardy's day were still very religious.

What is interesting is that, whilst Hardy and some other writers were often quite pessimistic, other people at the time were very optimistic. The growing power of the British Empire, a history of industrial pre-eminence and a belief in evolution and science helped in part to create this national mood.


  • Are you aware of Hardy making philosophical comments through the novel?
    • If you are, do they help you understand the story?
  • Would you say that the novel is unsympathetic to the church or to Christianity?
    • If so, in what ways?
  • Think about Alec and Angel: both seem to have abandoned Christian beliefs
    • Does this make them better people?
  • Does Tess seem to have any religious or spiritual beliefs?
    • If so, can you think of any specific examples?
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