A Tragedy of Two Ambitions by Thomas Hardy, 1888

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by Thomas Hardy, 1888

In addition to 14 novels Thomas Hardy published 4 volumes of short stories. Although the stories do not rise to the epic intensity of his greatest fiction, they are well crafted. Their tendencies are summarized in the titles of the first two collections: Wessex Tales (1888), with emphasis on the regional and the folk tradition; and Life's Little Ironies (1894), with a promise of bizarre but homely coincidence. The stories often sketch out ideas and plots that, without being blueprints for the novels, at least deal with the same material.

"A Tragedy of Two Ambitions," from Wessex Tales, works some of the same ground that Hardy would cover a few years later in Jude the Obscure, and like the novel it also works over some of the material from his own life. Cornelius and Joshua are sons of a millwright, a small tradesman in much the same social position as Hardy's own father, who was a small builder. We first meet them studying the Greek New Testament, the book from which the call of the flesh will distract Jude. The two are training for ordination into the Anglican priesthood, as Hardy himself considered doing in spite of his humble origins. What constantly threatens to undermine their efforts is their drunken father. He wastes the small legacy that would have sent them to Oxford or Cambridge and several times seems likely to upset their careful attempts to achieve ordination by the second-best route via a theological college. In spite of adversity and the absence of a real vocation, the brothers do eventually become Anglican priests, but by then a virtual parricide has blighted their chances of happiness and success.

Joshua and Cornelius have a beloved younger sister, Rosa, whom they have managed, in spite of their poverty, to educate as a lady by sending her to a finishing school in Brussels. They send their increasingly unpresentable father off to Canada with his new gypsy wife. The father returns and threatens to make himself known to Rosa's about-to-be financé, the young squire Albert Fellmer, whose connection will set the seal on the brothers' social ambitions. Hardy manages the story's climax by having the brothers follow their drunk father across the fields toward the house where the young squire is about to propose to Rosa. They try to dissuade him from blighting their hopes by intruding on the occasion, but he is adamant. As he walks ahead of them, they hear him fall into a weir, where he drowns. They do not attempt to rescue him until it is too late. Rosa marries the squire, and the brothers rise in the church, but their efforts, though outwardly successful, seem to bring little satisfaction. At the end Joshua, the elder and the more ambitious of the brothers, even wishes that he had stuck to his father's trade.

The story opens and closes with a reference to Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, and a passage is quoted in Greek at the end of the story and translated by Hardy: "To have endured the cross, despising the shame—there lay greatness!" Cornelius, the less worldly of the brothers, cites the passage to demonstrate the opposition between the brothers' idea of greatness and the spirit of a true Christianity. Instead of enduring and despising the shame, the brothers have had purely worldly ambitions, wanting to be ordained only for the social status and financial reward of being clergymen. Thus, the story is a moral tale typical of a late nineteenth-century view of Christianity. Although Hardy was able to accept many of the ethical doctrines of the church—charity and humility, for example—he was not able to believe the metaphysical doctrines it preached, and he was made anxious by the worldly advantages that accrued to Anglican vicars. As the narrator comments at the beginning, however, the Epistle to the Hebrews is "difficult."

At the end of the story the brothers revisit the site of their father's death. They discover that his stick, which he had cut from a silver poplar and which they had stuck into the mud beside the water, has sprouted and is now in full leaf. This obvious reference to Aaron's rod in the Book of Numbers is puzzling. Aaron is shown to be just and true when God singles out his rod to flower, and it may seem difficult to see how this can apply to the drunken and aggressive old millwright. Two interpretations offer themselves, however. One is simply Hardy's interest in murder stories and in the tradition that the murdered man will somehow make a sign that will incriminate the murderers. The other is that, in fact, Joshua's and Cornelius's father represents something more worthwhile than might at first be supposed. He is, for instance, at least honest and vigorous, able to attract women, even gypsy women, and thus full of life. His sprouting rod may thus take on phallic overtones, as it does in D. H. Lawrence, with the brothers standing condemned as having wasted their lives working away at dead languages in order to qualify themselves to be ministers of a dead religion in which, in the end, even they do not believe. The title of the story seems to hint at something like this interpretations. The tragedy is that of wasted lives, and the story is almost classical in its pattern. Hubris besets the brothers, they attempt to rise too high, and an action of their own prevents them from enjoying the fruits of their efforts.

Readers of Tess of the D'Urbervilles will recognize aspects of Angel Clare's brothers in Joshua and Cornelius, and elsewhere in Hardy there can be found the motif of floating corpses. More significantly, throughout Hardy the matter of social class is of immense importance. In this story it is assigned the place Hardy often seems to want for it: pursued too ruthlessly, class ambition is deadly. Even as an atheist, Hardy evidently thought that a Christian life was preferable to a socially successful one.

—Lance St. John Butler

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A Tragedy of Two Ambitions by Thomas Hardy, 1888

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