Thomas Hardy and Treatment of Animals

In the last few weeks, there has been some debate in Norway about our wildlife management, particularly with regard to our predators. Norway has four main groups of predators: wolf, lynx, bear, and wolverine. Of these four, particularly the wolf and lynx often spark debate, mostly because, despite being highly endangered species, hunting and killing them is, under certain circumstances, legal. At the moment, there are only about 350 lynxes, or 60.5 family groups, living in Norway. The last three years, the lynx population has been below the goal of having at least 65 family groups, primarily due to legal hunting; a certain quota of lynces can be killed each year, supposedly to keep their numbers down and livestock (sheep) safe. Although hunting wolves is illegal, a hunting permit can easily be gained if a wolf has breached its territory and, again, is seen as a threat to livestock. As with the lynx, the population goal for the wolf was not reached last year: Norway aims at having at least three litters of wolves each year, but last year we only had two. In comparison, Sweden had 39.

© WWF-Cannon Fritz Pölking
© WWF-Cannon Fritz Pölking

These animals are not only immensely important in order to uphold the ecosystem and biodiversity of our country and planet. As the Victorian author Thomas Hardy would probably tell us, their lives also have their own intrinsic value. Indeed, the views of Hardy, much influenced by contemporary scientific debates and developments, may help illuminate the topic of animal treatment further. Thomas Hardy was particularly interested in theories of evolution, and he was a big fan of Charles Darwin. In two of his novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy interstingly appears to connect his impressions of evolutionary theories with ideas of sympathy and morality through his protagonists’ treatment of animals.

Tess Durbeyfield and the two main characters of Jude the Obscure, Jude and Sue, are all shown to have a remarkable sympathy for animals, unlike people around them. Being forced by necessity to sleep outdoors one night, Tess wakes up to find herself surrounded by a number of wounded pheasants. Their wounds have been inflicted on them by a shooting party, by men who, as the narrator remarks, had ‘made it their purpose to destroy life […] at once so unmannerly and so unchivalrous towards their weaker fellows in Nature’s teeming family’ (Hardy, Tess 279). Tess, full of fellow feeling towards these animals, mercifully kills them to end their torture. Similarly, Sue feels compelled to rescue her pet pigeons from slaughter after selling them. Jude struggles to find a way in which to slaughter his pig as mercifully as possible, not caring about how it affects the quality of the meat. They are both unable to sleep one night because of the cries of a trapped rabbit, and go out with the intention to end its pain.

Hardy famously derived an ethical understanding from Darwin, which these scenes seem to illustrate. In a letter to the Humanitarian League written several years later, he states that ‘the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of species, is ethical; […] it logically [involves] a readjustment of altruistic morals by enlarging as a necessity of rightness the application of what has been called “The Golden Rule” beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom’ (F. Hardy 349). In Descent of Man, Darwin himself does in fact mention that sympathy is beneficial to the survival of a species. As man evolved, this sympathy would spread and eventually extend to the lower animals. Accordingly, Tess, Jude, and Sue appear to be in a more advanced stage of development due to their sympathetic natures.

Through his protagonists, Hardy expresses the idea that animals are to be sympathised with rather than hunted and hurt by humans, and that this signals a more evolved state of being. Although his ideas may seem obvious or self-evident to us today, it is repeatedly made apparent that the world needs reminding – as in the case of Norway’s treatment of its predators. I do not often talk about politics, but with the issue of preserving Norway’s wildlife, it seems only too logical that rules and attitudes need to change. In order to bring about this change, it may perhaps be beneficial to keep Hardy’s views in mind. At times it seems that human evolution has not come much further since the 1890s.


Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray, 1871. Project Gutenberg. Web. 28 June 2015.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928. London & Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1962. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Ed. Patricia Ingham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Tim Dolin. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.



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