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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: May 2020

Chapter 4 - Darwin’s Little Ironies

Summary

Analysing the fiction of Thomas Hardy, Chapter 4 considers Hardy’s depictions of deception, concealment and misleading appearances among humans alongside his interest in adaptive appearance. This interest clashed with Hardy’s channelling of the pastoral, which characterised the natural world and rural life by honesty and transparency. Critics have noted that Hardy’s fiction problematizes the ethics of honesty. It is argued here that the logic of adaptive appearance energised this tendency as characters’ fates depend on chance misperceptions and ambiguous appearances. This sense of Darwinian contingency complicates characters’ moral agency by suggesting that many of their acts, which have the effect of deceiving, are unconscious. Apparently purposeful behaviours blur with the more mechanised displays of natural and sexual selection. Through his evolutionary vision, Hardy sometimes reframes honesty and dishonesty as outgrowths of opposing primitive instincts toward altruism and egoism. However, this utilitarian framework also rendered deception morally ambiguous, allowing for the possibility of noble deceptions that would spare others pain. Hardy’s fiction further biologized deception by depicting physical bodies that hid or falsified their owners’ identities. Random variations and chance resemblances cause characters to interpret erroneous ancestral histories in each other, sometimes with disastrous consequences.