There is this book I read when I was eight or so about a couple of boys who change the course of a stream, and the consequences of their action. I didn’t know it then, but the writer was Thomas Hardy, and one has to be much older than that to understand the moral implications of such an action. “Our Exploits at West Poley,” it’s called, and “The Man who has Failed” is an interesting character in the same.
“We’ve done more good than harm, that I’ll maintain. The miller is the only man seriously upset, and he’s not a man to deserve consideration. It has been the means of freeing poor Job, which is another good thing. Then, the people in East Poley that we’ve made happy are two hundred and fifty, and there are only a hundred in this parish, even if all of ’em are made miserable.”
I returned some reply, though the state of affairs was, in truth, one rather suited to the genius of Jeremy Bentham than to me. But the problem in utilitarian philosophy was shelved by Steve exclaiming, “I have it! I see how to get some real glory out of this!”
“The man is a rascal,” said Steve. “I perceive that it is next to impossible, in this world, to do good to one set of folks without doing harm to another.”
“Since we have not done all good to these people of East Poley,” said I, “there is a reason for restoring the river to its old course through West Poley.”
“But then,” said Steve, “if we turn back the stream, we shall be starting Miller Griffin’s mill; and then, by the terms of his ‘prenticeship, poor Job will have to go back to him and be beaten again! It takes good brains no less than a good heart to do what’s right towards all.”
The Man who had Failed looked grave.
“Is it serious?” I asked him.
“It may be,” said he, in that poetico-philosophic strain which, under more favouring circumstances, might have led him on to the intellectual eminence of a Coleridge or an Emerson. “Your cousin, like all such natures, is rushing into another extreme, that may be worse than the first. The opposite of error is error still; from careless adventuring at other people’s expense he may have flown to rash self-sacrifice. He contemplates some violent remedy, I make no doubt….”
This story has a strange publication history and some of the reasons for the same might include-
Perhaps, too, Hardy’s inability to simplify moral issues even in a children’s story met with editorial disfavour, for the boys discover that there is no unambiguous formula for right behaviour, ‘good brains’ being as necessary as ‘a good heart’ in a world where ‘it is next to impossible … to do good to one set of folks without doing harm to another’.
In attempting to write for those whom he described as ‘intelligent youth of both sexes’, ‘young people who are more than children, yet not quite mature’, Hardy perhaps judged them by memories of himself at their age, over-estimating their intellectual interests. It is unlikely that many young teenagers, especially in the United States, would have appreciated the references to Carlyle and Bentham, still less the classical allusions and playful use of schoolboy Latin.