Thomas Hardy (June 2, 1840 – January 11, 1928) was a novelist, short story writer, and poet of the naturalist school, who delineated characters struggling against their passions and circumstances. The majority of his work, set mainly in the semi-imaginary county of Wessex, is marked by Hardy's largely pessimistic views on humanity. He saw man as doomed to a tragic fate from which there was no real possibility of escape, views arguably influenced by his own reception as a writer. Hardy was notoriously underappreciated during his life. Like Herman Melville, he began his career as a modestly popular writer of novels, but as he grew older and became more and more daring, his readership (and the critics) quickly turned against him, leaving him bitter and destitute toward the end of his life.
Despite the dark tone of Hardy's oeuvre—or perhaps because of it—he is a remarkably penetrating writer. As a novelist he is comparable to Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, and Henry James in his ability to reveal a whole inner world of thought and desire, through meticulous observation of his characters and their actions.
Although Hardy remains primarily regarded as a novelist, he considered his poetry to be his most substantial contribution to literature. He wrote poetry as a young man, gave it up for fiction (which proved more profitable), and returned to poetry after abandoning novel-writing for good. Hardy's poetry, like his late novels, is remarkably modern. Like that of Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, Hardy's poetry possesses a uniquely modern sensibility while retaining the formal traditions of rhyme and meter characteristic of most poetry prior to modernism. Philip Larkin was a great proponent of Hardy's poetry, and it is largely due to his efforts that Hardy, slowly, has entered the modernist canon, ranked alongside William Butler Yeats as one of the foremost English innovators of his times.
Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford, Dorset. His father was a stonemason and local builder. His mother was ambitious and well-read, supplementing his formal education, which ended at the age of 16 when he became apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association.
In 1874, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, the subject of his later work A Pair of Blue Eyes. Although Hardy became estranged from his wife, her death in 1912 had a traumatic effect on him. He made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places linked with her and with their courtship, and wrote a series of poems exploring his grief, Poems of 1912-13, which are now estimated to be some of the finest verses of the early twentieth century. In 1914 he married Florence Dugdale, 40 years his junior, whom he had met in 1905. The writer Robert Graves, in his autobiography Goodbye to All That, recalls meeting Hardy in Dorset in the early 1920s. Hardy received Graves and his newly married wife warmly, encouraging the younger author's work.
Hardy was an agnostic, and some would claim him to be an atheist. Despite these beliefs, Hardy had a strong emotional attachment to the Christian liturgy and church rituals—particularly as manifested in rural communities. These had been a formative influence in his early years, and as a young man Hardy had long nurtured a desire to become a member of the clergy. Some attributed the bleak outlook of many of his novels as a reflection on his later loss of faith. Hardy fell ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died in January 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. His funeral, on January 16 at Westminster Abbey, was a controversial occasion: his family and friends had wished him to be buried at Stinsford but his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, insisted he should be placed in Poets' Corner. A macabre compromise was reached permitting his heart to be buried at Stinsford with Emma while his ashes were interred in the abbey.
Hardy's cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester is owned by the National Trust. Hardy's work was admired by authors D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1910 he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Merit.
Hardy's major novels are located in the fictional county of Wessex (named after the Anglo-Saxon kingdom which existed in the area). The landscape was modeled on the real counties of Berkshire, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, with fictional places based on real locations. He captured the epoch just before the railways and the industrial revolution changed the English countryside. Hardy’s works are pessimistic and bitterly ironic; his writing is rough but capable of immense power. Hardy had an eye for poignant detail, such as the spreading bloodstain on the ceiling at the end of Tess or little Jude's suicide note in Jude The Obscure; he kept clippings from newspaper reports of real events and used them as details in his novels.
His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, finished in 1867, failed to find a publisher and Hardy destroyed the manuscript. Only parts of the novel remain. He was encouraged to try again by mentor and friend, Victorian poet and novelist, George Meredith. Desperate Remedies (1871) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) were published anonymously. In 1873 A Pair of Blue Eyes was published under his own name. The story draws on Hardy's courtship of Emma Gifford, whom he married in 1874. His next novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), was his first important work. In Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy first introduced Wessex. The novel was successful enough for Hardy to give up architectural work and pursue a literary career. Over the next 25 years Hardy produced ten more novels, the best of which he classified as "novels of character and environment.” Hardy's work emphasized the impersonal and, generally, negative powers of fate over the mainly working-class people he represented in his novels.
The Hardys moved from London to Yeovil and then to Sturminster Newton, where he wrote The Return of the Native (1878). In 1885 they returned to Dorchester, moving into Max Gate—a house that Hardy had designed himself. There Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and The Woodlanders (1887). Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) attracted criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of a “fallen woman,” and was initially refused publication. Its subtitle, A Pure Woman, was intended to raise the eyebrows of the Victorian middle-classes. Critics denounced it at the time and when Jude the Obscure was published, in 1895, it was met with even stronger negative outcries by the Victorian public for its frank treatment of sex. It was referred to as "Jude the Obscene," and was heavily criticized for its apparent attack on the institution of marriage. The novel caused further strain on Hardy's already difficult marriage due to Emma's concern that it would be read as autobiographical. Some booksellers sold the novel in brown paper bags and the Bishop of Wakefield is reputed to have burned a copy. Disgusted with the public reception of two of his mature works, Hardy gave up writing novels altogether. Later critics have commented that there was very little left for Hardy to write, having creatively exhausted the increasingly fatalistic tone of his novels.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Tess is Hardy's penultimate novel and regarded as one of Hardy's highest achievements. Tess is often considered to be a fuller, more rounded novel than Jude due its setting and style which so closely recalls the comedies of manners and bucolic love stories of the novelists of Hardy's time, which Hardy uses but inverts and turns into tragedy as the story proceeds. Unlike Jude, the tragedy of Tess unfolds with more subtlety, without the transparent hand of the author manipulating events as in the later novel.
The story concerns a simple country girl, Teresa "Tess" Durbeyfield, the daughter of uneducated (and rather shiftless) peasants. Tess's father hears from a local clergyman (Parson Tringham) that apparently the Durbeyfields are descendants of the medieval noble family d'Urberville. He sends her to the local nouveau-riche (Stoke)-d'Urberville family, where Tess begins working, attracting the attention of the playboy son of the household, Alec D'Urberville. In a rape scene (although the scene is open to interpretation), Tess is seduced and impregnated by Alec. She returns home in disgrace, but the child she bears soon dies, leaving her free to leave her village once again to look for work. In hope of leaving her disgraced identity, she applies for employment at a dairy forty miles away. While employed as a milkmaid, she encounters the morally upright son of a minister, Angel Clare, who falls in love with her. Tess agrees to marry Angel after he asks several times, but on their wedding night, she confesses that she is not a virgin and explains what happened with Alec d'Urberville. Although Angel had also engaged in an affair out of wedlock, he becomes upset, unable to reconcile his real affection for Tess, his wounded pride, and his image of Tess as a virginal Mary figure. Angel abandons Tess and tells her she cannot contact him; he will contact her.
She briefly goes back to her family, but ashamed, she leaves to find work as a day laborer working with then-new threshing machines. Meanwhile, Alec D' Urberville claims to be a reborn believer, converted through the exhortations of Angel's father (who is a passionate preacher). Out of lust, Alec pursues Tess, who is repulsed by his "conversion," so Alec quickly abandons his religious zeal. He keeps offering her financial security, companionship, and relief from her backbreaking work, but Tess strongly refuses. Alec degrades her and repeatedly blames Tess for transfixing him. Meanwhile, Tess's learns that her mother is gravely ill. Tess returns home to discover that her mother has recovered but her father has died. The family then loses the lease on their cottage and is forced to travel the countryside with all their possessions, searching for lodgings and employment. At this point, Alec d'Urberville reappears and a desperate Tess agrees to become his mistress so that she can support her family.
Angel Clare has been in Brazil and after much thought returns to England to find Tess. He discovers her living in a hotel with Alec d'Urberville, well cared-for but miserable. Tess murders Alec to run away with Angel. They flee together on foot, but the police catch up with them at Stonehenge in a memorable finale. When Tess and Angel were fleeing, Tess asked Angel to marry her younger sister, Liza-Lu, who is a pure version of Tess. Together, Liza-Lu and Angel watch a black flag go up as Tess is hanged for the murder of Alec.
In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, through the central themes of sex, class perceptions, material longing and family betrayal, Hardy manages to suggest the ambiguities of time and change and divine power versus human reason.
Symbolism and Themes
Hardy's writing is often considered to illustrate the "ache of modernism," and this theme is notable in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The heavy machinery seen in Flintcomb-Ash is portrayed with infernal imagery, and at the dairy, it is reported that the milk sent to the city has to be watered down because the townspeople can't stomach whole milk. These are but two examples among many in which Hardy symbolizes the negative consequences of man's separation from nature. Hardy's view of Victorian England has echoes of the Romantic view of nature in such writers as Wordsworth and Coleridge who, decades earlier, had first sounded the warning at the growing influence of industry.
Within the iconography of the novel, Tess, who is abused by representatives of both high culture and Christianity, represents an earthly ideal through the numerous naturalist references made about her throughout the text. Early in the novel she participates in a festival for Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, and when she performs a baptism she chooses a passage from Genesis, the book of creation, over more traditional New Testament verses. The episode at Stonehenge, commonly believed to be a pagan temple at the time of the novel's writing, has resonance with the notion of the pagan goddess. The novel portrays Hardy's pessimistic attitudes toward the forces of civilization—religion and high society—as deceitful forces that ultimately doom corrupt and destroy the natural good heroine.
In 1898 Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, a collection of poems written over 30 years. Hardy claimed poetry was his first love, and published collections until his death in 1928. His poetry was not as well received by his contemporaries as his novels had been, but critical response to Hardy's poetry has warmed considerably in recent years, in part because of the influence of Philip Larkin. However, critically his poetry is still not considered as highly as his prose.
The poems deal with themes of disappointment in love and life, and mankind's long struggle against indifference to human suffering. A vein of regret tinges his often seemingly banal themes. His poems range in style from the three-volume epic closet drama Dynasts to smaller, and often hopeful or even cheerful poems of the moment such as the little-known “The Children and Sir Nameless,” a comic poem inspired by the tombs of the Martyns, builders of Athelhampton. “The Darkling Thrush” (1900) has elements typical of Hardy's work: the first person voice; an incident in nature triggering deep reflections; the bucolic setting; the desolate landscape; the struggle of small forces against inimical nature; the possibility of redemption.
- I leant upon a coppice gate
- When Frost was spectre-grey,
- And Winter's dregs made desolate
- The weakening eye of day.
- The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
- Like strings of broken lyres,
- And all mankind that haunted nigh
- Had sought their household fires.
- The land's sharp features seemed to be
- The Century's corpse outleant,
- His crypt the cloudy canopy,
- The wind his death-lament.
- The ancient pulse of germ and birth
- Was shrunken hard and dry,
- And every spirit upon earth
- Seemed fervourless as I.
- At once a voice arose among
- The bleak twigs overhead
- In a full-hearted evensong
- Of joy illimited;
- An agèd thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
- In blast-beruffled plume,
- Had chosen thus to fling his soul
- Upon the growing gloom.
- So little cause for carolings
- Of such ecstatic sound
- Was written on terrestrial things
- Afar or nigh around,
- That I could think there trembled through
- His happy good-night air
- Some blessèd Hope, whereof he knew
- And I was unaware.
Hardy's career as writer spanned over 50 years and his works reflect the movement away from the Victorian values of such writers as Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope toward a bleaker naturalistic realism. His late poetry was published contemporaneously with the works of modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and reflected modernism's loss of faith and meaning; and alienation from tradition.
Hardy challenged many of the sexual and religious conventions of the Victorian age. Following the appearance Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), Hardy increasingly adopted a deterministic view of life, observing in 1901 that "non-rationality seems… to be the [guiding] principle of the Universe." Tragic and self-destructive fates seem to haunt Hardy's characters. Impersonal forces or chance events often appear loaded against a Hardy protagonist, suggesting that morality was unequal to contend with fatalistic laws of the universe. In 1878, Hardy wrote in a notebook that "a Plot, or Tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions, by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passions, prejudices, and ambitions."
As a realist, Hardy, like Emile Zola writing of industrialized France, described the burdensome condition of the rural laborers and the bleak lives of women. Hardy's harsh portrayal of English life and his moral ambiguities particularly influenced twentieth century novelist D. H. Lawrence, whose Study of Thomas Hardy (1936) articulated Lawrence's own philosophy in such novels as The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920). Composers who have set Hardy's text to music include Gerald Finzi, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst. Holst based one of his last orchestral works, his much-acclaimed "Egdon Heath," on Hardy's work. Benjamin Britten based his song-cycle Winter Words on Hardy's poetry.
"Though he was a modern, even a revolutionary writer in his time, most of us read him now as a lyrical pastoralist, observed New York Times critic Anatole Broyard in 1982. "It may be a sign of the times that some of us take his books to bed, as if even his pessimistic vision was one that enabled us to sleep soundly."
Hardy divided his novels into three classes.
Novels of Character and Environment
- Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
- Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
- The Return of the Native (1878)
- The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
- The Woodlanders (1887)
- Wessex Tales (1888)
- Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)
- Life's Little Ironies (1894)
- Jude the Obscure (1895)
Romances and Fantasies
- A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)
- The Trumpet-Major (1880)
- Two on a Tower (1882)
- A Group of Noble Dames (1891)
- The Well-Beloved (1897) (first published as a serial from 1892).
Novels of Ingenuity
- Desperate Remedies (1871)
- The Hand of Ethelberta (1876)
- A Laodicean (1881)
There are a number of minor tales and novels including, the unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady, written in 1867, and Alicia's Diary (1887). Hardy also wrote a few short stories, including “The Three Strangers” (1883).
- Wessex Poems (1898)
- Poems of the Past and Present (1901)
- The Dynasts (1904)
- The Dynasts, Part 2 (1906)
- The Dynasts, Part 3 (1908)
- Satires of Circumstance (1914)
- Collected Poems (1919)
- Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922)
- Human Shows (1925)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Millgate, Michael. 1982. Thomas Hardy: A Biography, Revised ed., 2004. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199275653
- Lea, Hermann. Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Third edition, 1969. London: Toucan. ISBN 0900749148
- The Oxford Companion to English Literature
- The Victorian Web: Thomas Hardy . Retrieved August 31, 2008.
All links retrieved April 30, 2023.
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