Article abstract: One of the great English novelists and poets of the late nineteenth century, Hardy is representative of the Victorian trauma of the loss of God and the search for a new order.
Thomas Hardy was born in the hamlet of Higher Bockhampton on June 2, 1840. His father was a master mason, satisfied with his low social status and his rural surroundings. His mother, however, whom Hardy once called “a born bookworm,” encouraged Hardy’s education and urged him to raise his social standing. John Hicks, a Dorchester architect, took the boy on as a pupil at the age of sixteen. While in Hicks’s office, Hardy met the well-known poet William Barnes, who became an important influence on his career. Another early influence was the classical scholar Horace Moule, an essayist and reviewer. Moule encouraged Hardy to read John Stuart Mill and the iconoclastic Essays and Reviews (1860) by Frederick Temple and others, both of which contributed to the undermining of Hardy’s simple religious faith.
At age twenty-two, Hardy went to London to pursue his architectural training; by this time, however, he had also begun to write poetry and to entertain hopes of a literary career. In 1866, after reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads: First Series (1866), he began an intensive two-year period of writing poetry. He submitted many poems for publication during this time, but none was published, although many of these were published later, when he began writing poetry only.
After returning to Bockhampton in 1867, Hardy decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first effort in this genre, “The Poor Man and the Lady,” based on his perception of the difference between city and country life, received some favorable attention from publishers. After a discussion with novelist George Meredith, however, Hardy decided not to publish the work but, on Meredith’s advice, to strike out in a new direction. In imitation of the detective fiction of Wilkie Collins, he thus wrote Desperate Remedies (1871). In spite of his success Hardy did not stay with the melodramatic novel but instead took the advice of a reader who liked the rural scenes in his first work and wrote a pastoral idyll entitled Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). Although the book was well received by critics, its sales were poor. Yet Hardy had found his true subject—the rural English life of an imaginary area he called Wessex—and he was on his way to becoming a full-time writer. He began writing serials for periodicals, abandoned architecture, and launched himself on a career that was to last well into the twentieth century.
In 1874, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, a socially ambitious young woman who shared his interest in books. At about the same time, his first great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), appeared and received many favorable reviews. As a result, editors began asking for the works of Thomas Hardy. While living with his wife at Sturminister Newton in a small cottage, Hardy composed his next great novel, The Return of the Native (1878), and enjoyed what he later called the happiest years of his life. After a brief social life in London, Hardy returned to Dorset, had his home “Max Gate” built, and published the third of his five masterpieces, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). For the next several years, Hardy continued his writing, traveled with his wife, and read German philosophy.
By this time, Hardy himself was being seen as a philosophical novelist. What has been called his “philosophy,” however, can be summed up in an early (1865) entry in his notebooks: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” The difference between Hardy and many nineteenth century artists who experienced a similar loss of faith is that while others such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle were able to achieve some measure of religious affirmation, Hardy never embraced a transcendent belief. He did not try to escape the isolation that his loss of faith created, although in all of his major novels and in most of his poetry, he continued to try to find some value in a world of accident, chance, and indifference. Indeed, all of Hardy’s serious artistic work can be seen as variations on his one barren theme of the loss of God and the quest for a new value system.
Late in his life, Hardy said that he never really wanted to write novels and did so only out of economic necessity. Indeed, many of his minor works are imitations of popular forms of the time. While he did imitate the detective novel or social comedy, however, when he wished to write a novel that more clearly reflected his own vision of man’s situation in the world, he could find no adequate fictional model among the popular forms of the time. Thus, he returned to classical models such as the pastoral for Far from the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders (1887), Greek tragedy for The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native, and the epic for Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896).
Since these early genres were based on some sense of there being a God-ordered world, Hardy could not imitate them exactly but rather had to transform them into his own grotesque versions of pastoral, tragedy, and epic. As a result, in his pastorals nature is neither benevolent nor divinely ordered; in his tragedies, his heroes are not heroic because they defy the gods but precisely because there is no God; and in his epic works, his epic figures—Tess and Jude—are not heroes who represent the order of their society but rather are outcasts because neither their society nor indeed their universe has inherent value.
Thus, if Hardy is a philosophical novelist, as is often claimed, his philosophy is a simple and straightforward one—the world is an indifferent place and the heavens are empty of meaning and value. Although Hardy did not have a unified philosophical system, he was more committed to metaphysical issues than he was to the various social issues that preoccupied many novelists of the late nineteenth century. This is true in spite of the fact that the surface plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles deals with the so-called marriage question in England and Jude the Obscure ostensibly deals with the problem of equal education.
Hardy’s initial enthusiasm for his fourth important novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was dampened when it was turned down by two editors before being accepted for serial publication by a third. The publication of this work brought hostile reaction and notoriety to Hardy—a notoriety that increased after the publication of his last great novel, Jude the Obscure. Hardy was both puzzled and cynical about these reactions to his last two novels for their iconoclastic views of sexuality, marriage, and class distinctions, but he was by then financially secure and decided to return to his first love, poetry.
In poetry, Hardy believed that his views could be presented in a less obvious and more distanced way. For the rest of his career, he wrote little else. His poems, of which he published well over a thousand, were very well received, and his experimental drama, The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (1903-1908), brought him even more respect, fame, and honor. The final years of Hardy’s life were spoiled only by the death of his wife in 1912. Within four years, he married his secretary, Florence Dugdale, who cared for him in his old age. Hardy continued to write poetry regularly for the rest of his life; his final volume, Winter Words (1928), was being prepared for publication when he died on January 11, 1928. His death was mourned by all of England, and his ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Hardy is second only to Charles Dickens as the most read and most discussed writer of the Victorian era. New books and articles appear on his life and work each year with no signs of abating. In terms of volume and diversity of work, Hardy is a towering literary figure with two highly respected careers—one as a novelist and one as a poet.
Interest in Hardy’s work has followed two basic patterns. The first is philosophical, with many critics creating elaborate metaphysical structures which supposedly underlay his fiction. In the last two decades, however, interest has shifted to that aspect of Hardy’s work which was most scorned before—his technical expertise and his experiments with many different genres. Only in the last few years has what once was termed his fictional clumsiness been reevaluated as sophisticated poetic technique. Furthermore, Hardy’s career as a poet, which has always been under the shadow of his fiction, has been seen in a more positive light recently and has even been called by some critics the most significant and important part of his life’s work.
Hardy was a curious blend of the old-fashioned and the modern. With a career that began in the Victorian era and did not conclude until after World War I, Hardy was contemporary with both the representative Victorian writer Matthew Arnold and the most frequently cited representative of the modern, T. S. Eliot. Many critics suggest that Hardy, more than any other writer, bridges the gulf between the Victorian sensibility and the modern era.
Although not a systematic philosophical thinker, Hardy was a great existential humanist. His hope for humanity was that man would realize that creeds and conventions which presupposed a God-oriented center of value were baseless. He hoped that man would loosen himself from religious dogma and become aware of his freedom to create his own value system. If only man would realize that all people were equally alone and without divine help, Hardy believed, he would realize also that it was the height of absurdity for such lost and isolated creatures to fight among themselves. The breakout of World War I was thus a crushing blow to whatever optimism Hardy held for modern man.
In his relentless vision of a world stripped of transcendence, Hardy is a distinctly modern novelist. As one critic has said of him, he not only directs one’s attention back to the trauma of the loss of faith in the nineteenth century, he also leads one into the quest for renewed value that characterizes the modern era.
Beach, Joseph Warren. The Technique of Thomas Hardy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922. A classic, pioneering study which focused on Hardy’s fictional technique rather than his philosophy.
Brady, Kristin. The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. A helpful study of an often-neglected part of Hardy’s work, showing how his stories are a link between the old-fashioned tale and the modern short story.
Brooks, Jean R. Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. An excellent modern study which focuses on readings of the major works from the standpoint of linguistic patterns and poetic structure.
Carpenter, Richard. Thomas Hardy. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964. More than an introductory overview, this study reveals the mythic structures that underlie much of Hardy’s fiction.
Dean, Susan. Hardy’s Poetic Vision in “The Dynasts.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. An interesting study of Hardy’s experimental epic drama which proposes that the work is an objectification of the human mind.
Guerard, Albert J., Jr. Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949. One of the most important studies to stimulate the modern reevaluation of Hardy’s work, this book did much to call attention to Hardy’s antirealism and thus his similarity to such writers as Joseph Conrad and André Gide.
Hynes, Samuel. The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961. An important reevaluation of Hardy’s poetry which did much to create a new interest in this neglected body of Hardy’s work.
Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. A stimulating, if often overly complex, study of Hardy’s work from a contemporary phenomenological point of view.
Weber, Carl J. Hardy of Wessex: His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940. A highly detailed biographical treatment of Hardy that is more valuable for the hard information it supplies about Hardy’s life than it is for the somewhat old-fashioned and unenlightening criticism.