Hardy, Thomas (Short Story Criticism)
Thomas Hardy 1840-1928
English short story writer, novelist, poet, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Hardy's short fiction works from 1989 to 1999.
Widely considered among the greatest novelists in English literature, Hardy is also recognized as an accomplished and compelling short fiction writer. In both genres, he depicted human existence as a tragedy determined by powers beyond the individual's command, in particular the external pressures of society and the internal compulsions of character. In his short stories, Hardy frequently wrote about grotesque situations in the lives of rural characters and made extensive use of irony to demonstrate the lack of control his protagonists hold over their own lives. While his reputation as a seminal figure in the development of the nineteenth-century novel overshadows his achievement in short fiction, several of Hardy's tales, including “The Three Strangers” and “The Distracted Preacher,” continue to be read by students and scholars as exemplary works of late Victorian literature.
Hardy was born and raised in the region of Dorsetshire, which he employed in his fiction and poetry as the basis of his Wessex countryside setting. He originally sought recognition as a poet but turned to prose as a more ready means of literary success. His unpublished first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected as overly satirical by George Meredith, a reader for Chapman & Hall Publishing Company and an influential nineteenth-century literary authority. Having been advised by Meredith to incorporate the plot devices of popular fiction into his work, Hardy wrote Desperate Remedies (1871), a novel that defined many of the fundamental characteristics of his emerging style. Because he considered strict realism insufficient to hold readers' attention, Hardy created novels with artificially elaborate plots, extensive use of coincidence, and the characteristic mood of Gothic melodrama. Beginning in the 1870s, Hardy wrote several novels considered among the finest in the English language. When he received harsh criticism for his novels Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), his response was to cease writing fiction and to devote himself to poetry, which he had composed intermittently throughout his career. Hardy's last major work, The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (1904-08), is an epic historical drama of the Napoleonic wars written in verse which summarizes his philosophy on the forces that influence human existence.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Between 1874 and 1900, in addition to writing novels and poetry, Hardy published short fiction in various English and American periodicals. Most of these pieces were later reprinted in Hardy's short story collections. His first such volume, Wessex Tales (1888), depicts protagonists in Hardy's standard Wessex country setting who are engaged in situations that Hardy identified in his subtitle as “Strange, Lively, and Commonplace.” Ranging in length from the brief vignette to the novella, the stories in Wessex Tales also vary widely in tone. For instance, “The Three Strangers” and “The Distracted Preacher” display affection for rural customs and employ country vernacular through good-natured tales involving thievery and smuggling, respectively, while “The Withered Arm” reveals Hardy's interest in the supernatural. “Fellow-Townsmen” and “Interlopers at the Knap” are stories that rely heavily upon irony and circumstance. Hardy's next short story collection, A Group of Noble Dames (1891), portrays the lives of ten women as narrated by male members of a “Wessex Field and Antiquarian Club” who are ensconced at an inn after a rainstorm has postponed their outing.
In Hardy's subsequent short story collections, Life's Little Ironies (1894) and A Changed Man (1913), his dark, cynical outlook is again prevalent. Such stories in Life's Little Ironies as “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions” and “On the Western Circuit” display Hardy's despairing view of human existence, while “An Imaginative Woman” possesses a heavily ironic, derisive tone in its examination of human frailties. In the last pieces of Life's Little Ironies, however, Hardy's tone changes considerably, as he hearkens back to the portrayals of rustic characters that distinguish the stories in Wessex Tales and scenes from several of his novels. A Changed Man is generally regarded as a miscellaneous collection that is nevertheless characteristic of Hardy's short fiction. Such stories as “The Grave by the Handpost,” “The Waiting Supper,” and “A Changed Man” possess a typically mournful atmosphere and an overriding sense of the failure and tragedy of human destiny. Once again, however, Hardy lightens the foreboding tone of his volume with a concluding piece that combines romance, fantasy, and rustic characters.
Although considered of lesser importance than his novels and poetry, Hardy's short stories are generally regarded as significant additions to his literary output. Several critics have noted that his short fiction is in some ways superior to his novels due to its narrower focus and lack of digressions. The effectiveness of Hardy's pessimistic view of human existence has long been the subject of critical debate; because of the compressed atmosphere of his short stories, many reviewers and scholars have found Hardy's portraits of tragic characters trapped by chance and circumstance to be especially overbearing and unlikely in that genre. Nevertheless, Hardy has been universally lauded for his tales, which feature rustic protagonists, pastoral settings, and rural vernacular.
Wessex Tales: Strange, Lively, and Commonplace 1888
A Group of Noble Dames 1891
Life's Little Ironies 1894
A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales 1913
The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy 1928
Old Mrs. Chundle and Other Stories, with The Tragedy of the Famous Queen of Cornwall 1977
An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and Other Stories 1994
The Complete Stories 1997
“The Fiddler of the Reels” and Other Stories 1997
Desperate Remedies (novel) 1871
Under the Greenwood Tree (novel) 1872
A Pair of Blue Eyes (novel) 1873
Far from the Madding Crowd (novel) 1874
The Hand of Ethelberta (novel) 1876
The Return of the Native (novel) 1878
The Trumpet-Major (novel) 1880
A Laodicean (novel) 1881
Two on a Tower (novel) 1882
The Mayor of Casterbridge (novel) 1886
The Woodlander (novel) 1887
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (novel) 1891
Jude the Obscure (novel) 1895
The Well-Beloved (novel) 1895
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SOURCE: Wright, T. R. “Diabolical Dames and Grotesque Desires: The Short Stories.” In Hardy and the Erotic, pp. 89-105. London: Macmillan, 1989.
[In the following essay, Wright considers the role of the erotic in Hardy's short fiction.]
Hardy published nearly fifty short stories in a variety of periodicals from 1865 to 1900, collecting the majority of them for republication in four volumes: Wessex Tales, a set of rural romances drawn from the folklore of the West Country; A Group of Noble Dames, recounting the perverse desires of a number of aristocratic ladies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Life's Little Ironies, a macabre series of illustrations of the tricks fate plays upon loving men and women; and A Changed Man, a miscellaneous collection of tales whose central theme is the chaos introduced into human lives by the irresistible dictates of desire. Each of these volumes contributes to Hardy's exploration of the erotic. Like the short stories of Hawthorne and Poe, of which so much has been made by post-structuralist and psychoanalytic critics, they lead beyond the ‘normal’ characterisation of the realistic novel to consider those areas of the psyche which are abnormal, obsessive and irrational.
Hardy's short stories are often dismissed as melodramatic and clumsy because they are full of such abnormal characters and perverse situations....
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SOURCE: Pether, Penelope. “Hardy and the Law.” Thomas Hardy Journal 7, no. 1 (February 1991): 28-41.
[In the following essay, Pether examines Hardy's use of legal terminology in his stories.]
In his “Preface” to Wessex Tales Hardy wrote, apropos of “The Withered Arm”:
Since writing this story some years ago I have been reminded by an aged friend who knew “Rhoda Brook” that, in relating her dream, my forgetfulness has weakened the facts out of which the tale grew. In reality it was while lying down on a hot afternoon that the incubus oppressed her and she flung it off, with the results upon the body of the original as described. To my mind the occurrence of such a vision in the daytime is more impressive than if it had happened in a midnight dream. Readers are therefore asked to correct the misrelation, which affords an instance of how our imperfect memories insensibly formalize the fresh originality of living fact—from whose shape they slowly depart, as machine-made castings depart by degrees from the sharp hand-work of the mould.
As this suggests, Hardy displayed a sophisticated awareness of the interplay between his “fictions”, his “life” and “history”. (Other examples of this characteristic include his elaborate “ghosting” of his wife's “biography” of himself, his periodic...
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SOURCE: Ebbatson, Roger. “‘The Withered Arm’ and History.” Critical Survey 5, no. 2 (1993): 131-35.
[In the following essay, Ebbatson provides some historical background for “The Withered Arm.”]
‘The Withered Arm’ has long been acknowledged as one of Hardy's finest short stories. As Kristin Brady points out, its form is close to the folk tale: ‘There is an oral quality to its prose style, but it has no actual narrator with a personal motive for telling his story’.1 This is so even though the tale also refers to nineteenth-century developments such as photography and galvanism. Brady deals ably with the curious admixture here, noting Hardy's reluctance to comply with Leslie Stephen's request that the phenomenon of the withered arm itself be more fully explained to the reader. The story's supernatural aspects are held firmly in place by the social realism of the presentation, as instanced in the opening description of the ‘eighty-cow dairy’,2 the size and capitalist structure of which Brady comments upon, adding that the simultaneous continuance of old-style practices makes the dairy ‘an emblem of its transitional time’.3
I am interested here, not in adding one more literary-critical interpretation, since Brady's is exemplary along these lines, but in briefly furnishing a more material context for ‘The Withered Arm’. Critics of...
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SOURCE: Plotz, John. “Motion Slickness: Spectacle and Circulation in Thomas Hardy's ‘On the Western Circuit.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 3 (summer 1996): 369-86.
[In the following essay, Plotz explores the meaning of technical advances and machinery in Hardy's short fiction, particularly the steam roundabout in “On the Western Circuit.”]
Dreading the moment when the inexorable stoker, grimly lurking behind the rococo-work, should decide that this set of riders had had their pennyworth, and bring the whole concern of steam-engine, horses, mirrors, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and such-like to pause and silence, he waited for her every reappearance.
(“On the Western Circuit” 246)
The grim stoker, who makes only this one brief appearance in Thomas Hardy's 1891 story, “On the Western Circuit,” is the invisible producer of phantasmagoria, embodying all the evils that the steam roundabout's cheery whirl seems to belie. Harmless and beautiful as a ride on the roundabout may seem at first, the reader does not need to have been tutored by “The Fiddler of the Reels” or by the ecstatic dancing scenes in The Return of the Native to know that such a face-flushing holiday from reality will do neither its riders nor onlookers any good. “On the Western Circuit” traces meticulously the consequences of one...
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SOURCE: Richardson, Angelique. “‘How I Mismated Myself for Love of You!’1: The Biologization of Romance in Hardy's A Group of Noble Dames.” Thomas Hardy Journal 14, no. 2 (May 1998): 59-76.
[In the following essay, Richardson investigates the impact of science—especially ideas of mating and hereditary—on Hardy's A Group of Noble Dames.]
The pedigrees of our county families, arranged in diagrams on the pages of country histories, mostly appear at first sight to be as barren of any touch of nature as a table of logarithms. But given a clue—the faintest tradition of what went on behind the scenes, and this dryness as of dust may be transformed into a palpitating drama.
(ND [A Group of Noble Dames] preface xi)
In the late nineteenth century, new biological discourses breathed life into dry parchment and bones, transforming genealogy into a bodied, and palpitating, drama. In Hardy's words “dear, delightful Wessex, whose statuesque dynasties are even now only beginning to feel the shaking of the new and strange spirit without, like that which entered the lonely valley of Ezekiel's vision, and made the dry bones move” (ND 42). The new spirit was science.
At the turn of the century, middle-class Britain became increasingly preoccupied with national efficiency....
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SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Abjection and Degeneration in Thomas Hardy's ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe.’” College Literature 26, no. 2 (spring 1999): 1-17.
[In the following essay, Shumaker asserts that Hardy illustrates the danger of the Victorian myth of degeneration in “Barbara of the House of Grebe.”]
Thomas Hardy's Gothic tale, “Barbara of the House of Grebe” (1891), dramatizes the horrid consequences of belief in the Victorian myth of degeneration. Only months after writing Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy creates another tragedy in the less well-known “Barbara”; this time tragedy stems from dread of the lower class and of sexually assertive women of any class.1 The theory of degeneration situates the hatred of the working class and women seen in “Barbara” within the pseudo-scientific debates of the late-Victorian era. Hardy shows how belief in the myth of degeneration could ruin relationships and lives.
Recent studies of degenerationism in history and literature do not discuss Hardy's short stories, but their ideas illuminate “Barbara.” Degenerationism posited that groups such as the urban poor, the insane, prostitutes, criminals, and homosexuals adapted to immoral, polluted cities by taking on characteristics of their environment; as a result, they became physically stunted and mentally depraved. Degenerates were thought to...
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Gibson, James. Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1996, 206 p.
Critical and biographical study.
Ray, Martin. “Thomas Hardy's ‘The Son's Veto’: A Textual History.” Review of English Studies 47, no. 188 (November 1996): 542-47.
Traces the various versions of “The Son's Veto.”
Additional coverage of Hardy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 6; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 123; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 19, 135; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 3, 11, 15; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vols. 3, 4; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol....
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