The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy’s high literary reputation is based upon his novels and his poetry. Except for his fine tale “The Three Strangers,” which has been reprinted in many textbooks and short story collections, his shorter fiction is little-known to modern readers. Kristin Brady, in her appreciative and admirably written study of Hardy’s stories, makes no claim for them as constituting a major body of work. She considers them analytically as examples of a literary genre which was rapidly growing in popularity during the years from 1865 to 1900, when the stories were written. She contrasts them occasionally with the work of other authors; she also frequently relates them to Hardy’s novels and poems.
Most of Hardy’s stories were first published in various English and American magazines, sometimes in bowdlerized form. Just as Hardy acceded to editorial wishes for the serial publication of several of his novels, so also he submitted to a toning down of some of his stories. As Brady points out, though, he restored them to their original form and made other changes when they later appeared in books.
Brady focuses on Hardy’s first three collections of short prose fiction. These she sees as sufficiently unified in treatment to be considered as three general types. Wessex Tales (1888), she suggests, is composed of “pastoral histories”; A Group of Noble Dames (1891) of “ambivalent exempla”; and Life’s Little Ironies (1894) of “tragedies of circumstance.”
Brady’s closing chapter, “Miscellaneous Stories: Reflections on a Career,” discusses the twelve stories collected in Hardy’s last volume of short fiction, A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales, Concluding with the Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid (1913). She closes with a brief consideration of Hardy’s short fiction as developing from the oral tradition of tale-telling into the more sophisticated form of story intended for readers rather than listeners.
Wessex Tales originally contained five stories, two of which (“The Withered Arm” and “The Distracted Preacher”) are divided into titled chapters like miniature novels. In 1912, Hardy added two stories, “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” and “The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion.” Brady remarks that the volume “reflects in its narrative details the social, economic, and cultural diversity of Dorset life.” The stories have several sources: Hardy’s own memories and observations of his native area, stories which were told to him, and material he discovered in records and elsewhere. Through Hardy’s art, Dorset becomes, as Brady says, “an image of a world that is past but still remembered. . . . Dorset becomes Wessex.”
Concepts of “pastoralism” vary, but Brady interprets the term as including contrasts between past and present, between rural and urban characters and scenes, and between ideal and real worlds. These contrasts appear in Hardy’s Wessex Tales, but he reveals his imagined Wessex as resembling, both in its complexity and in the unhappy lives of many of its people, the real world which his readers know. “Seen as a whole,” says Brady, “Wessex Tales represents Hardy’s most comprehensive single depiction of the fictional world that he called Wessex.”
All of the Wessex tales except “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” are told from a third-person point of view which Brady calls “the pastoral voice.” The impression given is that a Wessex native is telling them and that they are being told as though they were “taken from oral tradition.”
Hardy did not wish his readers to confuse the real Dorset, which was his home both early and late in life, with the imagined Wessex. In his brief preface to the 1912 edition of Wessex Tales, he reminded them that the tales are “but dreams, and not records.” He made the same point in The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928 (1930), a biography supposedly written by his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy, but in fact...
(The entire section is 1683 words.)