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 His unpublished first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected as overly satirical by George Meredith, a reader for Chapman & Hall Publishing Company and an influential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.