Thomas Hardy Hardy, Thomas (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Hardy 1840-1928

English novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Hardy's works from 1906 through 2002. See also Thomas Hardy Short Story Criticism, Far from the Madding Crowd Criticism, and Jude the Obscure Criticism.

Hardy is considered one of England's greatest novelists. His work resembles that of earlier Victorian novelists in technique, while in subject matter it daringly violated literary traditions of the age. In contrast to the Victorian ideal of progress, Hardy 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. His desire to reveal the underlying forces directing the lives of his characters led him to realistically examine love and sexuality in his fiction, a practice that often offended his readers and endangered his literary reputation.

Biographical Information

Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in High Bockhampton, Dorsetshire. Finishing his formal education at the age of sixteen and then apprenticing with his father as a stonemason, he worked at first on the restoration of churches and from 1862 to 1867 practiced architecture in London. Plagued by ill health most of his life, he returned to Dorset, where he continued to work in architecture until he started writing poetry, with limited success. He began to publish novels in the 1870s. Hardy married Emma Gifford in 1874, and the two embarked on a series of tours to the Continent. They resided in several rural locations in England, finally building a permanent home called Max Gate in Dorchester. By the 1890s Hardy had achieved considerable success with his novels and again began to write poetry. As his fame increased, Hardy was awarded a number of honors, including the Order of Merit, the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Literature, and honorary degrees from the University of Aberdeen and Oxford University. Mrs. Hardy, now mentally ill, died suddenly on November 27, 1912. In 1914 Hardy married Florence Dugdale. He died of heart disease on January 11, 1928, at Max Gate. After his death it was decided that his heart should be buried near the grave of his first wife, while his cremated remains should be placed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

Although Hardy wrote prolifically in several genres, his novels have achieved the most lasting recognition. Two early novels, Desperate Remedies (1871) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), were published anonymously. He used his own name on the next two, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The latter, less pessimistic in tone than his later work, was the first of his so-called Wessex novels, in which he used a fictitious English county based on his native Dorsetshire. The Return of the Native (1878), a story of the strange and beautiful Eustacia Vye, continues in the sequence of novels which portray the fading rural society of Wessex. In The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Hardy's hapless protagonist Michael Henchard pays for the mistakes of his youth in bitter disappointment. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) tells the story of a girl whose unfortunate circumstances lead her to a tragic end. The final major Wessex novel was Jude the Obscure (1895), another story of an individual caught in the web of a rigid, conservative social system. Minor works published during this period include the novel The Woodlanders (1887) and the short story collections Wessex Tales (1888) and Life's Little Ironies (1894). At the age of fifty-five Hardy returned to writing poetry, a vocation he had abandoned for a number of years. Although his literary reputation has been primarily established through his novels, Hardy took this work seriously. Among his considerable poetic works during this period were Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Poems of the Past and Present (1901), and a multi-volume verse drama, The Dynasts (1904-1908), which deals with England's role during the Napoleonic wars. Short poems were published as Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1914), Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925), and Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928). Several collections of his fiction, poetry, letters, and notebooks were published posthumously.

Critical Reception

Early Hardy criticism was mixed, especially following the controversy surrounding the publication of both Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Debates over the morality of Hardy's fiction and the quality of his poetry waned with the New Criticism beginning in the 1940s, when an entire issue of Southern Review was devoted to Hardy on the centenary of his birth. Several important books on Hardy ensued, as well as a growing number of journal articles, and by the 1960s Hardy scholarship was a vital part of the academic literary establishment. Most Hardy criticism during this period focused on the best-known novels. In the 1970s Hardy studies progressed to structuralist and poststructuralist thinking, the latter including feminist, deconstructive, and Marxist interpretations. Traditional, non-theory-based criticism, however, continues to coexist with poststructural approaches, on such topics as Hardy's regionalism, his “philosophy,” and the correlation between his life and his work. Hardy scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have begun to dwell on his poetry, a genre neglected for several decades by critics, and his minor works of fiction. Criticism of his work continues to burgeon, with several academic journals dedicated solely to Hardy scholarship and many articles and books on Hardy appearing each year.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Woodlanders (novel) 1887

Wessex Tales (short stories) 1888

A Group of Noble Dames (short stories) 1891

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (novel) 1891

Life's Little Ironies (short stories) 1894

Jude the Obscure (novel) 1895

The Wessex Novels (novels) 1895-1913

The Well-Beloved (novel) 1897

Wessex Poems and Other Verses (poetry) 1898

Poems of the Past and Present (poetry) 1901

The Dynasts. 3 vols. (verse drama) 1904-1908

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (poetry) 1909

The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse, with Prefaces and Notes. 24 vols. (novels, short stories, and poetry) 1912-1931

A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales (short stories) 1913

Satires of Circumstance (poetry) 1914

Selected Poems (poetry) 1916

Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (poetry) 1917

Collected Poems (poetry) 1919

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses (poetry) 1922

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (play) 1923

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (poetry) 1925

*The Early Years of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891 (autobiography) 1928

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (poetry) 1928

Chosen Poems (poetry) 1929

*The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928 (autobiography) 1930

Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences (essays) 1966

The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy (essays) 1974

New Wessex Edition (novels, short stories, and plays) 1974-79

The Complete Poems (poetry) 1976

The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. 3 vols. (letters) 1978-1982

The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (notebooks) 1978

The Variorum Edition of the Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy (poetry) 1979

The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. 2 vols. (poetry) 1982-1984

Thomas Hardy: Selected Letters (letters) 1990

Thomas Hardy: The Excluded and Collaborative Stories (short stories) 1992

Thomas Hardy: Selected Poetry and Non-fictional Prose (poetry and prose) 1997

*These works were republished in one volume as The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928 (1962).

Mary Moss (review date September 1906)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moss, Mary. “The Novels of Thomas Hardy.” Atlantic Monthly 98 (September 1906): 354-67.

[In the following review of Hardy's novels, Moss urges that Hardy be treated as a universalist and not just a regionalist.]

In a certain book on Japan the traveler asks his guide why all the little Japanese birds on a telegraph wire face the same way. He even noted it as a characteristic national trait. On learning that they were more comfortable beak to the wind, the author artlessly observes that American birds probably follow the same custom, for the dignity of their tail feathers, only at home such trifles escaped his notice. That man was an accomplished art critic,...

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Samuel C. Chew (essay date 2 June 1920)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chew, Samuel C. “Homage to Thomas Hardy.” New Republic 23 (2 June 1920): 22-6.

[In the following essay, Chew presents a brief biography and a tribute on the occasion of Hardy's eightieth birthday.]

Thomas Hardy, the foremost living English poet and novelist, attains the age of eighty years on the second of June. A birthday tribute to the man whose achievement in prose has deepened the thought, widened the horizon and rectified the structure of the novel, and whose verse has appealed profoundly to many minds in these later years, may well take the form of a survey of the many-sided excellencies that make it appropriate to observe the occasion publicly....

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Carl J. Weber (essay date 6 January 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Carl J. “Hardy: A Wessex Seesaw.” Saturday Review of Literature 34 (6 January 1951): 24-5.

[In the following essay, published during a period of decline in Hardy criticism, Weber urges a reconsideration of Hardy's literary contributions.]

Thomas Hardy's first novel appeared in 1871, and those few persons who bought it had to pay only $7.50 for a set of three volumes. In 1926 when George Barr McCutcheon's copy of the same novel was sold at auction in New York it brought $2,100. Only three years later when Jerome Kern's copy of this same work was auctioned off its purchaser paid $4,800. But when Paul Lemperly's copy was sold at auction in 1940...

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Richard Carpenter (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Richard. “Tess of the d'Urbervilles.” In Thomas Hardy, pp. 124-38. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

[In the following essay, Carpenter offers an overview of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, calling it a story of a peasant girl transformed into universal tragedy.]

The basic myth of The Woodlanders is reiterated, with some differences, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), which was published four years later: an essentially good and natural character is destroyed by the combined powers of society and circumstance. The differences are that the primitivistic, anthropological ambience of Tess is more concentrated on the...

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Perry Meisel (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Meisel, Perry. “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” In Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed, pp. 90-108. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Meisel assumes a Freudian orientation in his analysis of Michael Henchard's self-alienation.]

With The Mayor of Casterbridge, we arrive at a full statement of Hardy's universe. “The story is more particularly a study of one man's deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex life” (author's preface). The definitive statement of Hardy's achievement in The Mayor [The Mayor of Casterbridge], a pronouncement of...

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Dale Kramer (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kramer, Dale. “The Return of the Native: Opposites in Tragic Context.” In Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy, pp. 48-68. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Kramer examines Hardy's experiments in tragic form in The Return of the Native.]

The Return of the Native is Hardy's most imitative, most self-conscious, and generally least successful effort at high tragedy. In many ways an impressive novel—in concept of personality, in awareness of the symbolic value of setting—it is probably most accurately thought of as the kind of novel that a determined and self-taught writer had to get out of his system before...

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Desmond Hawkins (review date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hawkins, Desmond. “‘By Truth Made Free’: A Reassessment of Thomas Hardy.” Contemporary Review 232 (1978): 209-12.

[In the following review, Hawkins comments on a biography of Hardy and new editions of his prose drama and collected letters.]

Fifty years ago Thomas Hardy died—a fact of which ignorance is barely excusable in view of the flood of books, articles and programmes on television and radio that commemorate the occasion. So firmly is he now established among the great masters of our literature that even his extreme sensitivity to criticism would surely be disarmed by the general acclaim. Nor has his reputation had to pass through that trough of...

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Norman Page (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Page, Norman. “Hardy and the ‘world of little things.’” Thomas Hardy Annual 5 (1987): 119-36.

[In the following essay, Page discusses several ways in which Hardy uses everyday objects to create meaning in his fiction.]

Comfort, in the sense of physical well-being that it now normally carries, as when we speak of the comfort offered by an armchair, is a relatively modern usage. For Jane Austen, for example, who tends to be conservative and backward-looking in matters of semantics, the word often carries emotional and moral rather than physical associations: in Mansfield Park she can speak of ‘comfortable hopes’ and make Lady Bertram say...

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Julie Grossman (essay date autumn 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grossman, Julie. “Thomas Hardy and the Role of Observer.” ELH 56, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 619-38.

[In the following essay, Grossman examines the observers in Hardy's novels and notes that the observer role is the key link between Hardy's narrative technique and the stories that unfold.]

A seer's spirit took possession of Elizabeth, impelling her to sit down by the fire and divine events so surely from data already her own that they could be held as witnessed.

—Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Elizabeth-Jane's observations are an...

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Judith Mitchell (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Judith. “Hardy's Female Reader.” In The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, pp. 172-87. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Mitchell offers a poststructuralist approach to Hardy's fictional heroines, concluding that the feminist reader of Hardy will necessarily feel ambivalent about his representations of women.]

What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not...

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Laura Green (essay date summer 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Laura. “‘Strange [in] Difference of Sex’: Thomas Hardy, the Victorian Man of Letters, and the Temptations of Androgyny.” Victorian Studies 38, no. 4 (summer 1995): 523-49.

[In the following essay, Green addresses the concepts of gender relations and androgyny in A Pair of Blue Eyes and Jude the Obscure.]

When Thomas Hardy finished his last novel, Jude the Obscure (1896), this son of a provincial stone-mason had already attained the status of a literary lion. At his death some thirty years later, his ashes were placed in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. In fact, the macabre details of Hardy's interment dramatize the persistent...

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Dan Jacobson (essay date winter 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobson, Dan. “Thomas Hardy: The Poet as Philosopher.” American Scholar 65 (winter 1996): 114-18.

[In the following essay, Jacobson states that reviewers have often ignored the sophisticated philosophy which led Hardy to test the limits of the use of language in his poetry.]

Hardy as philosopher? The philosophizing of Thomas Hardy? Say the words out loud or write them down—and a series of other words and phrases follows inexorably. Pessimism. Gloom. Melancholy. Fate. Meaninglessness. The impossibility of faith. The mysterious workings of chance. The malignity of coincidence. Tragedy. Morbidity. Decadence. (That last term is T. S. Eliot's contribution, in...

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Samuel Lynn Hynes (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hynes, Samuel Lynn. “How to Be an Old Poet: The Examples of Hardy and Yeats.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 2 (spring 1997): 189-205.

[In the following essay, Hynes discusses the ways in which Hardy and William Butler Yeats dealt with old age and how their responses were evident in their poetry.]

Ten or twelve years ago I wrote an introduction to a volume of Hardy's poems in which I considered the consequences for the poetry of the fact that most of it was written in the last decades of a long life. I want to return to that subject here, but in a different way, expanding it to include another great modern poet, and shifting it upward to the level of theory: The...

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Dennis Taylor (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas Hardy and Thomas Gray: The Poet's Currency.” ELH 65, no. 2 (1998): 451-77.

[In the following essay, Taylor discusses how Thomas Gray was a key influence in Hardy's aesthetics and thoughts on the public culture, and how Gray's influence convinced Hardy that his highest vocation was not as a novelist, but as a poet.]

Why did Hardy, a major novelist, call his novels “mere journeywork” and say that they “have been superseded … by the more important half of my work, the verse”?1 Consistently, over a writing career of more than 70 years, Hardy maintained that his literary vocation was that of a poet, not a novelist. His novels were...

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William R. Siebenschuh (essay date autumn 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Siebenschuh, William R. “Hardy and the Imagery of Place.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 39, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 773-89.

[In the following essay, Siebenschuh suggests that Hardy's poetic and fictional vision is closely tied to his symbolic use of the sense of place.]

In the text that follows, I make two assumptions about the nature of Thomas Hardy's fiction and poetry in general, both of which were articulated years ago by John Holloway in The Victorian Sage and both of which have been echoed many times since. The first is that though one looks in vain for a coherent general philosophy in Hardy's works, it is clear that he does have...

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Peter Widdowson (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Widdowson, Peter. “Hardy and Critical Theory.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, pp. 73-92. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Widdowson presents an overview of critical theory on Hardy, especially in criticism written since the 1960s.]

Essay titles are an attempt to say much in little, at once synoptic shorthand for the work which follows and for the whole area of intellectual enquiry to which it alludes. As such, they are susceptible to ambiguity and imprecision, and the title of the present essay is no exception. What is meant, we might ask, by “Critical Theory,” and is it...

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John Paul Riquelme (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Riquelme, John Paul. “The Modernity of Thomas Hardy's Poetry.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, pp. 204-23. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Riquelme deconstructs a number of Hardy's poems in an attempt to define what makes them “modern.”]


As with literary Romanticisms, a variety of literary modernisms can be described, and no description of modernism as a singular, determinate movement will gain universal assent.1 Among the varieties of poetic modernism, Thomas Hardy's is distinctive because of its...

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Louise Dauner (essay date fall 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dauner, Louise. “Thomas Hardy, Yet and Again.” Modern Age 42, no. 4 (fall 2000): 358-71.

[In the following essay, Dauner discusses Hardy's poetry, with emphasis on the poet's capacity for lyrical expression of universal emotions.]

Five minutes before he died, Thomas Hardy posed his last question to the universe. “What is this?” He had been asking it for most of his 88 years. It epitomizes his lifelong intellectual and spiritual efforts to understand “Life with the sad seared face.”1 The question, with its many variations, like a revolving mirror trained on the human predicament, is treated in his many prose works (14 novels, numerous...

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Shannon L. Rogers (essay date July 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rogers, Shannon L. “‘The Historian of Wessex’: Thomas Hardy's Contribution to History.” Rethinking History 5, no. 2 (July 2001): 217-32.

[In the following essay, Rogers examines the influence of Hardy on concepts of the history of rural nineteenth-century England.]

In 1869, J. R. Green wrote that ‘History … we are told by publishers, is the most unpopular of all branches of literature at the present day, but it is only unpopular because it seems more and more to sever itself from all that can touch the heart of a people’ (Green 1888: xi). Green might just as easily have been commenting on our present day, when the notion of a history book produces...

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Jeffrey Meyers (essay date September 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. “Hardy and the Warriors.” New Criterion 21, no. 1 (September 2002): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Meyers discusses Hardy's influence on post-World War I poets.]

The Great War in Europe devastated towns and villages, obliterated irreplaceable architecture, and destroyed an entire generation of young men. The survivors were conscious of living in a shattered civilization, and felt a collective lack of confidence and direction. In “Signs of the Times,” written in the late 1920s, D. H. Lawrence described how young men under thirty, sick of war and materialism, have

a certain instinctive contempt
for old values and old...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Draper, Ronald P. and Martin S. Ray. An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Thomas Hardy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989, 227 p.

A selective, annotated list of all genres of Hardy criticism and a guide to recent editions of his work.

Gerber, Helmut E. and W. Eugene Davis, editors. Thomas Hardy: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974, 841 p.

Extensive, annotated list of secondary works covering the period of 1871-1969.

Sherrick, Julie. Thomas Hardy's Major Novels: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.:...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)