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.
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.
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.
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.