Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Thomas Hardy's literary career straddled the Victorian and modern eras, his modern outlook showing up particularly in the challenge to Victorian moral values found in his novels Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and in the style of his later poetry.

Hardy was born in Dorset, the son of a village stonemason, and began his career as an architect. After a spell in London, and after gaining success as a writer, he had a house built for him in Dorset and returned to live there. He began his writing career writing poetry, but only found success when he turned to novels, his first successful novels being Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).

A feeling for life lived close to the countryside pervades his novels. His stories are set in a part of south west England he called Wessex, and natural settings, country life, and characters who have grown up close to nature are a central feature of his work.

He wrote at a time when there was a general decline in religious faith, and a scientific view of the world was gaining ground. In Hardy's case the loss of faith brought with it an outlook of despair and disillusionment, in which man's aspirations were seen as being thwarted by an indifferent or even hostile universe.

In his best-known novels Hardy's characters struggle to give shape and meaning to their lives in the face of natural and man-made forces which are at best indifferent, and at worst hostile. The outcomes of their struggles are tragic. Their wishes and reason are seen as futile compared to the moral and natural laws stacked against them.

In Tess of the D'Urbervilles he writes: 'So the two forces were at work here as everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment', and his view of Jude the Obscure was that it showed 'a deadly war . . . between flesh and spirit', and 'the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead and the squalid real life he was fated to lead'.

Popular as Hardy's novels were, his challenge to established morality eventually went too far in the eyes of Victorian readership. He gave up novel writing in 1896 after public disapproval of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in which Tess has a child out of wedlock, and eventually commits murder, and outrage against Jude The Obscure, in which an unmarried couple live together and have children, and a young child commits suicide after murdering his siblings.

Jude The Obscure was his final novel, after which he turned his talent exclusively to poetry.

After gaining public recognition as a writer Hardy's marriage, to Emma Gifford, became a source of unhappiness for both of them, although after her death he wrote passionately about her in his poetry. On his death, in 1920, Hardy was buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Although his vision of life is pessimistic, Hardy's novels remain powerful and popular because his themes are universal, and because his writing conveys deep passion for the countryside and its people.

Novels of character and environment

Hardy himself classified his best-known novels as 'novels of character and environment' - a useful phrase as it points towards his interest in how characters are shaped by their environment, how they struggle against their environment, and how their fates can be determined by their environment. The novels for which he is best known are:

Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
The Return of the Native (1878)
The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
The Woodlanders (1887)
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891)
Jude the Obscure (1895)

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, country girl Tess Durbyfield's misfortunes begin when her father, an ordinary peasant, discovers that their family is descended from an ancient family, the D'Urbervilles. Under pressure from her father she approaches the wealthy Alec D'Urberville, who in fact has no real right to the name, is seduced by him, and bears a child, which dies in infancy.

Tess then meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, the son of a vicar, and marries him. On their wedding night she tells him of her affair with Alec D'Urberville and its consequences, and Angel, shocked that the woman he has married is not so pure and innocent as he'd imagined her to be, abandons her, saying that he may come back to her some time in the future if he can bring himself to forgive her.

In Angel's absence Tess suffers further misfortunes, and eventually becomes the mistress of Alec D'Urberville. When Angel finally returns hoping to be reunited with her she kills Alec D'Urberville and runs off with Angel, but is caught, tried for murder and hanged.

Jude the Obscure

In Jude the Obscure village stonemason Jude Fawley has a passion for reading and learning, and wants to try to get into the university at Christminster. He is side-tracked from his ambition when he is seduced into marriage by village girl Arabella. He has a child with her, and tries to pursue his academic interest again when she leaves him.

The university will not accept Jude, but in Christminster he works as a stonemason and meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who is more educated and intelligent than Arabella. Although Sue is married to a schoolmaster, Philotson, Jude starts a relationship with her and has children with her. They endure many hardships, both in their personal relationship and in their struggles with society, as an unmarried couple, which culminate in their children being killed by the child Jude had with Arabella, who also kills himself. Finally Sue returns to Philotson, and Jude returns to Arabella.

© Ian Mackean

Thomas Hardy Links
Other essays on this site
Tess of the d'Urbervilles  Human Morality and the Laws of Nature
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SparkNotes | GradeSaver | Jude the Obscure | Thomas Hardy Resource Library | Literary History | The Victorian Web | Wikipedia
Films of Thomas Hardy Novels on DVD

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