Thomas Hardy remains one of the great novelists of the Victorian Era, known for his many novels, short stories and poems, especially "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" and "Jude the Obscure." Living from 1840 until 1928, Hardy witnessed almost all of the significant social, religious and political developments of the Victorian era (1837-1901). These experiences, in addition to his personal life, greatly influenced his work. Strong criticism of his controversial last novels, "Tess" and "Jude," compelled Hardy to abandon novel-writing and turn to poetry instead.
The English Countryside
No study of Hardy's influences would be complete without considering the landscape's effect on his work. Hardy's novels take place near Dorchester, England, where he grew up. Many of the landmarks in his novels match perfectly with their real counterparts, such as Stonehenge, which features prominently as a haunting locale in "Tess of the D'urbervilles." Hardy's settings feature many characters and scenes typical of the rural countryside, such as farmers haymaking, laborers in mills, merchants in the town and shepherds tending their sheep. To some degree these places maintain only an appearance of the bucolic or pastoral, as Hardy's novels are notably cynical and critical.
England maintained strict laws regarding marriage and divorce which Hardy criticized both publicly and in his fiction. He wrote in a magazine in 1912 that "The English marriage laws are...the gratuitous cause of at least half of the misery of the community." In one of Hardy's most controversial novels, "Jude the Obscure," the author paints a dramatic illustration of what he views as the stranglehold the outdated divorce laws can have on people. In the same novel Hardy also criticizes the exclusivity of university admission requirements and their discrimination of class.
Some influences on Hardy's writings come from other Victorian novelists, such as George Eliot, who also incorporated many allusions to art and literature in her works. Hardy's portrayals of tragic characters wrestling their demons, such as Michael Henchard in "The Mayor of Casterbridge," is in some ways reminiscent of the tragic heroes in Greek and Shakespearean dramas. The villagers in Hardy's novels, who move mostly in the background, also function like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. And Hardy's heroes often seem to fall victim to "Fortune's False Wheel," a fateful view of events that Chaucer first coined and Shakespeare often repeated.
Hardy studied as an architecture apprentice at a young age, evident in the character of Jude in "Jude the Obscure," who works as a stonemason. Hardy experienced two unhappy marriages and apparently held several infatuations with other women while married. These experiences may have influenced his depictions of women as externally beautiful but often shallow or fickle inside, as with Bathsheba in "Far From the Madding Crowd."
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