For some, Thomas Hardy represents the wordy, descriptive epitome of nineteenth century fiction. His writing does, it cannot be denied, suffer from some patches of hearty, sometimes self-indulgent, overblown prose, but in so many other ways his work transcends Victorian traditions and shines a light on the new century.
Hardy’s life experiences made him a shrewd observer of people and society. He divided his time between the city and the country and was an educated, thoughtful man. His novels straddle the urban and rural worlds and show the changes, both positive and negative, happening in England at the time in which he was writing.
The late nineteenth century saw massive changes in the lives of ordinary people. Where once upon a time, families would have remained in the same place for generations, working the land, living in the same home their parents and grandparents had once inhabited, increasingly the Industrial Revolution meant that agricultural labour was becoming more mechanised and jobs scarcer on the ground. Families had to split up and move to find work and the landscape of the countryside changed irrevocably. Hardy’s disapproval of these changes is evident in his works. The increasing use of technology meant the devaluing of the human beings who were once integral to the agricultural way of life.
Hardy shows us characters who are adrift, searching for a place to belong, searching for a set of values and moral compass to help them find their way in an ever more complex world. He demonstrates the alienation of characters whose purpose in life is unclear to them. He shows us characters who rebel or set themselves against the situations that are thrust upon them and who suffer terribly for their actions. In this sense, Hardy is often regarded as the first of the Modernist writers.
Modernism is a school of thought that is usually regarded as having started at the turn of the century and ended between the First and Second World Wars. It was a time of huge social change and major psychological upheaval. The old order, where the class system and a person’s family name dictated the kind of life an individual would live, was finished. A new way of thinking emerged; one which privileged individuality and personal perspective. Hardy seems intimately connected with this way of thinking. His characters suffer at the hands of the old order. Their sufferings are cruel and, to a present day readership, unnecessary. He seems to be openly critiquing the time in which he lived.
His central characters are recognisable to a modern readership too: the spoiled and very beautiful young woman whose aspirations are profoundly selfish and superficial, the wily, untrustworthy philanderer whose moods and morals swing constantly, the earnest, educated young man who does not realise the depth of his own hypocrisy. In some ways, the plots of Hardy’s novels could have been the blueprints for modern day soap operas. The interplay of characters, the high drama (and often melodrama) of their situations and the inevitable tragedies resulting from their actions are all familiar.