Hardy's World

Thomas Valeo, Jr. Class of 1997
Gettysburg College

Thomas Hardy wrote a total of fifty-three short stories, collecting thirty-seven in four volumes: Wessex Tales (six short stories written between 1879 and 1888), A Group of Noble Dames (ten short stories written between 1878 and 1890), Life's Little Ironies (nine short stories written between 1882 and 1893), and A Changed Man (twelve short stories written between 1881 and 1900). Writing primarily for an appreciation of narrative, Hardy wrote simply because he loved to tell short stories. Hardy compares story telling to Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." "A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling. We tale-tellers are all Ancient Mariners, and none of us is warranted in stopping Wedding Guests (in other words, the hurrying public) unless he has something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experience of every average man and woman" (Millgate 268).  Hardy explains the actual substance of the story is what creates a powerful narrative.

In Wessex Tales, published in 1888, Hardy writes using the pastoral voice. Many of these tales are set before Hardy's birth(1840). Separating the time period of his readers from his character's lives, Hardy creates a fictional world. The stories collected in Wessex Tales portray the hierarchy of shepherds and artisans, unlike the aristocratic literature of the Victorian era. To create these stories, Hardy studied Dorset's old newspapers, parish records, and spoke with older people of the town. Kristin Brady links Hardy's studying of people to the creation of his narrative voice: "The stories are all firmly grounded in Dorset life and folklore during the mid-nineteenth century and are drawn together by a unique narrative perspective, the pastoral voice"(2). Revealing the humorous and affectionate observations of rustic life, the stories provide the foundation for Hardy's Wessex, which is further defined in his novels.

His next volume A Group of Noble Dames collected in 1891, reflect romantic or supernatural themes often reminiscent of folk tales. The information Hardy gathers for these works is primarily found in Hutchin's history of Dorset. An Antiquarian Club member, Hardy uses information collected in meetings to create different fictional stories from seventeenth and early eighteenth century Dorset. Hardy describes A Group of Noble Dames as "raising images from genealogies"(Brady 52). The stories fill in the motives and passions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century people whom Hardy studies in the Antiquarian Club and Hutchin's history. By studying, Hardy begins to create characters who reflect inherent behavior of people living in the eighteenth century. In both A Group of Noble Dames and his next volume Life's Little Ironies, Hardy explores the reactions of people, particularly women, placed in extreme social situations.

Life's Little Ironies, collected in 1894, focuses on the nature of men and women courting and marrying. Unlike the pastoral voice in Wessex Tales, the rhetorical voice in Life's Little Ironies challenges the thinking of Hardy's readers. In this collection Hardy exposes the inconsistencies of the Victorian society in order to influence contemporary social, and cultural ideas. According to Brady, Hardy "seems to have felt most strongly a frustration at the restrictive power of Victorian moral conventions over contemporary life and literary expression"(95). Life's Little Ironies is an honest account of the relationships occurring during this time period. Rather than write sentimentally about relationships, Hardy provides an accurate portrayal of the difficulties between men and women. Life's Little Ironies is Hardy's attempt to break free from the Victorian attitudes, allowing the reader to make his or her own judgments.

Compiled in 1913, his fourth and final volume, A Changed Man is filled with short stories having no common theme. The stories published in A Changed Man lack revisions and possess no unity. Hardy chose to publish the works to secure the copyright and provide a location for a few polished stories. Although only a few stories show evidence of revision, the volume illustrates the development of Hardy's ideas.

The short stories of Thomas Hardy display, through their history and themes, the social and cultural attitudes of people in Dorset. Each volume, except A Changed Man, contains a different narrative voice which, like that of any good story teller, forces the reader to hear the pastoral, ironic, or rhetorical theme. By displaying his narrative voice, Hardy has pushed his readers toward fantasy, romanticism, and reality.

Bibliography

Brady, Kristin. The Short Stories Of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.

Hawkins, Desmond. Thomas Hardy: Collected Short Stories. London: Macmillan Press, 1988.

Hill, Susan, ed. The Distracted Preacher and Other Tales. London: Penguin Books, 1979.

Millgate, Michael, ed. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Orel, Harold. Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Orel, Harold. Victorian Short Stories 2: The Trials of Love. London: J.M. & Sons Ltd., 1990.

Page, Norman. Thomas Hardy. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.