In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomas Hardy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies

British and Irish Literature Thomas Hardy
Karin Koehler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0159


Thomas Hardy was born in Lower Bockhampton, Dorset, in 1840 and, with brief interruptions, continued to live in and around Dorchester until his death in 1928. His work was intimately linked to the “half-real, half-dream country” of Wessex, a fictionalized version of England’s rural South West. Hardy trained and practiced as an architect but went on to publish fourteen novels, over forty short stories, roughly a thousand poems, several essays, an epic verse drama about the Napoleonic War, and a shorter verse play with Arthurian themes. Given the volume and diversity of this output, and the fact that his writing career spanned from the mid-Victorian years to the heyday of literary Modernism, Hardy’s work resists easy categorization. It is, moreover, marked by profound tensions: between a rural upbringing, a modern education, and an international literary career; between a commitment to preserving local tradition, dialect, and folklore and an ongoing, thorough engagement with contemporary cultural debate; and between the commercial profitability of fiction and the desire to be remembered as a poet. Correspondingly, critical responses to Hardy’s work, especially from the 1980s onward, have been richly diverse and shaped by a broad range of critical concerns and methodologies, including—but not limited to—Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, New Historicism, ecocriticism, animal studies, and postcolonial theory. During the 19th century, several of Hardy’s novels became objects of critical controversy, given his frank treatment of sexual matters, his critique of marriage, and his religious skepticism. Numerous scholars have explored the creative repercussions of Hardy’s fraught negotiations with literary and social conventions. In the first half of the 20th century, though, critical discussions paid particular attention to Hardy’s philosophy, his tragic outlook, and his humanist ethics, while focusing primarily on the poetry and so-called major novels. More recent studies have provided a more nuanced picture of Hardy’s oeuvre, by accounting for works, formal features, and thematic elements that disrupt the image of a liberal-humanist chronicler of rural life. Since the 1970s, Hardy’s writings have provided a fertile ground Hardy saw the beginning of feminist, psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, Marxist, and New Historicist revaluations. Recent criticism has gained particular impetus from a growing awareness that, though firmly associated with rural “Wessex” life, Hardy’s work is shaped by an ongoing engagement with nationwide and international cultural debates, political issues, technological developments, scientific discoveries, and aesthetic trends.

General Overviews

This section includes three types of resources: single-authored monographs that offer a broad, introductory perspective on Hardy, an online resource, and edited collections, containing clear, focused essays on specific but central aspects of Hardy’s life, work, and legacy. Miller 1970 gives a poststructuralist account of Hardy’s major poetry and prose, arguing that these works are organized by recurring patterns of “distance and desire.” Through lucid close readings, the study illuminates key aspects of Hardy’s work, such as the concept of the “Immanent Will,” the manipulation of narrative perspective, love and sexual desire, and “poetic memory.” Although the focus on Hardy’s life as a key to the work dates Miller 1970, this remains one of the most influential and rewarding book-length studies. Widdowson 2007 and Levine 2018 present critically sound, accessible introductions to key themes and strategies in Hardy’s work. Widdowson 2007 is particularly appropriate as a starting point for undergraduate students, emphasizing the contemporary resonance of Hardy’s writing and its sexually and socially subversive undercurrents. The eminently readable Levine 2018 is the most recent overview of Hardy’s work, and it is suitable for academic as well as wider audiences. Wilson 2010 is an indispensable resource for academic readers at any level, which offers a broad, thoughtful selection of critical perspectives. Morgan 2010 is a helpful complement to Wilson 2010, especially for postgraduate researchers, since the essays in this volume apply more specialized approaches and specific themes. Kramer 1999 is an ideal source for undergraduates, featuring general, clear essays on Hardy’s major works and themes. Mallett 2013 is an encyclopedic and engaging reference work for those interested in historicizing Hardy’s life, work, and reception. Victorian Web offers a selection of useful primary sources related to, and critical commentary on, Hardy’s work.

  • Hardy, Thomas. Victorian Web.

    A detailed, ever-expanding online resource, which includes links to short research articles, primary texts, illustrations, and teaching materials.

  • Kramer, Dale, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Excellent collection of survey essays by leading Hardy scholars, including Penny Boumelha, Dale Kramer, Michael Millgate, and Dennis Taylor. Contributions cover major novels and poetry and such general topics as gender; genre; and Hardy’s engagement with religious, scientific, and philosophical thought. However, the recommended reading lists accompanying individual chapters are inconsistent and little attention is given to short stories, minor novels, and nonfiction prose. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

  • Levine, George. Reading Thomas Hardy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    A sensitive and engaging reappraisal of the fiction, which pays particular attention to Hardy’s aesthetic strategies and his response to Darwin’s writing in the portrayal of the natural world. Suitable as an introduction for students and general readers. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

  • Mallett, Phillip. Thomas Hardy in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139048095

    A wonderful reference work, featuring forty-three short, introductory essays on Hardy’s life, work, reception, use of genre, socio-historic contexts, and afterlives. Strikes a good balance between expertise and accessibility. An excellent starting point for researchers, which includes lucid overviews over earlier critical responses by Sarah Maier, Tim Dolin, and Peter Robinson and an outstanding “Further Reading” section listing works published before 2013. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

  • Miller, J. Hillis. Distance and Desire. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970.

    A seminal poststructuralist reading of canonical works, which remains among the most influential and important pieces of Hardy criticism. Argues that “distance as the source of desire and desire as the energy behind attempts to turn distance into closeness” (p. xii) are threads that characterize the whole of Hardy’s oeuvre. Accessible and suitable as an advanced introduction to Hardy’s writing.

  • Morgan, Rosemarie, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge. 2010.

    An outstanding research tool. Combines original essays by leading experts on underexplored areas within Hardy studies, including masculinity and popular culture; lucid reconsiderations of familiar themes, including gender, evolution, and tragedy; and revisionary readings of the poetry by authorities such as J. Hillis Miller, Gillian Beer, and Tom Paulin. Available online for purchase.

  • Widdowson, Peter. Thomas Hardy. 2d rev. ed. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2007.

    Originally published in 1996. An introductory survey, suitable for undergraduate students, which approaches Hardy through the lens of cultural-materialist theory. Argues that Hardy’s work remains a “terrain to be fought over,” (p. 4) and explores its contemporary resonance—focusing on sexual and class politics—to disrupt notions about its apolitical, universal, or nostalgic appeal. In addition to a reception survey, it features chapters on fiction, poetry, and film adaptations.

  • Wilson, Keith, ed. A Companion to Thomas Hardy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Original print publication in 2009. An important resource for researchers, especially advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students. Leading experts offer detailed, sophisticated surveys of a broad range of topics as well as more specific, original research essays on specific works or groups of works. Michael Millgate’s essay on bibliography and William Greenslade’s overview of the notebooks are extremely helpful to new researchers. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

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