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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Today's readers may find Thomas Hardy's outlook stern and grim. Hardy, however, was beloved in his own time. In an age when the Industrial Revolution was bringing dramatic and sometimes disturbing change to England, he celebrated the nation's roots in its rural past. In an age when new ideas like Darwin's theory of evolution challenged traditional religious beliefs, Hardy showed that even the simplest people have always wrestled with similar timeless questions: How are we to live? What determines our fate? Are we really independent beings? He spoke directly to the concerns of people trembling on the brink of a new era.
Though he dealt with serious questions, Hardy was an immensely popular novelist because he believed in telling a good story. And he liked to write about ordinary people. Their problems, their triumphs or defeats, were in his view the most important material for any novelist.
Born in 1840, Hardy grew up in middle-class comfort near the provincial English town of Dorchester. His father was a stone mason, successful enough that he could afford to employ assistants. His mother, who wanted a better class of life, made certain that her son was educated in the classics. Young Hardy showed a gift for language early, but when it came time to choose a career, he went off to become an architect, spending some years in London. As he worked at that trade, however, his literary talent inevitably asserted itself. He started to publish fiction; he began to get recognition for it. Eventually, after marrying Emma Gifford, a church organist from London, he returned to the Wessex countryside, the scene of The Return of the Native. Until his death at 87, he remained in the area, writing novels and, later, poetry, living simply and quietly despite world-wide fame.
His writing, however, reveals a mind and a soul that are anything but quiet. He questions the conventions of his day- marriage, for instance. He probes into the complexities of human psychology, of religion, of political theory. Though he lived in isolation, he was in touch with all the intellectual upheavals of the age. And it was an exciting, puzzling time. The recent invention of the steam engine had made travel fast and easy, and people suddenly had a different perception of distance, even of time. Suddenly, factories were springing up everywhere, and the quick money offered by new industries drew people from the farmlands to city slums. Typical English life, which had been rural, now took on a new character. People began to see themselves and their fellow men in a different light. The British government responded to these social changes by passing laws to guarantee conditions we take for granted today: voting rights for all social classes; regulations to promote health and sanitation; and programs to help the poor, the ill, and the elderly. Many of the ideas in the air could fairly be called "liberal," and they probably have much to do with Clym Yeobright's ideas in The Return of the Native.
The nineteenth century also faced Darwin's shocking (or exciting, depending on one's point of view) theory of evolution. The Bible seemed to be brought into question, as Darwin suggested that man had evolved from a lower animal rather than being created by God in God's own image. Organized religion staggered from this blow. And evolutionary theory was just one of many scientific discoveries that were changing the way people thought about the nature of existence. Hardy was well aware of these intellectual trends. Though he wrote about uneducated rural characters in lonely hamlets, he wrote from the point of view of a thinker who questions traditional beliefs. This voice is, clearly, that of an agnostic. He does not know whether or not God exists; he does not know if the universe works upon principles of justice.
Grim as his philosophical views may be, Hardy delights us with his lively individuals and his love of the English countryside. Like Shakespeare, he has a fine ear for local dialects. He had a painter's eye for dramatic scenes in nature. His heart goes out to the enduring decency of simple country people who work hard and do not indulge themselves in idleness or selfishness.
Is he too hard on characters like Eustacia Vye, who yearns for the city life Hardy spurned, or on Damon Wildeve, who cares for little but money and pleasure? Perhaps. Hardy often seems to be a stern and rigorous moralist. To balance this, however, he finds some hope in the homely virtues of characters like Thomasin Yeobright or Diggory Venn.
Though Hardy isn't exactly a cheerful writer, his novels are hard to put down. The reader is gripped by a sense of life rushing irrevocably onward. We become involved in the characters' dilemmas, and with them we feel torn between what people think they want and what life actually brings them in the end.
Unquestionably, Hardy speaks directly and powerfully to some need within us all. We, too, question fate. We, too, hope that unselfishness will be rewarded. The Return of the Native, condemned by critics when it first appeared, may be Hardy's greatest novel. It has faults, many of which may strike you right away. But the story and its unforgettable characters will lodge in your consciousness. You may find yourself thinking, "Yes, this is how life is." You may even begin to see the eternal questions which Hardy ponders cropping up in your own daily life. You are about to read a tale of country life, but it is really a story of the greater world in which human beings have always lived, and will forever live.
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