Thomas Hardy is best known for his tragic romances, novels which are really miserable and depressing to read. However, not all of them are equally so:

  • Far From the Madding Crowd, one of his first novels, actually has a happy ending for the main characters!
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge ... I didn't finish this one, but in spite of its often gut-wrenching twists and turns, at least some of the main characters end up contentedly married.
  • Jude the Obscure, Hardy's last novel, is the most heartbreaking and emotionally rending book I've ever read, and I consider it a great survival feat simply to force oneself to finish reading it.

Is there a clear trend to the tragic in Hardy's writing over time? I've only read a few of his novels, so I can't really say whether this conclusion is correct or a hasty one based on too few data points.

If so, why? Can we work out a reason for the change in the tone of Hardy's writing, based on events in his own life? Did his personal life get worse over time, inspiring more pessimism in his writing?

  • Hardy was writing about life - rural England of the late 19th century. Much of Dickens' writing is no less miserable, though he includes some larger-than-life characters of jovial disposition. Was life in Dotheboys Hall run by the evil Wackford Squeers any less miserable than that in Casterbridge? Continental writers of the period - such as Emile Zola - La Terre, Germinal etc, Hugo's Hunchback present miserable conditions too. More modern novels - e.g. 1960s Cathy Come Home dwell on the dark side of life.
    – WS2
    Jan 22, 2023 at 23:35
  • How about Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath? That didn't sound like fun to me. What is the purpose of literature? Is it to create jollity and euphoria? To report social conditions? To suggest dark motives? e.g Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Are you suggesting any book you pick up must make you feel happy and full of fun? The Simpsons perhaps make us laugh, but the underlying argument that it makes is deeply depressing.
    – WS2
    Jan 22, 2023 at 23:48

1 Answer 1


You could say that Thomas Hardy's work became more miserable as time went on; however, this is not explicitly true as even his earliest work was riddled with tragedy, including A Pair of Blue Eyes, Hardy's third book, written before his fourth book Far From the Madding Crowd, in which the narrative's heroine, Elfride, is rejected by her fiancé and dies in childbirth (after marrying another man, simply because he found out that she had been engaged to another man before him). This is clearly more heavy on tragedy than the latter book, so it is questionable whether his literature got progressively more tragic; I would say no as it is not consistently worse.

This underlying obsession with brutal realism and tragedy stems from his own deeply unhappy life, specifically his doomed marriage to Emma Gifford. Initially they were happy together, but Emma was a higher social class to the poorer Hardy, which caused a rift in their relationship as Emma began to 'look down on him', including his novels, allegedly saying they were only fit for servants to read. Hardy was so deeply unhappy that he wrote in one statement that "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties - being then essentially and morally no marriage." This acted as inspiration to many of the terrible relationships in his novels, such as Bathsheba's conflict in choosing between the three suitors and Tess and Alec's toxic marriage.

In 1912, Emma died, and Hardy was driven almost mad with grief (strange, considering their mutual disdain for each other when she was alive) and became the subject for many of his poems, exemplified in The Voice with the grief-stricken opening line of "Woman much missed how you call to me, call to me", and his tragic novels. However, the novels written before he met Emma including A Pair of Blue Eyes, were also tragic, which mars the theory that it was influenced by his personal life. Nevertheless, it can definitely be said that overall his literary subject matter was drawn from his relationship with Emma and her later death.

For more information about Thomas Hardy's personal life, take a look at Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man.

  • 1
    "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties - being then essentially and morally no marriage." Ah! clutches heart Shades of Jude the Obscure there. Thanks for this nice answer - I was sure Hardy's own relationships must have inspired some of his fictional ones, but never knew the details.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 23, 2017 at 15:36
  • No probs! It's something I have studied in detail, so I'm happy to share :)
    – Fabjaja
    Nov 23, 2017 at 15:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.