British author Thomas Hardy wrote 14 novels, three collections of short stories, one play, and over 200 poems. His novels The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, Under the Greenwood Tree, The Woodlanders, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles have all been made into motion pictures. (Have you seen any of them?)
Hardy wrote his novels during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but tended to set his stories in the mid-1800s, when bucolic contentment was possible. He wove common themes through his stories and employed symbolism masterfully. His most powerful plot drivers were carnivals, chance, and waterways.
The carnival brought out the lusty, animalistic desires of his characters. Hardy’s characters were powerless to stop themselves while caught up in the carnival atmosphere, prompting decisions and actions that would change many lives irreversibly. The Mayor of Casterbridge begins at a carnival where the drunken future mayor Henchard sells his wife and child. In Jude the Obscure, Sue innocently buys figurines of Roman gods from a carnival dealer, setting off a downward spiral. In The Return of the Native, Eustasia decides during a carnival dance to run away with her lover, but fate quickly intrudes to prevent her imagined bliss. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba’s supposed-dead husband sees her at a carnival show and decides to return to her, with disastrous results.
Hardy’s characters were also powerless to chance, when seemingly insignificant occurrences led to mammoth outcomes. In the first few lines of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Tess’s father is off-handedly referred to as Sir John, catalyzing a path of destruction to a simple family formerly content with its calm, anonymous existence. In fact, chance drives the entire novel. Tess is a strong-willed girl, but is helpless to chance occurrences that force her decisions the wrong way.
A calm-flowing river looks the same day after day when one looks only at the surface, but it changes constantly with new water replacing what was there seconds earlier. Water droplets are carried along with the current, powerless to stop or change direction. The droplets blindly travel the Earth, letting forces of nature determine their fate. Analogously, the lives of Hardy’s characters are determined by the same forces of nature. Hardy places his characters near a waterway when life-changing decisions or actions take place. Mayor Henchard goes through a complete role-reversal with his assistant Farfare while they both stand on a bridge overlooking a river. Later, Henchard slips into madness when he imagines that his own corpse is floating in the river.
Pick up a Thomas Hardy novel at your local library or read a selection of Hardy’s 53 short stories at www.darlynthomas.com/hardyshortstories.htm.