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Whether a function of calculation, inspiration or genuine sentiment, Thomas Hardy's secured himself a permanent place in critic's hearts by first writing with profound pessimism about Victorian England and then abandoning novels altogether in order to write poetry.  Even were he a total hack, this one-two punch of political correctness and literary pretense would have at least ensured that he was overrated.  But the fact that he was also a capable writer has ensured that he is one of the most overestimated novelists in the English language.

Mayor of Casterbridge, though not as dark as some of his final work, is a fairly representative novel.  The Mayor of the title is a respected grain merchant with a dark secret in his past.  When he was a young man and a bad drunk, he auctioned off his wife and daughter to a sailor at a county fair while in his cups.  Given a chance to redeem himself when his widowed ex-wife tracks him down, he remarries her and tries to be a good husband and father, figuring that no one need ever know of the scandal in their past.  Needless to say, things don't quite work out.  The wife dies. The sailor turns up alive. The daughter is revealed to be the sailor's and not the Mayor's.  And the Mayor loses his fortune and dies alone and broke.

To quote my wife; Whoopty Flippin damn doo!  Believe it or not, it's hard to work up any sympathy for the Mayor.  And what is the message of the novel supposed to be other than this seemingly obvious one about not selling your family?  Hardy is a facile enough writer and the book is fun in the same way as The Book of Job or the Zapruder film.  But it's hard to escape the suspicion that his lofty reputation rests mostly on his mere determination to write so pessimistically, going against the grain of a fundamentally optimistic age.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Thomas Hardy Links:

-REVIEW: of Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (Bharat Tandon, TLS)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "Thomas Hardy"
    -BIO: Thomas Hardy (Dorset Index)
    -The Thomas Hardy Association
    -The Thomas Hardy Society
    -The Thomas Hardy Resource Library
    -Thomas Hardy MISCELLANY
    -Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)(Biblio, links, etc.)
    -Bruce's Thomas Hardy Photo Archive
    -The Academy of American Poets - Poetry Exhibits - Thomas Hardy
    -An Outline of the English Novel: The Short List (San Antonio College LitWeb)
    -ETEXT: Hardy, Thomas. 1898. Wessex Poems & Other Verses
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS HARDY A Biography By Michael Millgate ( GEORGE LEVINE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS HARDY A Biography By Michael Millgate (Anatole Broyard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HARDY By Martin Seymour-Smith (James R. Kincaid, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Ellen Moers: Hardy Perennial, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy by Irving Howe
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: The Two Hardys, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy: A Biography by Michael Millgate
        The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy by Kristin Brady
        The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume 3, 1902-1908
    -REVIEW: Stephen Spender: Hardy Hardy, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years edited by Lance St John Butler
        Thomas Hardy's Later Years by Robert Gittings
        Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings
        An Essay on Hardy by John Bayley
        The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume I, 1840-1892
        Thomas Hardy and the British Tradition by Donald Davie
        The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy edited by James Gibson
    -REVIEW: Irving Howe: Hardly Hardy, NY Review of Books
        Providence and Mr. Hardy by Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman
        Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings edited by Harold Orel
        The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy Introduction by C.J.P. Beatty
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.  (SparkNote by Rebecca Gaines)

    -The Poetry Archives