The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
“Happiness is but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”
Probably Hardy’s greatest work, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the tragic story of Michael Henchard, a man who rises to civic prominence but is haunted by his past. The first chapter features one of the most shocking events of Victorian literature, while the psychological mind games and dramatic plot twists in this story about the protagonist’s rise and fall will grip readers, leaving them dazed by the final page. Not an uplifting story by any means, The Mayor of Casterbridge is nevertheless an excellent example of Hardy’s oeuvre, and is a perfect read curled up on your sofa with a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter’s day.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
“Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness.”
The Mayor of Casterbridge might be Hardy’s best novel, but Far from the Madding Crowd undoubtedly is the best-known one. Does it not appear on every compulsory reading list in high school? Has it not recently been turned into a film with the most dashing Flemish actor of the moment? Yet it is the charming and compelling female protagonist which has made this book as famous as it is. Young, beautiful and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene is romantically involved with three very different men, naturally leading to a lot of drama, conflict and heart ache against the backdrop of the beautiful English countryside. The book has often been acknowledged as a proto-feminist text, with countless readers looking up to Bathsheba’s bold attempts to break free from society’s expectations.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)
“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”
When the impoverished family of 16-year-old Tess Durbeyfield’s learns that they are linear descendants to the wealthy d’Urbervilles, they send their daughter to meet them. Their son Alec’s unpleasant attention for Tess immediately incites a nervous and unsettling feeling with the reader and is a sombre foreboding of the ensuing events unfolding throughout the book. Just like Bathsheba Everdene, Tess is one of the leading female characters of 19th century literature, and will steal the reader’s heart. Through her, Hardy explores difficult questions of sexuality, social morality and the negative effects of modernisation.
The Return of the Native (1878)
“Why is it that a woman can see from a distance what a man cannot see close?”
The most Hardyesque of all, this novel is not for beginners. Patience is required, but the determined reader will be rewarded. The Return of the Native doesn’t leave room to resist Hardy’s characteristic improbable coincidences and dramatic ironies. The tragic love story between his five main characters at first seems to be nothing more than melodramatic, but there are profound psychological forces at work underneath. An astonishingly modern work, The Return of the Native is built around themes of sexual desire, and was thus an incredibly controversial work when it first appeared.
Jude the Obscure (1895)
“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”
Tired of the negative criticism and insulting response after publishing Jude the Obscure, Hardy abandoned writing novels and devoted himself to poetry for the rest of his life. In this book, the author had dared to write more frankly than ever, denouncing the existing sexual morale and indicting the institutions of marriage, education and religion. Again a grim but deeply moral work, Jude the Obscure tells the story of poor stonemason Jude Fawley, who longs desperately for education and knowledge. But in Hardy’s universe, humans are powerless to avert fate and the world is a place of brutal indifference, and even Jude’s true love for his cousin Sue – the last and most extraordinary of Hardy’s heroines – cannot save him. A tragedy of unfulfilled aims and man’s essential loneliness, Jude the Obscure will leave readers empty, silent and stunned.
By Hanna Clarys