Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, a rural region of southwestern England that was to become the focus of his fiction. The child of a builder, Hardy was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to John Hicks, an architect who lived in the city of Dorchester. The location would later serve as the model for Hardy’s fictional Casterbridge. Although Hardy gave serious thought to attending university and entering the church, a struggle he would dramatize in his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, his declining religious faith and lack of money encouraged him to pursue a career in writing instead. Hardy spent nearly a dozen years toiling in obscurity and producing unsuccessful novels and poetry. Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, was his first critical and financial success. Finally able to support himself as a writer, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford later that year.
Although he built a reputation as a successful novelist, Hardy considered himself—first and foremost—a poet. To him, novels were primarily a means of earning a living. Like many novelists of his day, he wrote according to the conventions of serialization (the process of publishing a work in periodic installments). To insure that readers would buy a serialized novel, writers often left pressing questions unanswered at the end of each installment. This practice explains the convoluted, often incredible plots of many nineteenth-century Victorian novels. But Hardy cannot be labeled solely a Victorian novelist. Nor can he be categorized as purely a modernist, in the tradition of writers like Virginia Woolf or D. H. Lawrence who were determined to explode the conventions of nineteenth-century literature and build a new kind of novel in its place. In many respects, Hardy was trapped between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between Victorian and modern sensibilities, and between tradition and innovation.
The Mayor of Casterbridge reveals Hardy’s peculiar location in this shifting world, possessing elements of both the Victorian and modernist forms. It charts the course of one man’s character, but it also chronicles the dramatic change of an isolated, rural agricultural community into a modern city. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as in his most popular fictions, such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy explores the effects of cultural and economic development: the decline of Christianity as well as folk traditions, the rise of industrialization and urbanization, and the unraveling of universally held moral codes.
Hardy himself abandoned Christianity. He read the writings of Charles Darwin, accepted the theory of evolution, and studied the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s notion of the “Immanent Will” describes a blind force that drives the universe irrespective of human lives or desires. Though his novels often end in crushing tragedies that reflect Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Hardy described himself as a meliorist, one who believes that the world tends to become better and that people aid in this betterment. Humans can live with some happiness, he claimed, so long as they understand their place in the universe and accept it. Hardy died in 1928 at his estate in Dorchester. True to the rather dramatically romantic fantasies of his fiction, Hardy had his heart buried in his wife’s tomb.