Sunday, July 26, 2015

Life's Little Ironies, by Thomas Hardy

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Thomas Hardy's short stories prove to be just as good as his novels. 

Thomas Hardy is not particularly well known for his short stories. His fame rests overwhelmingly on such classic novels as Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’urbervilles. The reason for this neglect is a bit of a mystery, as this short collection is very fine indeed. Hardy originally published Life’s Little Ironies in 1894.

The collection comprises of eight stories, the last one, “A Few Crusted Characters”, being a Chaucerian collection of stories within a story. A group of travellers, on the way to a rural village,  each tell a different tale of a particular local “crusty character” they know. At fifty pages, this last story almost reads like a comic novella, and is rather different in tone to the first seven stories. One way to look at this collection is a book divided into two parts, the first part being seven stories dealing with themes of society, class, ambition, money and family, while the second part, a short novella, is a more humanistic exploration of rural life. As already mentioned, “A Few Crusted Characters” has a structure that imitates The Canterbury Tales and is full of Chaucer’s irony and wit.

The first seven stories, in contrast to the last bucolic story, are all centred around English middle class life. All the characters are dissatisfied with some part of their lives, or are after some sort of social advancement, but make bad choices, or circumstances lead them in that direction. Many fantasise wildly about life being better, but find themselves still in reduced circumstances. Some of the characters are quite immoral. In one story two ambitious brothers watch their father drown, not bothering to help him. In another a young girl gets her recently deceased uncle to sign a legal document that will deed his house to her. She does this by propping up his dead body, putting on his glasses, setting a bible before him and placing a finger on the text. In this way she manages to convince the local squire, who looks at the uncle through a window, that he is still alive.

The most satisfying aspect of these stories is how Hardy combines brilliantly worked out plots, sharply observed characters, a thoughtful, often sympathetic examination of society’s ills, a natural flair for comic dialogue and timing, and lastly, as the title of the collection suggests, an irony that suffuses all. Hardy also writes a superbly precise prose. Perhaps it’s his training as an architect which gives his writing such a neatness and clearness. His stories are so well organised and considered that they make for a deeply pleasurable reading experience.

Reading Life’s Little Ironies after a long spell of not having read any Thomas Hardy has inspired me to go back and read the novels of this great master. A faultless collection.

Life's Little Ironies, by Thomas Hardy. Published by Wordsworth Classics. ISBN:  9781853261787 RRP: $6.95

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