A shocking portrayal of humanity
That someone would sell their family to a sailor after a night on the ale seems shocking enough, but the cover-up and Henchard’s subsequent social ascent make the original act even more scandalous. Hardy rarely shies away from humanity’s darker side but his characters’ cruelties are particularly prevalent here as the bartered wife and child are forced into a new life far from home. However, the lessons meted out are suitably harsh, for Hardy makes it clear that past deeds never fade, and success and prosperity can be lost as quickly as gained. Henchard is punished for his misdemeanours to such an extent that, by the final chapters, he has become a deeply sorry, even sympathetic figure.
The Wessex novels are sweeping sagas with characters who bare their souls and share their triumphs and declines in a dazzling emotional repertoire. Hardy deals with social injustice, marriage and religion in often disparate contexts, as well as developing strong, independent female characters who are not always merely victims of their circumstances but occasionally also conquerors of them. Above all, he portrays a fatalistic view of the world: his characters are ultimately at the whim of a higher power.