The heroines of Hardy's early novels are presented primarily as objects of erotic interest not only for the narrators and for the male characters . . . but also for the implied reader/voyeur. . . . What they think or feel seems not to matter; the focus of attention is on the feelings they arouse in a variety of men. ( Wright34)
To what extent is Thomas Hardy a feminist novelist? The question of Hardy and the representation of women has perturbed literary critics since the turn of the century. Just as mainstream critics remain unsure about Hardy's formal virtuosity (citing him with equal conviction as both a great literary artist and a crass technical bungler), feminist critics seem undecided whether to accept Hardy with distaste or to reject him with reluctance. Like Hardy himself, many remain ambivalent; Katharine Rogers reaches the fairly typical conclusion that "these novels show the tenacity of sexist assumptions even in so humane and enlightened a man as Hardy" (257). He is noted both for his revolutionary protests against social conventions that restrict women's freedom--Sue's repugnance for being "licensed to be loved on the premises" comes to mind--and for the blatantly sexist remarks that are scattered throughout his oeuvre like some kind of sexist graffiti. Not surprisingly, however, the root of Hardy's feminism (or lack of it) is to be found elsewhere than in such superficial evidence.
As a late Victorian creator of erotic novels that deal frankly with women's issues, Hardy bears comparison with most feminist writers of his day. Moreover, his novels are populated with strong, interesting female characters, most of whom would appear to be much more "modern" than any of the fictional creations of either Brontë or Eliot. Also, the Grundyesque constraints of the Victorian era had relaxed slightly by the time