Thomas Hardy and Nature

handleaf2The power of nature runs through Tess of the D’Ubervilles. The Victorian tragedy is set in fictitious Wessex County (home of Stonehenge where pagan rituals are said to have taken place). 


At times Hardy casts nature in a life-giving, morally neutral light and the opposing forces of Christianity and social class as suffocating and eventually destructive. The latter destroy the beautiful virgin Tess, a country girl who only desires to help her slothful, drunken father; hardworking mother; and six siblings.


 The novel opens with a local clergyman telling Tess’s father that it has come to the clergyman’s attention that Tess’s father is not a lowly peasant after all, but an ascendant of the once esteemed D’Urberville family that has all but died out.


When a well-to-do family of the same name moves into the area, Tess’s father urges her to go the family to ask for money.  (The family has only taken the D’Urberville name and has no blood relation with the real D”Urbervilles.)


Tess is employed by the D’Urbervilles to manage their chicken house. While working for the family, the sleazy Alec d’Urbervilles forces himself on Tess in her sleep (Hardy leaves the reader to determine whether it’s rape). Ashamed, Tess leaves the Durberville manor.


Tess has a child by D’Urberville out of wedlock. The baby dies suddenly of an unknown illness and Tess leaves home again to take a job as a dairymaid in another part of the county. On the dairy farm she meets again the dashing Angel Clare whom she met the first time at a full-moon fertility dance, earlier in the novel.


Tess wants desperately to tell Angel about her past. But she’s terrified of his reaction and refuses his numerous offers of marriage.  She finally agrees to marry him. The day after their wedding she confesses her “sins.” The shocked Angel, an intellectually confused son of a vicar, abandons her. He leaves England for Brazil, promising to send for her when he has established himself.


During Tess and Angel’s early courtship at the dairy, nature seems a kind observer of humans:


At these non-human hours [of dawn] [Angel and Tess] could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads around in a slow, horizontal passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork.  

When the abandoned Tess is a poor field worker on a dry, arid farm in the dead of winter nature is invasive and unforgiving:

Amid this scene Tess slaved in morning frosts and afternoon rains…at this occupation they could shelter themselves by a thatched hurdle if it rained; but if it was frosty even their thick leather gloves could not prevent the frozen mass they handled from biting their fingers.  

Hardy’s nature both shapes and responds to the fate of his characters. In fact, the reader feels nature so large in this novel that at times it seems a more  prevalent character than Tess.  Hardy suggests nature has ultimate dominion over humans and the rules religion and class impose on us.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: