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 Discuss How Landscape and Setting Reflect Emotions and Concepts in Thomas Hardy’s Novel.


How are the Characters and the Author to be Understood from  Philosophical and Socio-psychological Perspectives?


Thomas Hardy was a very learned man. His novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, appears to contain the embodiment of an entire thesis with many references to philosophical and theological concepts with aspects of positivism and Judaeo-Christianity. In a subtle way, ‘Tess’ has similarities with Voltaire’s Candide which is a parody of Leibniz’s idea that we are living in the “best of all possible worlds”. Hardy perceives either a punishing god or no god at all; moreover, that it would probably be more feasible to let go of the idea of God in favour of humanism in order to counter the effects that life has on the Tesses of this world.


In the panoramic perspective, the novel is Hardy’s search for the reason for human suffering but the reader is apt to overlook this because the plight of Tess  moves and draws the reader so directly. The novel is intense; the words rich and profuse, serving to parallel Tess’s experiences and to accentuate the correlating settings of those experiences.


Thomas Hardy believed that we live in an ‘amoral universe’; the landscape therefore, is often harsh, sinister, alienating and indifferent. At other times the landscape is very much alive, lush and beautiful - reflecting and complementing Tess’s emotional and physical experiences.


Correlative to the above is that one of the broader structures of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a seasonal background which serves as an accompaniment to, and an accentuation of, the inner fluctuations of the emotions: innocence replaced by experience, illusion by discovery, happiness by unremitting tragedy. In Phase the Third, ‘The Rally’, suggests Tess’s determination to try and relinquish the past which had made her feel so sad and guilty. The opening words of the section establish the mood of the season:


On a thyme scented, bird-hatching, morning in May

[Chapter 16]


The landscape is serene and pleasing to the eye. The words are full of hope; they are light and springy. There are sweet smells in the air and new life is appearing. The words have a steady poetic rhythm which carries the reader along in hopeful expectation. Tess has launched herself into life again. A few paragraphs later it is apparent that Hardy wants the reader to see a relation between the season and Tess’s mood:


The irresistible, universal, automatic tendency to find sweet pleasure somewhere,

 Which pervades all life, from the meanest to the highest, had at last mastered Tess.

[Chapter 16]


The optimism here, is still alive in Tess, ‘The Rally’ also underlines the rallying of Tess’s spirits and her emotions as she becomes increasingly aware of Angel Clare’s love for her and her love for him.

Throughout the novel, Tess’s moods are continuously reflected in the setting. She does find ‘sweet pleasure’ when she works at Talbothays as a dairy-maid during the summer. In chapter 24,’Phase the Third’, Hardy reveals how Tess and Angel gradually come to love each other by placing them in appropriate settings:


They met daily in that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning,

in the pink and violet dawn.

Love, like the sun, has not yet fully dawned. The pair are in a strange, enchanting interval between the first light of affection and the full beams of love. As the summer unfolds, the love between Tess and Angel matures, Setting matches mood. Chapter  24 begins:



Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below this hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.

Words and phrases such as ‘oozing’, ‘fatness’, ‘rush of juices’ and ‘fertilization have strong sexual anticipation. Correlatively, the land is voluptuously fertile; pregnant with life. The natural background has a strong sensual flavour; the somewhat oppressive heat conveying an atmosphere conducive to the courtship. The ‘hiss of fertilisation’ perhaps suggests a slight danger to Tess considering her sensitivity and past experience - the hiss of a serpent.


There is a sense of security and homeliness at Talbothays. Dairyman Crick provides accommodation for his milkmaids and they seem to enjoy a reasonable standard of living. The setting appeals to all the senses in the secluded bread-baking, butter-churning valley. Here, the cows are touched tenderly; they have individual names and the milkmaids adapt themselves to each individual creature's peculiarities.  Everything is ripe for positivity, love and  life during the long, lovely summer at Talbothays.


In sharp contrast, we learn of the cold, bleakness of Flintcomb Ash, where the rain sticks into Marian and Tess ‘like glass splinters’. Angel has deserted Tess. On her wedding evening, she confessed to him about the seduction/rape by Alec and the resulting baby. Tess is not forgiven by Angel. Worse, Tess cannot forgive herself. Her profound sense of guilt, abandonment, bereavement and ensuing destitution drive her to that ‘starve-acre’ place; a place as hard as flint, her dreams turned to ashes. The course of the pair’s relationship has turned horribly awry. The pathos is profound. Flintcomb Ash farm is a miserable, neglected place. It is devoid of love. It is uncared for by its land ‘lord’, which also reflects the fact that Tess is also uncared for by her ‘lord’, her husband, and in Hardy’s philosophy, the uncaring Lord God Almighty. Flintcomb Ash  is harsh; it is ghostly and strange, paralleling Tess’s feeling of detachment:


…..the whole field was in colour, a desolate drab; it was a complexion without feature, as if a face from chin to brow should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with lineaments gone.

[Chapter 43]


We visualise the analogy drawn between Tess and the landscape. Her relationship with Angel is destroyed. She feels nameless and faceless; the disturbing image of a featureless face reflecting Tess’s feelings of lack of identity. The landscape is forlorn, almost surreal and virtually devoid of life, hanging on the brink of death; in Tess’s case, the death of her soul.


Thomas Hardy’s interest in social issues and his concerns about the relationship between farm labourers and their masters is evident at Flintcomb Ash. Farmer Groby is interested only in profit, piece-work payments, long working hours and the cheapness of female labour. Everything, everybody, is invalidated and depersonalised. Consider the contrast with Talbothays where even the animals were given names.


The threshing machine is a ‘demonic monster’, exploiting the workers and their way of life. In chapter 47, Tess ‘feeds’ the noisy, vibrating machine with corn sheaves which it then ‘excretes’ into bundles. Hardy also demonstrates that the female workers have no free will because they are tied to slave-labour by their social class. Agricultural innovations, economic expediency and profit take priority over humankind’s relationship with the soil. The innovations also cause dispersion of communities. Tess is disrespected by this very system. Hardy conveys how she is disrespected by Farmer Groby, just as she is disrespected by Alec and Angel Clare.  Both the workers and the land are abused by the increasing mechanisation of farming life.


Nature itself plays a vital part in the novel. Psychologically, ‘nests’ are important. Like birds, Tess spends a great deal of her time outdoors. The nests are symbolic of Tess’s search for security. The incident with Alec in the Chase is synonymous with the violation of the birds which Tess kills in the wood. She is emotionally disturbed by that memory and the domino effect of the aftermath. She is lost, alienated from herself. She feels she will never have love, never have a home, all is desolate and bleak; any scrap of self-confidence she ever possessed has gone. She feels like a non-person. She is betrayed. She can trust nobody. She is cut adrift from God and equilibrium so in a moment of madness she kills the innocent birds just as her innocence, trust and soul have been murdered. We also have to remember that Thomas Hardy loves a bit of melodrama.   


Sometimes, the landscape is out of synchronisation with the situation in order to emphasize Hardy’s pessimistic view of an amoral universe. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an extremely sensitive and moving novel and it simultaneously reveals Hardy’s knowledge of human emotions and the natural world. In the Var Valley, he describes Tess as being part of the landscape, of being part of Mother Earth in her womanliness; of being of the earth and belonging to it. Later, Tess and landscape are cut adrift. Due to her poor, rural environment and parental influences, she is full of apprehension and superstition. At times, Hardy’s language and landscape are haunting and threatening to her:


She plunged into the chilly equinoctial darkness as the clock struck ten.

[Chapter 50]




The road touched the spot called ‘Cross in Hand’. Of all the spots on the bleached and desolate upland this was the most forlorn. It was so far removed from the charm which is sought by artists and view-lovers as to reach a new kind of beauty, a negative beauty of tragic tone.

[Chapter 45]


Superstition plays a substantial part in the novel. The stone landmarks [coldness and death] and the man who paints religious quotations in an Old Testament or Nemesis-like vein, point to the author’s wider philosophical didactic purpose; namely, that conventional religion is in many ways similar to ancient Greek mythology, in that Tess is not the victim of various psychological and environmental factors as is understood today; instead she is toyed with. She must suffer in order to learn the lessons and laws set by imaginary gods. She is the protagonist of tragedy due to her hubris; she has defied convention and Christian moral laws; consequently, she must ‘pay the price’. There is a pervading sense of hopelessness. The reader becomes increasingly aware of Hardy’s perception of an amoral universe which is totally indifferent to Tess’s perpetual suffering.


The primary cause of the ensuing chain of events that destroy Tess was her parents sending her to claim kinship with her supposedly wealthy D’Urberville ancestors. Her parents sent her because they were poor and because they were ignorant of, or disinterested in, the possible consequences. Tess wonders why her mother did not warn her about men.  Poverty and ignorance are the cause of a great deal of suffering and until humankind takes a quantum leap into the light this will continue to be the case. Girls from peasant or poor backgrounds may have to adopt tough exteriors in order to survive but Tess is not like Car Darch. Tess possesses refinement, tenderness and acute sensibility, like the author. She is childlike - naïve. She reveals great spirit occasionally but generally she is lacking in self-confidence and this causes her to be acted upon.  Many students studying this novel invariably attribute blame to Tess for the incident in the Chase. But Tess is still a child irrespective of her chronological age [which is young anyway!]. She is not ‘streetwise’ and she is unaware of any sexual allure that men perceive her to possess. There is nothing wrong with that. There is no point in students stating “well she shouldn’t have taken a ride with Alec on his horse or that she should have been aware” or that she must have been aware just because they would have been aware themselves. In the novel, Tess is not aware. Emotionally, she is a child. She thinks Alec is kin. She did not want to walk with the others. She wanted to get away from Car Darch. She wanted to get home and she put her trust in Alec.


There is a lot of projection on the part of Angel Clare. He idolized Tess because he thought she was ‘pure’ in the virginal sense. This is how he wanted her to be. She is pure. She is spiritual. She is entirely pure of heart but Angel denied the reality of Tess. He denied the truth of her sincerity and purity due to his social evaluations. Given her disposition, especially regarding her profound guilt-complex, Angel should have known how hard it must have been for her to tell him about Alec and her deceased baby. Did he not even realise how badly Tess would react to his rejection of her on their wedding day, not to mention the hardship she would subsequently endure? Did he really know Tess at all?


Tess thought Angel was sincere and true, like her. Did she really know Angel? We recognise here the dangers of projection and how our perceptions of others are coloured by the levels or limitations of our own experiences - our separate inner lives and our lack of insight. We, the readers, understand Tess more than Angel or Alec. Not even Joan Durbeyfield, Tess's mother, knows her own daughter [ "I have never really known her." 54.36]. We recognise that the concept of ‘falling in love’ is often a projection of who we imagine or want the other to be?  Tess thought Angel was a wholesome man. His lack of forgiveness, his lack of empathy, his lack of genuine love in her time of need is heart-rending. Angel's subsequent rejection and desertion of her is appalling. We see how Hardy is guiding us to recognise the hypocrisy of orthodox religion which can oft times leave the perceived ‘wrongdoer’ riddled with guilt, forever feeling as if they are plunging “ into the chilly equinoctial darkness”. Tess has broken the hubris and for that she must endure suffering.


The place, ‘Cross in Hand’ evokes the image of Christ in our mind’s eye, and yet how desolate is that place  in Hardy’s aforementioned quote. Why didn’t God take care of Tess? Why does society adhere to religious teachings when the existence of God is not even known to be true? These are the questions that Hardy seems to be asking. The novel was heavily criticised during the Victorian era. It was regarded as blasphemous due to its ‘negativity’, the questioning of conventional mores on sex [especially for women] and ‘poor or absent faith.’ Yet it is a beautifully written novel, encapsulating the tragedy of human existence with great sensitivity.


The coming of dawn on Stonehenge movingly signifies the end of Tess’s life and her ultimate separation from the ironically named Angel. Omens and portents are strong in the novel. Tess is a sacrifice. Her life is a negation. Stonehenge, with the dense black cloud above it, stands formal, primitive and authoritative. It is bleak, cold, hard, strong and threatening, a symbol of crass paganism:


….The uniform concavity of black cloud was lifting bodily, like the lid of a pot, letting in at the earth’s edge the coming day, against which the towering monoliths and trilithons began to be blackly defined.

[Chapter 58]


There is no proper justice for Tess who, from the very outset, was so pure in intent. She is pure because she is pure of spirit even though she does not meet the the standards of Christian society. Angel can only see the external, not her soul. He equates purity with virginity. The traveller in Brazil has more sense than Angel. He tells him that he has judged Tess too harshly; that  his concept of purity is too rigid. After all, what does it really matter about sexual intercourse in the wider scheme of things, the world, the universe? Orthodox religion's values destroy the wider reality and make a mockery of spirituality. Angel returns to Tess but it is too late. Hardy's perspective is that we are not therefore, living in the best of all possible worlds. If there is a judgemental God, He cannot possibly be benevolent or loving Everything is down to chance – crass causality, various combinations of random social and environmental events. Like unseeing, unwise and unloving gods, the law is the law; the ultimate man-made decider irrespective of extenuating circumstances. If Divine reason exists, it does not make any sense and it is an affront to the average thinking man or woman. Tess was put to death for the unlawful killing of Alec, who albeit unwittingly, greatly contributed to her destruction simply because of his nature. It is a classic case of "the coarse appropriating the finer." But of course, Hardy observes, life goes on unconcernedly in the merciless, meaningless, amoral universe:


Why was it upon this beautiful human tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.. 

Doubtless, some of Tess D'Urberville's ancestors......rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities; it is scorned by average human nature....

[Chapter 11]


At the end of the novel :


Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St Catherine’s Hill, further, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it.

[Chapter 59]


Despite everything, the landscape is still beautiful, stretching into infinity. But where was Providence? Where was God? “The ugly, flat-topped building with its octagonal tower” containing Tess about to receive capital punishment “seemed the one blot on the city’s beauty”. The ‘blot’ is not only the building itself or Tess’s predicament; it is also the big philosophical –why? And at that particular moment in time it was with this blot, not with the 'beauty', that Angel Clare, Liza-Lu and more to the point, Thomas Hardy, were profoundly concerned.

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