An Introduction to Hardy's Novels: Physical Setting

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Hardy's handling of physical setting is unparalled in English fiction, although in the verse of the Lake Poets and Robert Burns one has a similar sense of a specific topography and landscape. But, when Hardy is at his best, as in The Return of the Native, the natural backdrop becomes another person in the picture, so to speak. Egdon Heath is not described sop frequently and in such detail merely for the sake of "local colour." Indeed, such rural settings were outside the range of experience of the primarily urban readership that purchased the periodicals such as Belgravia in which Hardy originally published his "Novels of Character and Environment." How does Hardy convey the numinous, atavistic sense that pervades the glade where Tess encounters the dying pheasants, for instance? Egdon in The Return of the Native is an objective correlative for the forces of tradition and environment that condition the actions of its denizens, and ultimately destroy the lives of the outsiders Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. How is the tragic ending of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, then, both similar to that of The Return of the Native and yet a departure? Prior to The Return of the Native,in such lesser novels as Under the Greenwood Tree and The Hand of Ethelberta Hardy brought his stories to closure by marrying off his heroines. Although one might argue that Ethelberta's being outsmarted by Lord Mountclere represents a dimunition of the feminine principle, it is hardly as extreme as the execution that brings Tess of the D'Urbervilles to a close. Had only Alec died, the book might well be categorised as a Victorian melodrama translated from the stage to the page: what motivated Hardy to kill off a heroine he genuinely admired? And why does he have Angel marry Tess's younger sister, Liza Lu, when in Far From the Madding Crowd he is content to dispose of Gabriel's rivals in a single shot, leaving Bathsheba free to marry the self-taught, resilient rustic who has stood by the quixotic heroine through thick and thin?

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Content last updated 14 December 2001