In any novel, the setting is vital, and often reflects the situation in either the plot or the characters feelings. In the Victorian novels setting was often either in the country side, surrounded by nature, in a world that was soon to change, an idealistic look back at the naturalistic world the author looked back to. Otherwise it would be set in the newly industrializing towns, such as London, providing an opinion on the evolution of towns and industry.
Whilst there were exceptions to this, such as Disraeli’s ‘Sybil’, in which the country is depicted in an entirely ghastly place, the tendencies of novels of the time were to use the nature around them to show exactly how the character was feeling, or what was going on. A prime example of this is Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where not only does Hardy babble on like some idyllic stream about rural life, but he also utilises his setting to depict and dictate the mood to be experienced by Tess. Other books of the period also use setting to great effect, and I will also discuss these in accordance and in comparison to Tess.Order now
Tess takes place in rural southern England in an area called Wessex that roughly corresponds to present-day Dorset County. Wessex includes a variety of landscapes, from fertile valleys to arid limestone beds, bordered by heaths, sands, and the sea. The novel begins in Marlott, which in reality is a village of Dorset named Marnhull. Tess, the protagonist of the story, is born and raised in Marlott, an isolated village that differs greatly from the country beyond. By describing Tess’s world as small and confined, Hardy is reinforcing the idea that Tess is a “pure woman,” a simple country maiden protected from the world beyond Marlott.
When the story unfolds and Tess looses her innocence, she has left the protection of Marlott and is in Trantridge and then in Sanbourne, which is Hardy’s name for Bournemouth. As Tess’ circumstances grow more tragic, the weather appropriately grows harsh and the scenery grows bleak. The countryside is almost a character in Tess. Much of the time the settings reflect what’s happening to Tess and the characters that influence her life. Marlott, her hometown, is as secure as a mother’s womb. Talbothays, where she meets Angel, is fertile and expansive- the perfect place for growth and romance.
Flintcomb-Ash, where she waits hopelessly for her husband to return, is an abject wasteland. Each station or place where Tess stops is a testing place for her soul. Hardy’s Wessex is so varied that it can be seen as a microcosm of the world. Notice, however, that the novel excludes large urban centers, though their influence can certainly be seen in the market towns and railroad trains buzzing through the countryside. Tess abounds in natural imagery. Few books are as lush with descriptions of natural life. To Hardy nature, like sexuality and society, has its good and bad points.
Nature can be wonderful, as it is at Talbothays Dairy, where the land is fertile and life-renewing. ‘The season developed and matured. Another year’s installment of flowers, leaves, nightingales, thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles. Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.
The scenes of Talbothays are heaven like in imagery and in what goes on there; they are an unrealistic paradise she has found. But not all of the surrounding is so kind and hospitable. It can also be harsh and grueling, as it is at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, where the soil is thoroughly inhospitable to growth. It is a barren cruel and unforgiving landscape, and this is reflected in the novel, with Tess feeling abandoned and desperate, shunned by everyone around her. The society has treated her cruelly, and now in turn so does the land, Hardy piles on misery upon Tess in every way, the land around her including.
It is evident throughout the novel how nature also reflects the characters’ emotions and fortunes. For example, when Tess is happy, the sky is blue and birds sing. When events turn out badly the earth appears harsh and coldly indifferent to her agony. Nature is also depicted in the many journeys that take place in Tess. Both traveling and the rhythms of nature are seen as causing fatigue. You’ll notice that as Tess nears the end of her life she doesn’t want to move at all. At the same time the natural rhythms of growth and seasonal change are vital to earthly continuity.
We see Hardy’s belief in the constant movement of human feeling between pain and pleasure is also reflected in the seasonal nature of life. As you read Tess is aware that Tess’ life begins and ends in the spring, that she falls in love during the fecund summer months, and that she marries, ominously, in the dead of winter. Even her story is divided into seven phases. Rather than calling these sections of the novel parts, Hardy uses the word phases to emphasize that Tess’ life is part of a cycle that includes all of nature. Other occasions in which the setting reflects her situation are when she is raped.
The fog is in and it is dark and cold, she becomes dehumanized, and something particularly inhumane happens to her, and this is suggested throughout the scene by the grim and ghoulish state of the setting. ‘Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap. ‘ The scene is timeless, and seems to be a long way from where they are, a million years away, where light and goodness cannot penetrate; it sets the scene perfectly for the undoing of Tess.
The setting and imagery in Tess sets the scene perfectly in many ways, almost farcically, in that it is idyllic when she is happy and yet hellish when things are going wrong, but that is evident in another famous novel of the Victorian era, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. There are only two houses in this novel: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The former is associated with the stormy side of life, the latter with the calm. Physically, there is a great contrast between these houses. Wuthering Heights is a strongly built and fierce-looking farmhouse.
When Linton first sees it he is frightened by the “carved front and lowbrowed lattices, the straggling gooseberry bushes and crooked firs. ” The building is battered by severe winds during the frequent storms. Thrushcross Grange, a large estate, is much more protected from the elements. It lies in a valley, and the park around it is enclosed by a stone wall. When Heathcliff first glimpses the drawing room through a window, he thinks it’s heaven-all crimson, gold, and silver. Yorkshire, where these houses are located, is a wild, bleak spot.
There are few trees; slopes of black rock cut swathes through the heather, which is dull brown most of the year; little streams tumble everywhere. There’s a lot of rain, a lot of mist, and a lot of snow. The people are taciturn, close fisted, and often brutal. There is no other world in the novel, and there was no other world for Emily Bronte. The character of the natural setting of the novel the moors, snowstorms begins to develop upon Lockwood’s first visit to the house, and it becomes clear that the bleak and harsh nature of the Yorkshire hills is not merely a geographical accident.
It mirrors the roughness of those who live there: Wuthering Heights is firmly planted in its location and could not exist anywhere else. Knowing Emily Bronte’s passionate fondness for her homeland, we can expect the same bleakness which Lockwood finds so disagreeable to take on a wild beauty. Its danger cannot be forgotten, though: a stranger to those parts could easily lose his way and die of exposure. Heathcliff and the wind are similar in that they have no pity for weakness. The somewhat menacing presence of the natural world can also be seen in the large number of dogs who inhabit Wuthering Heights: they are not kept for pets.
So we see how setting plays a huge part in establishing not only characters and plots, but most especially the mood of these novels. When we are meant to feel low, both authors condemn us to dark and cruel places, accentuating the dire circumstances of the characters we are meant to sympathise with, and yet when all is going well, we are returned to beautiful places, awe-inspiring, showing us that characters are on the up. Both novels employ this tactic, and both place a large amount of sentiment towards nature, as if ruing the industrialization, they see nature as fragile, just like the characters they have become or go on to portray.