The setting is used powerfully in both ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and ‘The Shipping News’, and is, in my opinion, pivotal in rendering these two novels so resonant and beautiful. It is employed to expand and reinforce the moods of each phase of the narrative, as well as marking these different phases. The setting generates the atmosphere in which the characters exist, but more profoundly, it is used to symbolise and intensify the feelings and experiences of the protagonists. Although written at different times by authors with very different literary styles, and set in places of extreme contrast- tranquil, lush Wessex set against grimy, degenerate New York, then bleak Newfoundland – the novels share a remarkable degree of similarity.
Both novels feature people with uneasy minds, people who are somehow unlike their peers, people who are searching ultimately for a sense of belonging. These characters, Tess and Quoyle, are strongly influenced by the ancestral myths which haunt their surroundings. They are trying to understand themselves in the context of these myths and to understand the forces that have shaped their lives.
Tess Durbeyfield discovers that she is a ‘belated seedling’ of a decayed aristocratic family, the D’Urbervilles. She is fooled into thinking that in finding her noble family, she will find love and nobility of spirit. Her story is one of disillusionment when she realises too late that this nobility and pride of spirit she so craves is only to be found within her, and not in the outside world. She needs a sense of belonging; but receives only physical and emotional violation, and further alienation.
Quoyle desires to comprehend ‘the mysteries of unknown family’, the dark lives of the ‘big wild boogers’ that are his Newfoundland ancestors; he needs to define his place amongst these treacherous, primitive people. Unlike Tess, however, he finally discovers a sense of acceptance of his past, and an assurance of his own individuality in the context of his family history. Proulx’s use of symbolism is especially apparent in the place names within ‘The Shipping News’. The first chapter is introduced with a definition of a ‘Quoyle’ – a coil of rope ‘that may be walked upon if necessary.
Similarly, Quoyle is a downtrodden, tyrannized character. His surname is the only name he is given throughout the book, a name that, significantly, connects him only to his ancestors and allows him no individuality. Quoyle’s town of residence before he moves to Newfoundland is ‘Mockingburg’. This name is representative of Quoyle’s experience there; it is a place that has served to emphasize his alienation and his lack of physical appeal: ‘a great damp loaf of a body…Eyes the color of plastic.
The monstrous chin…’ It is a place where Quoyle lives a detached, unfulfilled and lonely life, a life that is indeed a mockery. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Proulx chose Newfoundland as Quoyle’s new home; it proves to be the place where he rediscovers himself, a place where he is metaphorically reborn.
However, this new place is no idyll, it is savage and harsh. The lives of its habitants are governed by the often-destructive elements; reflected in the place names – Capsize Cove, Desperate Cove, Hell Rock – names that imply existences punctuated by hardship, danger and misery. This is a place where people rely on the sea to survive, yet often die whilst using its resources. The intrinsic link between people and elementary forces, especially the sea, is demonstrated by the name ‘Wavey’.
The relationship that Wavey and other inhabitants of Newfoundland possess with nature is one of struggle and opposition, whereas Tess is fundamentally linked to the landscape, but in that she is a natural being, a fragment of her natural environment. Hardy narrates her life in phases, like the moon. He employs landscape throughout his novel as a mirror image for his protagonist’s emotion. Her blissfully detached, unworldly childhood is set in the sleepy, warm Vale of Blackmoor, her magical love affair with Angel is set in the Eden-like, fertile valley of Talbothay’s dairy and her abject desolation and isolated sorrow are reflected by the barren, stripped landscape of Flintcomb-Ash.
Hardy writes using the conventional structure of his time. His power lies in his unparalleled ability to evoke landscape and mood in a deeply poetic manner. The ethereal descriptions, ‘spectral, half-compounded aqueous light’, are enchanting and lyrical, ‘The sky was dense with cloud, a diffused light from some fragment of moon’ Hardy uses nature to great effect, employs it as a symbol in his work with understanding, tenderness and intimacy.
He interprets nature so well because he has spent so long observing and contemplating it, perhaps during his rural upbringing. Imagery and symbolism are intrinsic to all Hardy’s novels. Dorothy Van Ghent called the echoing of experience in landscape ‘a symbolism that, considered in itself, is…astonishingly blunt and rudimentary’. Yet the effect of Hardy’s writing is so, that the reader and critic alike disregard this ‘rudimentary’ imagery. It is transcended by the elegance, beauty and power of his prose. Hardy’s most lucid and tenderly beautiful description comes during the summer at Talbothay’s when Tess and Angel are falling in love. He describes Tess with the intimacy of a lover:
‘Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls…her teeth, lips and eyes scintillated in the sunlight’ The lushness of the vegetation and the season itself echo Tess’s fertility, her womanliness, her heightened sensuality: ‘A season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilisation’ Hardy describes a scene where Tess listens to Angel playing his harp in the garden at the dairy, with deeply erotic language and imagery:
‘The garden…was now damp and rank with juicy grass…tall blooming weeds…gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts…staining her hand with thistle milk…rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which…made madder stains on her skin’ The words used to describe the plants are sensual; ‘damp’, ‘juicy’, ‘blooming’, ‘naked’, and provoke images of nudity, passion and even sexual intercourse, especially when it is considered that the landscape is used throughout to parallel Tess.