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Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, takes great pains to relate the characters to their surroundings, especially in the parallelism between Tess’ emotional disposition and her physical environment. It is not surprising, therefore, that the two interpersonal relationships which are the most important to Tess’ life have their origins in a fertile garden and a lush grazing meadow, places where Man tames Nature but cannot escape being affected by Her himself. The timbre of Tess’ relationships with both Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare is very clearly foreshadowed by the nature of the places in which both relationships were founded.
The first relationship which affected Tess was that with her false kinsman, Alec D’Urberville. The rakish Alec becomes enamored of his “Coz” when she first visits the D’Urberville house in Trantridge, and within minutes of meeting her is plying her with all the fruits of the garden on the estate. When he tries to have her eat a strawberry from his hand, a lover’s act, she protests: “‘No — no!’ she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. ‘I would rather take it in my own hand.'” However, he insists and she acquiesces “in a slight distress.” After the first strawberry, though, she continued on “eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her.” He showers her with flowers, giving her roses to put in her bosom, affixing a few to her hat, and heaping them in her basket, “in the prodigality of his bounty.”
Alec’s acts and Tess’ responses to them in the garden foreshadow two events later in the book. First, Alec’s seduction of Tess can be seen in the strawberry scene. Tess’ response to the inappropriate advance is rejection at first, but later she gives way and is “half-pleased” by Alec’s advances. Alec’s unholy bachelor union with Tess, although he did force himself on her by circumstance, did involve a degree of seduction, just as with the strawberry, and Hardy’s words on Tess’ situation with Alec after the night in the Chase were that she “had been stirred to confused surrender awhile.” This can be interpreted to mean that Tess stayed with him and surrendered herself to his advances for a period of a few weeks after the night in the woods. Also, Alec’s profusion of flowers foreshadows his persistent encomium of her and promises to help her family when he confronts her near the end of the book. This foreshadowing makes the scene set Alec’s garden very important to telling the reader the nature of Alec’s amorous relationship with Tess in a way marginally socially acceptable to the 19th century.
The second relationship which affected Tess was that with Angel Claire. Her experience with him at Talbothays Dairy before his profession of love “amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale” can be summed up in one passage in which the two were walking in the meadows just after dawn. The summer fog is the chief metaphor for Tess’ and Angel’s love. The fog is described sometimes as localized, with “dark-green islands of dry herbage” where the cows had lain down for the night and other times as “more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which he scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks.” But the fog invariably melted away in the sun, leaving “diamonds of moisture….like seed pearls” on Tess and then leaving her without the fog’s mystical quality, “the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only, who had to hold her own against the other women of the world.”
This description of the vale and the fog can be read to foreshadow the nature of Tess’ romance with Angel. The fog is more ethereal than the sensuous flowers and strawberries of Alec’s garden, and so are Tess’ relations with Angel, begun so promisingly in the fertile vale, until their brief time together near the end of the book. Sometimes the fog is so thick that only the birds can fly through it, and dangers (the trees) loom. Such is Angel’s time in Brazil, when only winged prayer and letters could pass to Tess’ love. Even when the fog is less thick, only bits of green lively love can be seen. Such is the passionate, but brief love that Tess has with Angel during their courtship and before she tells him her secret. And when the fog is dissipated by the bright sun of Tess’ truth, it eventually reveals her beautiful to Angel across the sea, but by the time she came back for her, it had been dissipated, had left her but a normal woman for too long, and she had gone back to Alec as a result of necessity and his persuasion. This foreshadowing is not so obvious as that of Alec’s garden, but Angel’s love was “more Shelleyan than Byronic,” as befits an ascetic like Angel.
These two passages of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, each no more than two pages long, go a long way towards intimating to the reader the nature of Tess’ relationships with her two lovers. These scenes from tamed nature, a garden and a grazing meadow, are characteristic of Hardy, who used setting throughout Tess both to foreshadow plot, as seen above, and shine light on his characters. This book, a classic in English literature, is richer for its author’s use of setting._Essay:: This essay concerns itself with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I ask that my name not be mentioned in connection to this essay on your website, if that is possible.
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