Landscapes of desire vs. landscapes of community

The recreation of ‘reality'

One of Hardy's real powers as a novelist is to be able to convey a sense of landscape, and portray it as a vivid and atmospheric word painting. Hardy knew the countryside intimately, and his painterly and cinematographic imagination enabled him to convey this intimacy in powerful and often symbolic ways. Certainly the geography is symbolic of Tess's own life (see Geographical symbolism).

The Hardy critic Andrew Enstice suggests there are these two typical Hardyesque landscapes in Tess:

Landscapes of desire

The term ‘landscape of desire' describes one which parallels and often symbolises the inner states of the characters, especially Tess's 'inner landscape'. It can also refer to a landscape which taps into the popular Victorian taste for paintings of idealised landscapes, ‘desired' because perfectly fitting a certain idea of beauty (see Perspectives and viewpoint):

Dionysus, photo by Stafilis, available through Creative Commons

  • At the end of Ch 10 the drunken villagers actually appear quite idealised in their alcoholic perception of each other, a Dionysian vision (Dionysus being the god of wine as well as poetry). Hardy is ironically reminding his readership that paintings of country folk could well be like this, yet what actually existed behind the desired landscape was more unsavoury!
  • Ch 11 contains an idealised landscape of the ancient woods at night, with mist floating ethereally. However, there is an ironic space between perception and reality. This is a desired landscape – but for Alec only. For Tess, it is threatening. As Hardy puts it in Ch 12:
'the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings'.

Hardy's Garden of Eden reference shows how ambiguous this landscape of desire is

  • In Ch 12, the sign painter is symbolic of the fact that the landscape of desire is defaced. Other Edenic imagery can be found in Ch 19, 20, and 27, for example
  • Ch 31 is a further example of the tension Hardy maintains in his landscapes of desire. Even in the idyllic courtship at Talbothays, where Angel and Tess walk in lush countryside, Hardy reminds us of:
'gloomy spectres...waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light',

and that, though Tess:

'walked in the background those shapes of darkness were always spread'.

Landscapes of community

Genre paintingThe other sort of landscape is that of community. Genre paintings were another popular style of picture in the Victorian era. They depicted country people going about their normal work or gathered in small groups, enjoying life. In earlier novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy had created a 'rustic chorus' of country people who gathered in pubs or one another's houses, and commented on life and community. In Tess, Hardy has reduced this element, but certain communities are well described within their context:

  • The Marlott community is only seen fleetingly at one of the pubs (Ch 4), and then during harvesting (Ch 14). At first, this seems a recuperative fellowship: Tess appears accepted even with an illegitimate child and she partakes in the communal activity. But the image of the trapped animals jars the reader into appreciating Tess's vulnerability at Marlott. When the baby dies, there is no community by to offer any support, only an embarrassed vicar
  • The most idealised community is obviously that of Talbothays. It is free from outside control and is well-ordered, productive and harmonious. It is ably led by Dairyman Crick and his wife. There is a low-key hierarchy, but we are more impressed by the freedom and equality everyone has who works there. For once, Tess seems to belong, and it is Angel who is somewhat the marginalised or outsider (Chs 17-27)
  • However, even within this idyllic community, there is a smaller community, that of sufferers. These are the four dairymaids in love, as well as Angel. The two occasions Tess feels really miserable are when these two communities are in conflict, when one jokes about jilted lovers, to the pain of the other (Ch 21, 28)
  • Like Marlott, the community at Flintcombe-Ash (Ch 47) is a false one, made up of ghosts from the past, and becomes a purgatorial experience for Tess. She is undefended against Alec, and the image of the trapped animals is used again.

What all these communities have in common is their temporary nature:

  • Marlott is a place where 'you can't go home again' as inhabitants move on
  • Talbothays gathers in the spring, only to disintegrate in the late autumn
  • Flintcombe-Ash is left before Tess's time is up. It is an escape to leave it.

Related themes: Nature as sympathetic or indifferent; Tess as an outsider

See also: Geographical symbolism

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