Romantic pespectives

Romantic interpretations basically see nature as either subjective or as a live and active force, rather than simply a material reality. Despite the apparent realism of Hardy's landscapes, Wessex is not a real place. The very fact Hardy renames his places and reinvents the term 'Wessex' indicates that they are imaginative constructs and should be understood as such.

There are two forms of Romantic interpretation, according to the various meanings of the word.

Tess as a Romance

What is a Romance?

The term Romance does not just mean a simple love story, though of course, the novel is that. A Romance is also a form of literature that is differentiated the realistic novel. Traditionally, Romances, whether prose or verse, traditional or modern, have certain features and structures. These include:

  • A hero or heroine on a quest or search
  • An initial period of success and happiness
  • A descent into the Underworld; a death experience; or loss of everything
  • Out of this descent, new power or insight is given to the protagonist to renew the quest
  • Various further trials, ordeals and testings to prove worthiness, often in threes
  • Various miraculous or supernatural forces fighting on behalf of - or against - the protagonist
  • Final attainment of quest, which may well include marriage
  • Sometimes a heroic death.

How Tess fits the Romance model

Tess can be fitted quite well into this structure, which assumes Hardy is actually creating a very traditional tale:

  • Hardy defines the quest as the instinctive human urge to find happiness in love
  • The heroine is allowed some initial happiness
  • She is certainly tested (see Moral patterns)
  • Alec and Angel can be seen as representing evil and good forces
  • The bad force takes on disguises to tempt Tess
  • The good force is sometimes misled
  • The supernatural is invoked, in the form of coincidences and talk of fate or destiny
  • The bad force is finally vanquished
  • Tess finally attains her quest for happiness in love and her marriage is consummated.

Tess as a product of Romanticism

The features of Romantic literature

The second meaning of Romantic signifies a product of Romanticism, the literary movement beginning with the Romantic revolution under poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. This began as a movement in poetry and Hardy's prose has a poetic inspiration behind it, even though its rhythms are definitely prose ones.

Romanticism stresses:

  • Nature and its beneficial spiritual force
  • The correspondence between nature and humans, for instance:
  • Between external and mental landscapes
  • Between outer weather and internal mood
  • Between the seasons and phases of human life
  • Between the spirit of nature and the human spirit

Nature is thus a source of symbol and imagery for human life

  • The primacy of the imaginative life and imaginative truth
  • The importance of the intuitive and spiritual over the rational
  • The reality of the supernatural and mysterious
  • The reality of the subconscious.

Any interpretation of Tess would have to include close attention to these points.

Was Hardy a Romantic?

Hardy's visual imagination

Turner paintingRegarding Tess as an inheritor of the Romantic tradition inevitably foregrounds Hardy's visual imagination. He particularly admired the English Romantic painter Turner, who was impressionistic in his method. Hardy echoes this when giving the reader a sense of the broad sweep of the landscape and its mood, by his careful word painting of natural scenes of the English countryside.

A ‘realistic' Romantic

Hardy's emphasis on rural simplicity rather than on urban sophistication suggests a Romantic perspective. However:

  • He explicitly disagrees with Wordsworth's optimistic Romanticism by showing that nature is not as sympathetic to the human condition as Wordsworth would have us believe. Nature allows suffering, overpopulation and decline
  • At times, Hardy suggests nature is actually indifferent to humans and that there is no real inter-relationship.

At other times, he seems to suggest quite the opposite and in his imagery and structuring; he establishes significant correspondence between nature and human life, even using omens in the same way as Coleridge or Wordsworth. He also makes nature a source of symbolism, even at a psychological level. (This has been discussed under pathetic fallacy.)

Tess as Romantic heroine

Interpreting Tess as Romantic heroine foregrounds the idea of her being a 'child of nature', living in natural harmony with her environment but disturbed either by male forces not in harmony with nature, or by moral conventions which Hardy suggests are un-natural and harmful. She finally manages to fulfil her instinct for harmony and reaches her path's end in a place symbolically devoted to nature. In addition, the course of her external and internal existence is described uniquely in natural terms, images and symbols.

The trouble is that such oppositions are not quite as consistent in the novel as some critics make out, especially when dealing with the 'laws of nature'.

See also: Imagery and symbolism

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