Perspectives and viewpoint

Hardy's use of perspective

Perspective in Hardy is a visual quality. It can have several different expressions:

The narrator and the characters -

  • The position from which the narrator looks at his characters and landscapes
  • The distance at which the narrator stands from them
  • The relationship he has with them.

The narrator and the reader -

  • The way the narrator leads his readers into the narrative
  • The amount of knowledge the narrator expects the reader to have or provides the reader with.

The view of Tess

The most dominant perspective in Tess is clearly Tess's own appreciation of her circumstances. The narrator stands very close to her, though at no point does he identify with her. In some subtle way, the reader is aware the narrator is male and that they are reading a masculine perspective of a female. This is not to say he is not totally sensitive to Tess's femininity, nor is he in any way chauvinistic. But there is always a gender gap.

At times, the narrator enters into Tess's thoughts, but more typically he is concerned with her emotions and responses, and how they are visibly expressed. Thus there is a good deal of physical description, though, strangely enough, there is hardly any comprehensive description of Tess's looks or physique.

The narrator often limits himself to the perceptions of other characters, especially Alec d'Urberville and Angel Clare. These male perspectives are only partial, in fact. Angel's is idealised (as Ch 20), and the painterly descriptions of the landscape bring this out. Hardy uses landscape and perspective to hep create constructs of character. It is these constructs of her that determine how Tess is treated (see Characterisation).

Landscape and painting

There is considerable word painting in descriptions of the environment Tess inhabits, with symbolic details brought to the fore (see Geographical symbolism). Hardy has a painterly or even cinematographic quality of visual imagination. In fact, he often refers to specific paintings as metaphors for the scenes he wishes to describe (e.g. in Ch 16, 25, 53, 59).

Groups of country people

Another type of painterly perspective is the use of groups of country people, in the manner of the popular genre paintings of the nineteenth century:

  • In Ch 7, Hardy writes of 'the group forming a picture of honest beauty flanked by innocence...' as Tess walks with some of her family to meet the carriage to take her to Trantridge. Notice the use of abstract terms: 'beauty', 'innocence', 'vanity'.
  • In Ch 10, the villagers returning home late at night seem quite magical in each other's perspective, though ironically, we see them also as a group of half-drunk revellers.

There is often an ironic gap opened up by such perspectives:

  • On the one hand lies the idealised genre perspective
  • On the other, the reality of what is happening on the ground.

Views from the heights and the depths

One of the most striking examples of Hardy's landscape perspectives is the use of bird's eye views and worm's eye views; that is to say, seeing things from a height laid out in front of the character, through whose eyes the readers see the scene; or the seeing of the landscape from a ground-level perspective.

Ch 16 affords a good example of the contrast of views, as Tess walks over the plateau to reach the Frome Valley:

  • On the one hand is the light of an 'ideal photosphere' bathing the scene in beauty and raising her spirits
  • On the other hand is the sense of insignificance in the accompanying worm's eye view as she reaches the flat meadows, where she was 'of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly' (see also Other images and symbols).

A tension between the two perspectives is produced which persists through the whole novel:

  • On the one hand, Tess is central, near at hand, full of life
  • On the other hand, she is a speck, one of many, in the vastness of the cosmos.

It must be said that, in the tussle between intimacy and insignificance, the former wins. Whilst she is socially of low status, Hardy is at pains to promote Tess's innate significance.

Other examples of:

  • The bird's-eye view can be found in Ch 8, 27, 43
  • Specks moving into significance are Alec (Ch 46), Tess (Ch 57) and the policeman (Ch 58).

The cosmic perspective

A variation of the bird's-eye perspective is the cosmic perspective, from which human life is measured against the cosmos itself. Examples are to be found in Ch 4, 7, 8, 43. This echoes Hardy's argument that humans are, to some extent, at the mercy of impersonal forces.

The difference between perspective and viewpoint

Viewpoint can be distinguished from perspective by saying that here the narrator's or even the author's judgement of people or events is conveyed:

  • In Tess, this can come through specific comments inserted into the narrative, where the flow of plot is halted, as at the end of Ch 13. Typically, Hardy uses these comments to defend Tess, but not always in as helpful a way as appears at first (see Tess as a 'pure woman'; Tess as a victim). The author's own agenda can sometimes get in the way of the narrative. This is a fault common to many Victorian writers, who often wish to moralise and convey their own views on a number of topics (George Eliot is an example).
  • Viewpoints can also be expressed in dialogue and exchanges between characters, both major and minor. Hardy often uses minor characters to put in a common-sense viewpoint, as when Joan advises Tess not to tell. Hardy uses such viewpoints to stand in ironic tension with how Tess herself may see the situation.

The relationship between narrator and main character is thus established through such perspectives and viewpoints. Usually, no particular comment is needed to point this out, but Hardy's narrative does occasionally underline sympathy or pathos in particular:

  • For example, in Ch 49, he writes 'It would have melted a heart of stone to hear her singing these ditties', of Tess learning folksongs that might please Angel. As readers, we should already be sensitised to the pathos, but Hardy wants to make sure.

Very occasionally, Hardy also uses a narrative 'we' to include reader and narrator, as in Ch 18: 'so we find Angel....'

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