Nature as sympathetic or indifferent

The effect of nature as a force

One of the central problems in Tess is whether nature is:

  • Sympathetic to Tess in particular
  • Sympathetic to humans in general
  • Indifferent
  • Even hostile.

Hardy seems to suggest all these possibilities at times.

Different perceptions of nature

The Romantics' view of nature

The Romantic tradition Hardy inherited from poets like Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley was that nature was deeply sympathetic to humans and the human spirit could be taught wisdom by nature, once attuned to it. Nature could also console and bring moral force to one's life. Wordsworth went so far as to claim love of nature led to love of humanity, and could bring one a sense of transcendence and knowledge of God.

The evolutionary view of nature

However, intervening between the Romantic poets and Hardy lay the shadow of evolutionary theory as set out by Darwin and Huxley. The Victorian poet Tennyson caught the mood of this shadow when he talked of 'Nature red in tooth and claw'. (However, Tennyson wrote this at a bleak moment of his life. At other times, his nature descriptions are as rich and sensuous as those of any Romantic poet.)

Hardy's ambiguity about the role of nature

Hardy inherited the perception of both the Romantics and the evolutionists. At times he sarcastically opposes Wordsworth; at other times he employs the pathetic fallacy, in which nature figuratively reflects back human emotions exactly. As one critic, David Lodge, wrote:

'Hardy is never sure whether the Pathetic Fallacy is a fallacy or not.'

The last section of Ch 13 illustrates Hardy's ambiguous attitude to nature:

  • Tess feels that the wintry mood of nature exactly depicts her own
  • Yet Hardy as commentator seems to undermine her feelings, especially those of guilt
  • Nevertheless, his portrayal of Tess being in the winter of her life to date so far suits his purposes exactly (just as it does some chapters later, when Tess follows Angel out of the ancestral house on their wedding night in Ch 35).

Hardy's use of nature

The seasons

Hardy deliberately exploits the cycle of the seasons to invoke various parts of Tess's own life. The two wintry scenes mentioned above are followed by a lengthy winter at Flintcombe-Ash, where Tess's life becomes a death of all her hopes, and the bleakness of the landscape exactly mirrors her own inner landscape (Ch 43, 46. See Seasonal imagery [in Geographical symbolism]).

By contrast, descriptions of the late spring and summer spent at Talbothays depict the rise of love and passion in Tess and her fellow dairymaids. Images of fertility and heat abound (e.g.Ch 20), not dissimilar to those in Keats' Ode to Autumn.

Pathetic fallacy

Hardy employs the Pathetic Fallacy to represent moments of Tess's inner conflict whilst at Talbothays, for example the pollarded willows and blood-red sunset of Ch 21, 28). In other words, a oneness between Tess and nature is established. This is often expressed through her moods and instincts, especially the 'inherent will to enjoy' (Ch 43).

Impervious nature

At other times, Hardy suggests nature has its rhythms and humans have theirs, but there is little relationship between them:

  • In Ch 14, he writes -
'The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain'
  • Similarly, the ‘peaceful February day' of Ch 46 bears no relation to the painful interview Tess conducts with Alec
  • Hardy comments in terms of Tess's lack of protection at the end of Ch 11 - however beautiful the summer night in the wood, nature has failed to protect Tess

On the other hand, it could be argued that getting lost in a dense wood is a typical symbol of temptation and fall, or danger and abduction, and therefore Hardy's actual use of nature imagery suggests consonance, not indifference.

A fallen world

Hardy has a strong sense that the world no longer works as it was created to. The Christian doctrine of the Fall teaches that this is owing to the rebellion of humankind against God. However, whilst Hardy recognises the out-workings of this, as a non-believer he wants to explain it in non-Christian terms.

Nature and providence

Probably the best way of understanding Hardy's usage of the terms ‘nature' and ‘providence' is to see:

  • Nature as the natural forces at work within people to bring them together as lovers etc.
  • Providence can be seen as the external forces that also shape people's actions.

Thus, the overall impression in Tess is that Angel and Tess are the right lovers, and their own natural instincts are bringing them together.

  • Angel uses the term 'Providence' in Ch 26, equating it with 'fate' and 'chance' (technically opposite concepts!) (See Determinism and free will). For Angel, it means any form of higher power (not specifically nature), here working to his advantage in bringing Tess to him
  • Some of Hardy's comments portray nature as providential (in the way that people use the term 'Mother Nature' - i.e. kindly nature, nurturing life). However, there are many instances where this does not hold true:
    • Hardy asked in Ch 11 'Where was providence?' when Tess was violated:
    • The implication is that nature is indifferent
    • This is echoed again in Ch 25 when Hardy talks of an 'unsympathetic First Cause'
    • With further irony, Hardy attributes this idea to Angel, which makes Tess's admirer feel he should be sympathetic, that he must be her providence - yet Angel lets Tess down.
  • Hardy also attributes to circumstances ('the circumstantial will') the mistiming of the lovers' relationship.

But whether this is to be called providence or 'the President of the Immortals' is immaterial. Ultimately, it is human failing which prevents the lovers staying together, not some external force.

Related themes: Laws of nature vs. laws of society; Coincidence, destiny and fate.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.