Symbolic Meaning of Setting in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

While it is often ignored in literary analysis, the setting in the novella occupies a critical position, at least from an author’s perspective. It can be used to build the plot of the novel, in which the setting establishes the scenic and contemplative aspects of the novel, which enhance the reader’s memory of the events in the novel. In other words, the setting can be used to achieve an imaginative presentation of events in the novel. Equally, setting impacts, directly or indirectly, the characterization in the novel. It can be used to influence the mood of characters, including molding and building the roles of characters in the novel and their actions and responses. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the setting has been presented as a dynamic force that shapes the character of Tess, the main protagonist in the novel, and her fate through the novel. The flow of the novel undulates between Tess and the setting; it shifts from the description of the outer world to the innermost experiences and character of Tess. Therefore, the setting in the novel, including Marlott and Trantridge, occupies a significant role in the novel, including enhancing characterization in the novel and advancing symbolic meaning.

First, the novel begins with a vivid description of the village of Marlott, where Tess, the main protagonist in the novel, grew up. The description of this setting is profoundly harmonized to the development of the character of Tess; it shifts between the natural beauty of the land and the innocence, beauty and purity of Tess. It is a classic depiction of the inherent interplay between nature and humanity. Hardy pays attention to this invaluable relationship between humanity and the physical environment or nature. For instance, in the vivid and detailed description of the village, Marlott, Hardy exemplifies careful choice of words to the extent that it reflects the character of Tess, whose role is yet to be introduced. The following excerpt shows how the setting plays to the character of Tess. “THE village of Marlott lay amid the north-eastern undulations of the beautiful Vale of Blakemore, or Blackmoor aforesaid– an engirdled and secluded region, for the most part, untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter” (Hardy 2).  In the excerpt, Hardy uses picturesque through words such as “secluded,” “untrodden” and “sheltered” that shapes and influences the mood as he describes the land. The picturesque creates as comforting and relaxing scenery of Marlott, which impacts readers’ feelings, including determining their anticipation of events that ensue. Hardy further describe the villages and their fields as: 

“This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by the bold chalk ridge that embraces the prominences of Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecombe-Tout, Dogbury, High Stoy, and Bubb Down.” (Hardy 6).

Marlott is described as fertile and sheltered in this excerpt, with fields that never go brown and always raining, even during the spring season. The vivid description, as well as the blatant imagery, echoes the character of Tess; the animated topography of the country, including its innocence and peaceful nature, reflects the character of Tess at the beginning of the novel, in which she has been depicted as natural beauty.  Hardy vividly describes Tess as “she was a fine and handsome girl-not more handsome than some others, possibly-but her mobile peony mouth, and large innocent eyes added eloquence to color and shape” (Hardy 15). Notably, Tess’s natural beauty and innocence concerning her appearance merge with the exhilarating natural beauty of the atmosphere and the physical undulation of the geography of the land. Hardy then brings the relationship between Tess’s experiences and nature closely; He states that “The atmosphere turned pale, the birds shook themselves in the hedges, arose, and twittered; the lane showed all its white features, and Tess showed hers, still whiter.” In this passage, Hardy signifies the mood of Tess. She and her family lost the horse which they dearly depended on. It also signifies the beginning of Tess’s plight and ill fate. It shows how the setting plays a key role in the novel.

Another setting that describes the role and position of the setting in the novel is Trantridge. After the death of the horse, which subsequently exposed the family to potential poverty, Tess is forced to flee to Tandridge, a town northeast of Blackmoor Vale, to go and work to help save the family from the impending poverty. On her way, Tess envisions an ideal encounter that would favor her. However, she encounters an opposite of what she had expected, which signifies the beginning of her ill fate. She had dreamed of “an aged and dignified face, the sublimation of all the d’Urberville lineaments, furrowed with incarnate memories representing in hieroglyphic the centuries of her family’s and England’s history.” ( Hardy 32). However, a “crimson brick lodge came first insight, up to its eaves in dense evergreens.” (Hardy 30). The imminent danger can be foreseen through the first encounter between Tess and the new environment, Trantridge. Hard writes that : 

“He watched her pretty and unconscious munching through the skeins of smoke that pervaded the tent, and Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down a t the roses in her bosom, that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama.” (Hardy 34).

Besides, the vivid description of Trantridge, its roads and rails also affirm the fears of Tess, including creating a mood that reflects her plight and fate, especially concerning her interactions with Alec. Hardy describes that: 

“Down, down, they sped, the wheels humming like a top, the dog-cart rocking right and left, its axis acquiring a slightly oblique set in relation to the line of progress; the figure of the horse rising and falling in undulations before them. Sometimes a wheel was off the ground, it seemed, for many yards; sometimes a stone was sent spinning over the hedge, and flinty sparks from the horse’s hoofs outshone the daylight.” (Hardy 46)

This excerpt describes the relationship between Tess and her new surroundings. She has discovered that she is not safe. The description of the nature of the setting signifies what to expect and what to anticipate to occur to Tess. The setting invites contemplation of danger among readers. It also knits the character of Alec and his intentions then. Alec would later seduce her into sexual relations, which she gives in amid a gloomy, sad and tragic mood. The mood of Tess reflects the outlook of the setting and the physical environment she is in at that time. Hardy notes that “At times her whimsical fancy would intensify natural processes around her till they seemed a part of her own story” (78). It shows he encounters as well as her experiences during that fateful night. Hardy furthers describes how the natural events in the environment intensified from the perspective of Tess. Hardy writes that

“The midnight airs and gusts, moaning amongst the tightly wrapped buds and bark of the winter twigs, were formulae of bitter reproach. A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood and could not comprehend as any other.” (Hardy 78)

It shows how the setting shapes the mood and character of Tess in the novel. There is an interplay between Tess’s experiences and character and the natural events happening in the novel’s settings.

The setting serves a symbolic meaning. The setting and the characters follow a parallel route that seems interwoven throughout the novel, especially from Tess’s perspective. For instance, her whimsical fancy would seem to intensify events and natural processes around her so much so that it reflects her own story. Therefore, the setting symbolizes the changing fate of Tess in the Novel. For instance, the setting in Marlott signifies the simple life in the village; she lives an innocent young girl in a quiet and simple environment. Meanwhile the rather violent and uninviting Trantridge signifies her unfortunate fate, especially the night she gets raped. Hardy paints Trantridge so much that it reveals that village’s moral status, including alcoholism and reckless living. Hardy states, “Even to her mother’s gaze the girl’s young features looked sadly out of place amid the alcoholic vapors which floated here as no unsuitable medium for wrinkled middle age” (21). On the other hand, Alec drives the cart recklessly. These aspects symbolize her unfortunate encounter with rape or seduction due to immoral society. 

Overall, the setting in the novel, including Marlott and Trantridge, occupies a significant role in the novel, including building characters and their roles in the novel through their symbolic meanings. Marlott symbolizes a quiet and simple life in the village, while Tandridge signifies the fateful encounters that Tess passes through. These physical attributions and vivid descriptions of these settings reflect the character’s fate, plight, and experience each time they find themselves in these places.

Work Cited

Hardy, Thomas. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 1891.” New York Nelson Doubleday, 1912.