The evening sun was now ugly to her, like a great inflamed wound in the sky • Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Depicting real life • 1855–1900
1807 William Wordsworth employs pathetic fallacy in his poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills.”
1818 “It was on a dreary night in November…”. Mary Shelley opens Chapter 5 of Frankenstein with foreboding elemental forces.
1847 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë uses the weather on the moors to represent human emotion.
1913 In Sons and Lovers by English novelist D H Lawrence, the moods of characters are reflected by evoking the environment around them.
1922 The opening of T S Eliot’s Modernist poem The Waste Land portrays the season of spring as “cruel”.
A strong connection with the landscape and nature runs through the works of the English writer Thomas Hardy. This relationship was a reflection of the author’s tremendous love of Dorset, the county where he was born, and where he set all of his major novels. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, nature represents the authenticity and spontaneity of traditional, rural life: if nature suffers, then Hardy is pointing to powerful “modern” forces, which are depicted not only as destructive but also more broadly as indicative of human suffering.
Through Hardy’s use of pathetic fallacy, Tess Durbeyfield is shown as being in harmony with nature, which reflects her character and moods. The term “pathetic fallacy” was coined by art critic John Ruskin in 1856, and refers to the attribution of human behaviour and emotions to nature; this device was often used in 19th-century novels.
Tess is first shown as an innocent. She is dancing — a “maiden” in white — as part of a May Day celebration, and captures the attention of Angel Clare, whom she too notices. Although the author asserts in his subtitle (A Pure Woman) that Tess is “pure”, evoking a Christian sentiment, she appears at first to be the embodiment and celebration of the pagan, feminine, and natural.
The series of misfortunes that shapes Tess’s story is precipitated by the suggestion that she is descended from an aristocratic Norman family, the d’Urbervilles. This revelation distances Tess from her natural self — Angel’s “new-sprung child of nature” — and eventually leads to consequences.
As events unfold, and Tess’s life becomes entangled with Alec d’Urberville, she is depicted in more disturbing settings, such as beneath an “inflamed” sun or in bewildering, mist-shrouded forests. In an intense example of pathetic fallacy, she wakes in a wood to find herself surrounded by dying pheasants, hunted and abandoned, and she is forced to show mercy by ending their agony. Reflecting on her own misery, she is humbled by the suffering of the birds.
Pathetic fallacy is used by Hardy and other writers to link human emotions to aspects of nature — for example, using references to the weather to indicate mood: sunshine suggests happiness, rain misery, and a storm inner turmoil.
But Tess’s love for Angel is pure and Hardy shows that they can overcome adverse circumstances. They marry, but their happiness is disrupted; a cock crowing in the afternoon after their marriage ceremony is a bad omen.
Angel is compelled by his background and upbringing to turn against Tess after she confesses to a turbulent past, despite agreeing that she was “more sinned against than sinning”. Hardy no longer represents her in nature, working in the fields or with animals — he places her in the new and lonely environment of a town, Sandbourne, living as a kept mistress.
The inevitability of fate
When Angel finally accepts that he wants to be with Tess, the lovers are reunited and experience a short-lived pastoral bliss before darkness sets in again. They retreat to the New Forest, where, like nymphs, “they promenaded over the dry bed of fir-needles, thrown into a vague intoxicating atmosphere at the consciousness of being together at last…”. Here Hardy again suggests Tess’s oneness with nature. The forest atmosphere evokes a joyful, pure love, which triumphs even over the prospect of death. The stone circle at the end of the novel represents both paganism and nature; and Tess’s sleep on the altar-stone symbolizes her final, willing surrender to her fate.
"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."
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset in 1840, the son of a stonemason and builder, and at the age of 16 became an architect’s apprentice.
When he was 22 he moved to London, but after five years, concerned for his health and yearning to write, he returned to Dorset. Hardy set all his major novels in the southwest of England, and named his fictional landscape “Wessex” after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Although many of the novels’ locations are real, he always gave them fictional names.
Hardy was disposed to write about suffering and tragedy. The death of his estranged first wife, Emma, in 1912 led him to write some of his finest love poetry. After his death in 1928, his ashes were interred in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey while his heart was buried with Emma.
Other key works
1874 Far from the Madding Crowd
1878 The Return of the Native
1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge
1887 The Woodlanders
1895 Jude the Obscure
See also: Frankenstein • Wuthering Heights • Bleak House • Far From the Madding Crowd • The Waste Land