The usage of setting as it relates to characterization

An author’s use of form in his or her creation of a novel’s setting is of course necessary for any plot-driven text, but it can also strengthen the development of its characters and play a role in the novel’s thematic points. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Frankenstein, and Mary Barton, each author uses setting to further develop its main characters. Thomas Hardy uses setting to illustrate his protagonist’s purity and normalcy, while Mary Shelley does the exact opposite to characterize Frankenstein’s monster and the detachment from the world around him. Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, uses her setting as a middle ground from which Mary can experience a spectrum of settings and their designated social and monetary statuses.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, setting plays an important role in demonstrating the heart of Tess’s morality. Hardy uses the environment as an interesting parallel to Tess, making her a part of nature and of the novel’s setting. She is a farm girl, and is comfortable around nature as such – making it a contrast as she finds similarity to the portraits in the ancestral mansions. Instead, Tess “felt akin to the landscape” (Hardy 61) in the country. Hardy illustrates how Tess and nature are related in purity, as they are both of this earth and, by definition, natural. While Tess often takes omens from the behavior of animals, she is also often wrong. The narrator explains that “it was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time” (Hardy 63). By allowing the environment to mirror Tess, he transcends her over the social climate of the time and makes her everlasting, just as the laws of nature are. Any rejection of her from the environment is false, and “this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy…it was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she…she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly” (Hardy 51). This mirroring can also be seen in the tragic darkness of Tess’s original fall at the hands of Alec, where “everything was blackness alike” (Hardy 44) in that forest. Through his descriptions of setting and nature, Hardy provides the reader with further characterization as to Tess’s humble purity and her congruence with the natural world.

Shelley’s use of setting is emphatically different from Hardy’s, as she uses the gothic imagery of the monster’s surroundings to illustrate how he is unable to assimilate with others. On his own, the monster is immediately subject to the dark and cold, without shelter. The harsh environment rejects him, mirroring his isolation but condemning his unnatural being. Following the additional rejection from the De Lacey family, darkness falls and “as the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods, and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens; the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche, and produced a kind of insanity in [the monster’s] spirits” (Shelley 151). As anger and betrayal excite him, so too does his surroundings surge with this emotion, and the wind and clouds mimic the monster’s strong feelings of isolation and paranoia. Even though the monster finds refuge in the forest, he recognizes that there is no place for him. Frankenstein’s monster reflects that “with the world before [him,] whither should [he] bend [his] steps? [Although he had] resolved to fly far from the scene of [his] misfortunes…every country must be equally horrible” (Shelley 151). Therefore his ending is somewhat fitting, as the monster resolves to commit to the eternal surroundings of the endless ocean. He places himself “upon the ice-raft…[and] he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (Shelley 221). Although both Hardy and Shelley do allow the description of setting and nature to deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters’ places in their world, they do so by expressing its acceptance or rejection of the character, respectively.

Gaskell’s use of setting differs from both Hardy’s and Shelley’s in that it does not take an extreme stance. Where Tess exemplifies the normality of nature, and Frankenstein’s monster represents the opposition to normal natural law, Gaskell’s protagonist Mary Barton finds herself in middle ground. The setting passively accepts her, as Gaskell does not use setting to comment on Mary’s specific place in her world. Instead, Mary here represents the entire middle class as a whole, and these surroundings illustrate that Mary is an “every-day-man” of sorts that can transcend social class boundaries because of it. The setting of Mary’s house allows the reader to look into her private life and character, as the interior is described, that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The warmth and simplicity of the house mirrors the comfort of Mary. However, this middle-class setting is contrasted by two sides of the spectrum, and Gaskell shows the reader two other households and how they compare. In the Davenport home, the door “led to a black cellar, with a grating instead of a window…the floor was one mass of bad smelling mud…[and] there was not an article of furniture in it” (Gaskell 60). Through seeing the pitiable living conditions of the Davenports, the reader can contextualize the privilege of Mary’s upbringing, and how this corresponds with her perspective. On the other side of the spectrum at the Carson house, it “was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense…[where] a roaring fire burnt merrily” (Gaskell 63). Through being able to experience the other neighborhood surroundings of different class distinctions, the reader is better equipped to perceive the world as Mary does. Therefore, through exposing these three different settings, Gaskell caters sympathy to Mary and the goal of the middle class to blur the lines among these settings.

Hardy’s use of setting in Tess of the D’Urbervilles differs from the other two novels’ usages in that its layers radically help illustrate the notion of purity in Tess. The setting as it relates to nature makes claims regarding Tess’s normalcy and place in the world, and argues against any social stigma. The added layer of setting includes its Victorian landscape, and the present social climate that had every preparation to condemn Tess for the so-called “seduction,” while preserving Alec. Unlike in the other novels, the setting both sets up an argument against Tess, while also making a case for her. Whereas one factor of the novel’s setting speaks to her breaking of social code and social law for females at the time, the other factor of the novel’s setting speaks to how this perception will come to pass, but that the natural world claims Tess’s purity as its own forever. Hardy’s duality of setting only deepens the reader’s relationship with Tess, as her surrounding either condemns or accepts her, and attempts to sway the reader into a side as to her intentions, personality, and purity.

How setting is applied with a different purpose in Frankenstein, Lady Audley’s secret and Tess of the D’urbervilles.

In every novel setting is one of the key aspects. Not only because it gives us a picture of where the action is taking place on the story, but it also contributes to the narrative in other aspects the author wishes for the reader to take in account. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for example the setting is mainly used as an escape; a place of conflict and reflection for the character. In Lady Audley’s secret the setting establishes the mood of the story; and on Tess of D’urbevilles the author unites the setting with Tess, who is the main character, to discuss societal and human notions of nature, industry and the essence of humanity.

I must mention that Frankenstein, Lady Audley and Tess of D’ubervilles share a characteristic of their setting, and that is the foreshadowing quality they have. In Frankenstein as Victor went home for the first time in ages after the death of his little brother, there is a description of a terrible storm in which Frankenstein narrates the feeling of being stalked, specifically by the monster. Later on we discover that this storm not only demonstrates that the monster was actually there, but it foreshadows the first talk Frankenstein has with his creation. Not only does the monster acts like the storm itself, by bringing with him a terrible fate for Frankenstein, but he also explain the storm of bitterness that resides within him. Lady Audley’s secret also features a storm, and in its aftermath George Talboy’s mysteriously disappears. There Robert’s life is turned upside down, and now he must assume the role of detective to solve the storm that later we see Lady Audley has caused. In Tess, the dark foggy night when she and Alec where lost in the wood was enough to warn us, of course with previous evidence in earlier pages, that something bad was going to happen, and quite effectively we learned that Tess is pregnant in the next book.

However, there is a main difference with Frankenstein, Lady Audley and Tess D’urbevilles, and said difference is that they share a separate goal aside from foreshadowing and event. In Frankenstein, the author seems to use the setting as a place of self-reflection: “ I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it, and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in the uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me. Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparently in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings.”(p.124) In this paragraph we see that the natural scenery brought Frankenstein an assessment of himself, which we had not seen earlier in the book. Now that  the setting has changed from the confinement of his quarters, Victor was able to meditate before the monster appeared. The setting, particularly the natural settings, tend to go hand in hand with conflict. It was in nature that the monster felt and also reflected of the meaning of his life for the first time, and it was in nature that he was rejected by the humble family of the cabin. It’s also in the glaciers that Frankenstein begins his story and also where he dies.

In Lady Audley the setting is used more to set the feeling of the story. For example, from the beginning the Audley Mansion is described as “sheltered”, “hidden” (p.44) “a place in which a conspiracy might have been planned”, “a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another” (p.45), “The principal door was  squeezed into a corner of a turret at one angle of the building, as if it was hiding from danger and wished to keep itself secret” (p.44). As one reads phrases like these used to describe the place in which all of the story will unfold, one perceives from the start that this will not be a happy story. The setting gives a sense of mystery and horror to the reader, and sets the stage for a story about murder and madness.

And finally, in Tess D’urbeville, the setting is often used parallel with the character’s journey of life to give the reader a chance to reflect on societal topics that the author is trying to convey. For example, on Phase the first. The Maiden, there is a portion in which Tess begins to criticize her mother for her child-like intelligence and for bearing so many kids, then we see that Tess left school to help with her little brothers and quickly learned to do many farm tasks in which she is excellent. Then we have a description of the property of Alec’s mother: “It was more, far more; a country-house built for enjoyment  pure and simple, with no acre of troublesome land attached to it beyond what was required for residential purposes, and for a little fancy farm kept in hand by the owner, and tended by a bailiff.” Further along the description continues with “Everything on this snug property was bright, thriving and well kept, acres of glass-houses  stretched down the inclines to the copses at their feet. Everything looked like money” In a way this description is parallel to the way Tess’s parents were treating her. The part in the description that alludes to a place “built for pure enjoyment” talks about Tess’s mother because everything was happy though they were struggling to maintain all their kids healthy and alive. Then the description in which they allude to money, talks about how the financial burden of Tess’s household was now placed upon Tess. Furthermore these contrast between the lifestyle of the poor and the setting used for the rich, conveys how farmer must struggle to get something out of nature, while the rich subdue nature and take it all purely for pleasure. This would moreover be a parallel with industrialism and naturalism, in which the rich mold nature to their own desire.

The Necessity of Tess’ Execution

The events of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles are spurred by the concepts of equality and inequality. Hardy crafted this novel as an obvious social commentary on said concepts, and although the novel begins and spends much of it time within the realm of inequality, by its end, true equality is reached. Disclaimer: I run the risk of coming off very heartless in this post; let the record show that I am no Tin Man. I do have a heart.

To be clear, Tess was inarguably a victim of inequality. In fact, she was a victim, period. She was grievously wronged by Alec, and then by Angel, and she suffered consequence after consequence for an event she had no control over. Alec raped her, and society blamed her. That is inequality, and that is wrong. For his part, Alec gets what he wants and moves on with his life, never repenting, never asking Tess for forgiveness or anything of the sort. He even goes so far as to blame her for his actions, making her promise to stop “tempting” him (Ch. 41). Tess, on the other hand, lives underneath the shadow of his actions, and her life is irrevocably changed. She lives in shame, guilt, sadness, and anger… but then Angel comes along, a light in the dark, and she begins to feel the glimmer of hope. Then Angel proves less than angelic, and leaves Tess for the same exact “sin” that he himself had just confessed to also doing (Ch. 34). What’s more is that her “sin” was nonconsensual, and his was very consensual. That is inequality. Clearly, Tess was a victim, and I pity and feel for her. More Alec/Angel drama follows, and her life is still burdened by the inequality of the repercussions that befall her after the night in the woods with Alec.

Then, in a plot twist I certainly did not see coming, Tess kills Alec, and in this moment, Tess stops being a victim, and starts being a murderer. I will never in my life defend Alec. I don’t even feel sorry for him. But two wrongs do not make a right, and despite the countless wrongs Tess endured, her actions were not right, and certainly not justifiable. She tells Angel that she “had to” kill Alec (Ch. 57). I admit that my purely emotional response to the murder was akin to “hey that’s cool,” but logically, Tess made just as bad a decision as Alec did when he raped her, and she took a life. Even though Alec’s mother did not particularly like him much, Tess robbed a mother of her son. She took all of her agency and bundled it into the one action from which there is no return – murder. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, and Tess is executed. That is equality.

Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, presents two opposite ends of the spectrum – inequality and equality – and while Tess is pitiable for the majority of the novel, the fact of the matter remains that, logically, if the reader blames Alec for raping Tess, then the reader also needs to blame Tess for killing Alec. Both people made conscious decisions to do their respective wrongs, and, again, two wrongs do not make a right. Where inequality won the first go around, equality wins the second time.

The Purity of Nature

While Tess does not remain pure in the strictest sense–she does, after all, commit murder. She is pure in the natural sense, rather than abiding by social law.

Tess is not unsusceptible to the view of society; she certainly feels sorrow and alone when society outcasts after she becomes pregnant with Alec’s baby. However, she has realizations that reveals she is more aligned with nature’s law then most people are. When society rejects her and she feels alone, she feels the least alone in nature: “and it was then, when out in the woods, that she seemed least seem” (114). Once she undergoes her second tragedy (Alec’s rape), she gains more worldly knowledge and realizes that she was not the one who was misaligned with nature; everyone else who sunned her was. She realized, “It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she […] She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself an anomaly” (115). She did not remain pure according to the laws of society; she did, however, remain pure according to the laws of nature: “But for the world’s opinion those experiences would have been simply a liberal education” (127).

We also see how purity relates to nature in Tess’s interaction with Angel. Angel is first drawn to her because of Tess’s withdrawal from society. He tells her, “Society is hopelessly snobbish, and this fact of your extraction may make an appreciable difference to its acceptance of you as my wife” (208), although we later learn that Angel holds on to society’s standards more than he lets on. When Angel does reveal his social values and tells Tess she is a peasant woman, Tess responds by saying “I am only a peasant by position, not by nature!” revealing that Tess believes she is not naturally a peasant (247).

We, of course, can’t discuss Tess’s purity without questioning whether or not she remains pure after she killed Alec. The murder itself is not natural. However, in a way this act set Tess free and allows her to become herself in her purest and most natural form. After she kills Alec, she runs to Angel, and this is one of the only times in the novel where she seems truly content and, ironically, the most innocent. Once she reunites with Angel, he notices, “Unable to realize the gravity of her conduct she seemed at last content; and he looked at her as she lay upon his shoulder, weeping with happiness” (385). Killing Alec may not have been the right thing to do socially, or even morally; however, it was what she felt she had to do, and in that sense, it was an act of nature. It did not last, and she had to answer for her decisions. While I wouldn’t say she was happy about being put to death, she did seem content. She said told Angel, “I am almost glad–yes, glad! […] I have had enough” (395). Despite it being the laws of society that killed her in the end, in a way she was set free from all of the pain society has given her.

People heavily critiqued this novel (because of the subtitle) because they believed purity should be judged by society’s standards, and those who depart are not pure. However, this subtitle was controversial because it caused people to question what they considered pure. This is why Hardy chose to highlight this quality in his title–because Tess was pure, not society’s standards, but by nature’s.

The Tragedy of the Misunderstood Mrs. Clare

In considering whether or not Hardy’s novel is a tragedy, we must recognize that the most common trait of a tragedy is the steady decline of a main character over the course of an agonizing and unfortunate journey. This is most popularly represented in Shakespeare’s stage tragedies: the steady decay of the mad King Lear, or the horrible deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Hardy incorporates this sorrowful journey for his main character Tess, as well as her fateful demise at the novel’s end. But he captures this tragic story while still maintaining a sense of realism that had existed throughout the 19th century. He does so by creating a character that is totally misunderstood by society, and it is this element of misunderstanding from society that seems to have grown over the course of realism in the 19th century that reaches its full tragic potential in Tess.

To be frank, Tess’ entire story is the epitome of depressing. When your main character is brutally raped at the end of Phase One, it is a pretty clear indicator that they will be leading a tragic life. Hardy even prefaces this scene by asking “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” (104). This simple question is a notion that there is a devoid of “angelic protection” from Tess’s life. She has no positive force watching out for her, meaning that her life is going to be full of suffering all the way up to her inevitable death at the novel’s end. Even more tragic regarding her death, is that it is the price she must pay for the sake of her “angelic covering.” Her situation is impossible; in Hardy’s world, Tess is not allowed to be happy. Before she is taken away from Angel, she states, “I am almost glad… This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough” (395). Angel symbolizes Tess’s happiness, and the only way she can ultimately be with him is once she has essentially sacrificed away her own life.

With regards to Tess and society, Hardy uses the tragic elements to increase a misunderstanding amongst herself and those around her. There is nothing more agonizing than watching Tess have to put on an act to everyone because her husband has abandoned her. “Who would think I was Mrs. Angel Clare… I don’t wish people to think who I am by marriage, or that I am married at all; it would be so awkward while I lead my present life” (291-92). She must try to fake it in front of society, and even in front of her family. This is evident in the scene when Tess returns home after Angel has left her. “‘D’ye think he really have married her? – or is it like the first-‘ Poor Tess, who had heard as far as this, could not bear no more” (270). Here, Hardy uses the tragic element of Tess’s situation to show that even her family doubts her innocent nature. She is secluded from all of society and Hardy’s tragic truth about Tess is that her purity is misunderstood. She cannot be what love intends her to be (Mrs. Clare) because society says that her purity already belongs to d’Urberville.

Novelists we read earlier in the century seemed to have an evolving tragic element that grew over the course of their realism. For instance, Jane Austen’s novel early in the 19th century had Emma dealing with serious relational flaws in her society. However, the novel’s ending has a comedic tone in that she eventually makes peace with those she clashes with, and everyone ends up happily ever after. Moving deeper into the century, George Eliot took Maggie’s relational circumstances with Philip Waken and Stephen Guest and used society’s misunderstanding to isolate Maggie, and while she did die tragically at the end, there was a redeeming grace for her in that she died trying to save her brother. Hardy brings the hammer home by bringing this tragic realism to its total fruition. There is no saving grace for Tess. She is killed by society because she killed her rapist; there is no greater misunderstanding left unjustified.

Purity; In the Eye of the Beholder

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Hardy’s description of Tess in his sub-title to the book, calling her “a pure woman”, getting lots of criticism does not surprise me. However, I think it’s important to think about the adjective, “pure” that Hardy uses. What is pure? What are the constraints of being pure? I believe Hardy was not only speaking in terms of sexual purity, but a sense of purity in being a well-rounded human being, a sense of purity in being a loving person, and a sense of purity of one’s mind.

If we first look at this prudish form of purity that many Victorians of the time would have wanted, it’s not a secret that Tess is pure until her rape by Alec. BUT, even though technically she has lost her sense of sexual purity, I would call her still pure because she did not want that to happen to her and we indefinitely see that in the naming of her child, “Sorrow”. To me, that name goes against societal archetypes which could only make sense to someone in her sincere grieving position.

Next, if we look at Hardy’s “pure” adjective as someone who is a well-rounded, loving person, I think Tess fits pretty well. Although, in retrospect, Tess was used and abused by those in society, particularly men. Tess finds love and eventually opens up her feelings. She helps those she comes across and likes to enjoy the smaller things in life, like nature. She’s not a bad person.

Lastly, if we think about Tess having a pure mind, I can’t completely agree with Hardy giving her the title “pure”. I only say this because she is always at a war with her thoughts. Whether it be her rape, Sorrow, or hiding this secret from Angel, she is not free from the guilt in her mind enough to say she has a pure mind.

However, no matter what, she is more pure than the men who use and abuse her in the society. Tess began her life as a nice girl who trusted men, and didn’t associate her body with sexual desire. Tess got victimized, and essentially trapped by the men in this novel which makes society and the ability of men to manipulate her innocence what was not pure, not Tess.



Tess’s Consistency as a Sign of Growth

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s growth does not conform to the moral development characteristic of a bildungsroman. Hardy, through Tess, argues that bildungsroman is an inadequate understanding of personal growth. Tess’s growth is her ability to consistently retain her agency in the face of several different circumstances which temporarily rob her of it. For example, after Alec kisses her on the carriage, she chooses to get off: she “could not be induced to remount” and walks the rest of the way (86). She could not resist the first kiss, signaling her lost agency but recaptures it by getting off. After raping her, he offers to provide for her: “‘You need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best’” (107). Yet she retakes her agency by rejecting his offer and moving to the dairy.

Then her circumstances change. Instead of a villain taking her agency, it is a loved one. Angel Claire compels her to marry him, in spite of her multiple rejections: “‘I told you I thought I was not respectable enough long ago…I didn’t want to marry you, only—only you urged me’” (254). His refusal to accept her rejection removes her agency, giving her only one option: marry him. However, within that single option, she exerts her agency by making marriage as acceptable to herself as possible. She satisfies her conviction to be honest with him and tells him everything about her past. In the face of a circumstance which removes her ability to choose, she makes a choice anyway.

When Angel leaves her, she is left to either give up or wait for him and face several months of isolation. Instead of choosing what would be easier, she not only chooses to wait for him, she refuses to blame him for it. When speaking to Marian, she presents Angel in the best light possible, saying that “Wives are unhappy sometimes; from no fault of their husbands’” (292). In a situation in which she is being pushed to give up on him, she exercises her agency by waiting for him and defending him in front of others.

Yet one might note that Tess did eventually give up on him by moving in with Alec. However, she blames Alec for her decision, stating that he emotionally manipulated her; “‘you had used your cruel persuasion upon me…you did not stop using it’” (381). So when Angel returns from Brazil, she retakes her agency by killing Alec and running away with Angel. Even after her death, she retains her agency because she insisted that Angel marry her sister for “‘it would almost seem as if death had not divided us’” (393). Thus her agency remains active, through her sister, after she dies. While Tess stagnates morally, she consistently recaptures her agency in the face of various attempts to take it from her. This consistency is a form of growth which the bildungsroman does not account for, suggesting it is a limited understanding of personal growth.