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.