Treatment of Nature in Thomas Hardy's Novel

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Introduction

      If word-pictures could be hung on walls, a great gallery could be filled with Hardy's nature-pictures large deliberate oil paintings, delicate water colours and etchings, whole portfolios of sketches and studies. And certainly it is a source of satisfaction that the Hardian Tragedy, like the human one, is set amid the all consoling beauty of the most beautiful of the possible works—nature.

Combination of Cowper and Wordsworth

      Wordsworth in his nature-descriptions confines himself in general to the broad outlines of his subjects. With broad brush he sketches in, the mountain, lake and sunset sky. Clare and Cowper, on the other hand, concentrate mainly on details with loving patient accuracy. Hardy combines both methods. And, as usual, that mixture of poetry and truth which is the hallmark of his creative faculty and is the chief factor in his achievement in the share of Nature description.

Precise Description

      What strikes us first in his nature pictures is their precision. Hardy has the acute discriminating senses of an observer, who takes in things with an attention at the same time analytical and impassioned, His records of impressions owe nothing to literature; they are wholly direct and grow out of the object itself; as they formulate what the most impressionable peasants would subconsciously register, they extend our knowledge at many points. No one before him has caught or at least expressed through words, the peculiar rustling of the wind in the tiny bells of dried heather blossoms. His ear for the sounds of nature is both sensitive and highly trained. His power of framing vivid and beautiful metaphors; and similes has much to do with his success in reproducing impressions from without. There are ugly exceptions and occasional illustrations only to be understood by the technician but for the most part they are telling and give that impression of utter rightness which atone stamps a simile or a metaphor with success.

Description of Nature

      Hardy follows the methods of Thomson in nature description with quite facility his landscapes have a "power", that results from a hand of unerring skill working in exact harmony with an incredibly observant eye. A great poet of nature, he freely displays an exceptional gift for description, which owes a vast range to the perception usual both of fine shades and of vast solemn harmonies. The descriptions of Tess two valleys, Blackmoor vale and the vale of the Var-where the waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky—are gloriously good, but too long to quote. A point worth noting is that Hardy's landscape, like Turner's, rests on geology i.e., mostly he describes its geological features.

      In Hardy's nature-descriptions, we are always aware of nature moving on its appointed course, warming to spring, yellowing to autumn, with recurrent punctuality careless whether Tess dies or finds her true love.

Hardy's Love and Sympathy for the 'Animate' Section of Nature

      He has broad, comprehensive outlook that takes in the smaller creatures as well as the greater. What a quality of sympathy is evinced in the way he tells how, as the frost came on, "Many a small bird went to bed supperless that night among the bare boughs" or now with the advent of spring "birds began not to mind getting wet". Here it is playful and humorous but it often becomes charged with deep pathos, when the sorrows of the animal world are shown to be not less than our own, in proportion to their capacity for feeling. Tess, wounded in spirit, spends a night in a wood, and is melted to rears, by the sufferings of the peasants maimed in the interests of "sport", draws a lesson from their plight with reference to her own.

His Nature Pictures

      No other writer but Hardy has envisaged the English landscape in so many aspects. He loves the sea, but does not so often describe it. "He has lovingly described the elementary, grand and sad aspects of nature; the land which appeals to him most is that which is freest from human dwellings. He loves to paint the woods, where the seasons go through the infinitely varied circle of rich pastures, the sober hills of his native district, the bare uplands where the furrow of a Roman road runs straight and empty to the horizon, the gloomy vastness of the moor in which every tiling vanishes as if swallowed up in the depths of the centuries whose image is called up by its immobility." (Cazamian)

Hardy's Attitude to Nature: Not Wordsworthian

      He did not believe that Nature has any holy plan or healing power. Being influenced by the theory of evolution he found much in nature that was cruel and antagonistic to man. "To Hardy, man was simply a part of nature who was indifferent to his aspirations and went his way without caring much for it," as David Cecil observed.

      Nature has a great role to play in Hardy's novels. Such books as The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree, and Far From the Madding Crowd, bear the sign manual of Nature-loving Hardy in their titles and the generous manner in which these novels fulfill the promise thus held needs no demonstration.

Nature: Its Influence on Moods

      The weather and even the time of the day and their effect on mood are included in his descriptions. The strange, unearthy feeling of early morning to Clare in proximity to Tess, the tensed foreboding atmosphere while Gabriel Oak is working to save Bathsheba's ricks from burning, these and many more scenes show natural assets Working on the mood of the parsonage and through him or her, on that of the reader. Hardy has, thus, reproduced atmosphere by working in scenic and atmospheric effects, and it is done quite successfully. It is notable that his most living characters are bred in the lap of nature, and further, the actors and their setting are absolutely co-ordinated, we can't imagine one without the other.

Nature Descriptions—Personal

      Hardy's nature descriptions seldom have the impersonalness of the camera. In a majority of cases the natural scenery shown to us at any point in a story will be found to have an emotional connection with the events happening at that moment. With the progressive wreck of happiness of Tess, there is also a symbolic change in the climates and atmospheres of the places where she goes—from the secluded vale of Blackmoor to the hushed valley of the Great Dairies, the bleak chalk table-land of Flintcomb-Ash, fashionable sandy Sandboume and at last the great Plam and the Druid temple of Stonehenge. Human life is very essential feature in his picture of the natural world. He won't go to paint nature for its own sake.

      "Further, nature is to him emblem of those impersonal forces of Fate" with whom he presents mankind in conflict. In two of his books, The Woodlanders and The Return of the Native the setting is made to stand for the Universe; and in all his other successful works it has symbolic value.

      Not a background, but an actor in the play, it is always present, as the incarnation of a living force with a will and a purpose of its own— 'now and again taking an actual hand in the story—running Henchard's crops, killing Giles—but more often standing aloof, the taciturn and ironic spectator of the ephemeral human insects who struggle on its surface. In fact, eliminate Nature from Hardy's novels and perhaps, you will feel them insipid.

Conclusion

      The Return of the Native is a novel in which, indeed, nature enters more than into any other. It is, in fact, the story of the Egdon Heath. Egdon is not only the scene of the play; it dominates the plot and determines the characters. Here Nature is not just the background in his drama but a leading character in it.

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