The Woodlanders: Novel by Thomas Hardy - Summary

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THE WOODLANDERS (1887)

      The story-content of 'The Woodlanders' is insignificant. The interest in the novel lies mainly in the portrayal of the rustic characters and their reactions to the fundamental emotions of life in their woodland background. The story centers round the fortunes of Grace Melbury, the simple but cultured daughter of George Melbury, a timber, bark, and copse-ware merchant of a remote and unfrequented region of rustic England. The motherless daughter is brought up with all the care and devotion that the loving father is capable of bestowing on her. He sends her to school and she returns to her village, Little Hintock, an accomplished girl. The simple father has an arrangement for her marriage in his mind. He had married the woman loved by a friend of his and had desired to 'compensate' for his action by giving his daughter in marriage to his friend's son. The young man, Giles Winterborne by name, is engaged in the apple and cider trade. He is a true son of the soil and is an expert in planting saplings and cutting trees. Winterborne and Melbury are deeply attached to each other. But at the time Grace returns from school, Melbury's views regarding the marriage of his daughter undergo a change. He had made his daughter 'a genteel lady' at great expense, and he feels that Giles is too 'low' for her as a husband. His conscience tells him that he must fulfill the obligation to his dead friend, though he had not mentioned a word about it to Giles. But his fond affection for Grace makes him wonder whether he is justified in 'sacrificing' her for the sake of what he had done in the past. The lady herself is sincerely attached to Giles and has been brought up under the belief that she must marry him one day. Giles is head over heels in love with her. Their mutual attachment would have led to a happy marriage in course of time, in spite of the misgiving of Mr. Melbury; for, he would never have opposed the marriage strongly. But circumstances conspire against the true affection of the couple, which would have blossomed into ideal love. The world of fashion impinges on the rustic and insulated lives of the woodlanders when one Mrs. Charmond takes up her residence in the village. She is the proprietress of the estate in the area and is looked upon with awe and respect by the simple villagers. The lady desires to have a companion to cater to her whims and fancies, and feels that Grace would be the person suited to her tastes. She invites the girl to her house, to the great elation of Melbury. It looks as though Grace would be launched into 'high society', a consummation which Melbury had been devoutly longing for. But the capricious lady drops Grace as suddenly as she had picked her up and the expectations of Grace and the eager ambition of her father dashed to the ground.

      Even the fleeting contact with Mrs. Charmond has a disastrous effect on the Melbury family and Giles, foreshadowing a greater tragedy to follow. For, Melbury who has always been, important about the match between Grace and Giles, makes up his mind that it should not take place. A party given by the uncouth lover, in the course of which he commits many harmless blunders, convinces Melbury that Giles cannot 'rise up' to the level of his cultured daughter. Accordingly, he tells his daughter that he does not favor the match. A misfortune which befalls Giles at that time by circumstances which compel him to surrender his house to Mrs. Charmond, settles the matter finally and the courtship of Grace by Giles comes to an end, though the inclinations of the girl are in his favor.

      The natural instincts of Grace are perverted further by the appearance on the scene of another 'city-bred' person, Dr. Fitzpiers. Grace and the resourceful doctor come into contact with each other under strange circumstances. Fitzpiers is strongly attracted towards her, though his feelings have nothing of the deep, sincere, and selfless love of Giles for the lady. He is a trifler with women. Though he does not deliberately desire to make a victim of Grace, he pays court to her. There is something compelling about his personality and Grace is unable to resist him, particularly because her father is an ally on the side of the doctor who courts her with Melbury's permission. The result is that Grace accepts him as her lover, though she has justifiable suspicions regarding his fidelity. The clever doctor manages to remove her suspicions over his relationship with another girl of the village, and leads her to the altar against the whisperings of her 'still, small voice'.

      The effect of the marriage is felt very soon after. Fitzpiers settles down in the village of his wife for practice and comes into contact with Mrs. Charmond who has returned to England from her continental tour by that time. It turns out that they have known each other earlier. An intimacy develops between them. The fact becomes known to Grace first then to her father and then to the whole village. Tongues begin to wag and Melbury realizes the folly of his ambitions regarding his daughter. Grace is extremely unhappy over the fatal mistake committed in not being guided by her innermost instincts. One night, Fitzpiers betrays his guilty passion for Mrs. Charmond in a drunken mood and when he comes to himself realizes that he cannot live any longer under his wife's roof. He takes shelter in the house of Mrs. Charmond and together they 'leave for the continent. The sympathy of all is extended to the deserted young wife.

      Her sorrow is aggravated by a false hope which is given to her and her father that the marriage can be dissolved under a new law. Melbury tries to make up for the misery heaped upon his daughter by his foolishness, by asking her to encourage Giles once more as her lover, When their new courtship has progressed to a certain extent, news reaches them that the marriage between Grace and Fitzpiers cannot be dissolved after all. Grief and despair overtake the lovers as well as Melbury. When matters are in that posture, Fitzpiers informs his wife that he is returning to her. Grace feels revolted at the very idea of living once more with the false man and leaves her house on die day of his arrival, without the knowledge of even her father. It is winter then and her way leads her to the hut of Giles Winterborne. The privations undergone by him mentally as well as in material circumstances have subjected him to a serious illness by that time, though he goes about discharging his duties normally and manfully. His tightness and nobility do not permit him to remain in the same room with Grace when she approaches him for shelter and help. He surrenders the apartment to her and himself spends the time in shack nearby. The rains and the cold aggravate his illness. But he does not reveal his true condition to Grace whose privacy he does not desire to violate under any circumstances. He remains in die cold and rain for more than twenty-four hours before Grace realizes his position. The truth dawns upon her that he had exposed himself to death on her account. She takes him inside the hut with all her strength. His critical condition makes her bold enough to approach her husband himself for medical assistance. Fitzpiers reaches the spot without knowing in the beginning that the person who has summoned him was his wife, and the patient, Giles. He is unable to help Giles in any way; for Giles is a dying man and the end comes upon him soon after.

      Grace returns to her father's house in blank despair. She realizes the heroic, though mute sacrifice made by Giles for her and how she had thrown away the only man worthy of her in utter blindness. She visits the grave of Giles frequently in the company of another girl, Marty South by name, who has also sincerely loved him though he had not returned her love, Grace might have spent the rest of her life in silent regret for her fatal error. But Fitzpiers shows a change in his attitude to her, particularly because Mrs. Charmond is dead by that time. Gradually, Grace's attitude towards him also changes and the two live as man and wife, much to the surprise of Melbury. This is the story. As has been pointed out at the outset, it is not the plot that interests us so much as the psychological and emotional reactions of the chief figures to the circumstances in the midst of which they are placed.

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