Wessex Folk & Wessex in Thomas Hardy's Novel

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Wessex Folk

      All the characters of Hardy can be divided into the following three grades:

Those who are protagonists of the whole human drama.
The people in contact with the protagonists (central figures) or who have some part in the machinery and are of small interest in themselves.

The rustic bystanders

      These rustic bystanders i.e., the minor characters are country folk from all walks of country life. The category includes almost all the farm hands, woodlanders, shepherds, dairy maids, furze-cutters, carriers, nondescript laborers, servants, cottagers who form the main populace of the Wessex scenes. One of the chief characteristics of these rustic bystanders is that they (i) always appear in a group usually at some public meeting place, and never separately (ii) They are not full-length portraits. They are drawn in a different conventions. Here Hardy is in the straight tradition from Shakespeare. But many of these lesser people, with very small parts to sustain, are sharply individualized. This rustic folk impersonates the spirit of the place.

      They are soaked in tradition, the traditions of a primitive class, rooted in the soil, which it is their function to typify. We may in them read the spiritual history of a countryside, Feudalism and Catholicism and Protestantism, law and education and tradition, changes in agriculture and commerce and tenure, in traffic and society and living, all these have worked and wrought upon these people. They are as eternal as the woods and fields and heaths.

      It is to be observed that these Wessex folk display their thoughts and humor most really and richly, when talk turns upon the more common emotions: birth and death, and the two or three intermediate affairs of the moment. Their talk is shrewd, rude, of an earthly and material savor.

Wessex Dialectic

      Hardy makes his rustics speak in Wessex dialect because he thinks Wessex dialect is the passport to our intimacy with the Wessex folk. However, he makes but a sparing use of the local words of Wessex dialect because he properly understands that too much use of these words or an exact phonograph of Wessex dialect will spoil his works. So he contrives to reconcile the demands of truth with those of art in a way which brings Wessex before our eyes and the echo of Wessex's speech resounds in our ears.

      They are far from the madding crowd. How the life of these country folk, away from the confused commerce of towns, and tumult and turmoil of the madding crowd, is a life in which nature plays a direct part with what influence upon soul and body, it is no light task to say. For crowds and multitudinous traffic, these men have the innumerable society of natural things, trees and winds and waters; they find companionship in creatures of the woodland and the fields; their hopes, fears, experiences, sciences, their faith and love, sorrow and hate, are nourished by the Mighty Mother Earth.

Their Impressiveness

      It is to the harmony between themselves and their surroundings that the country folk owe the impressiveness of their virtue and of their vice. Moreover, they never lose their hold upon life and truth, in Hardy's hands; not one of them is set up, a puppet of the stage, to draw bucolic (pastoral, rustic) commonplaces in a dialect, or to pass the bounds of nature in savagery and whimsicality and uncouthness.

      In short, a successful portrayal of country folk is one of the artistic triumphs of Hardy.

Their Role and Their Importance

      These rustic people play quite an important role in his novels. They are the 'cement' if his protagonists are 'bricks and slabs' of the palace of his fine novels. Without these, his novels would collapse and suffer, (i) Their services in making the machinery run smoothly and perspicuously are invaluable and (ii) they also help to bring out not merely the immediate but also the ulterior significance of all that is taking place. In a sense, they represent Hardy himself. They are quiet but deeply interested observers who see more of what is going on than the gentle folk is aware of, and they are continually dropping shrewd comments. In fact, the role of these minor characters is as that of 'Chorus in a Greek Tragedy'. They serve another useful and important purpose in the grim and tragic stories of Hardy (iii) they provide rich comic relief.

Conclusion

      One may regard these minor characters merely as so much background, furnishing a racy comment and genial comic relief to the matters in the forefront, yet they are by no means drawn as wooden figures of the same kind and quality. Their minds are not revealed; but it does look as if they really were minds behind those gnarled, weather-beaten, and merry or sardonic visages. They are not by any means an unthinking herd, no mere stage furniture.

Wessex

      Hardy is the unchallenged monarch of the counties of Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Devon, and especially Dorset, united under the sceptre of his pen. Never was a region so compromisingly celebrated as in these books. He belonged to Dorchester, and he wrote of that south-western part of England which he renamed Wessex and succeeded in building up, through his books an immortal region. It is a land of his invention. It owes to Hardy its fairest title of nobility. He has revealed its beauties and its charms to our eyes and immortalized it. It must not be supposed that the writer inhabited a region with which none could compare in beauty, or that such spots exist nowhere else. What is true is that all these landscapes of meadows and woods, all these pictures of villages and rustic scenes are indebted for their existence and immortalization to Hardy. This wonderful observer discovered things which did not exist for the ordinary eye. It is enough to travel in Wessex to be convinced that many a land become a realm charged with poetry and beauty, if only it finds the hand which will illuminate. Hardy is great in virtue of his penetrating and flexible interpretation of his native earth.

Wessex Folk

      The people living in Wessex are soaked in tradition, the traditions of a primitive class rooted in the, soil, which it is their function to typify. We may in them read the spiritual History of a countryside: Feudalism and Catholicism and Protestantism, law and education and tradition, changes in agriculture and commerce and tenure, in traffic and society and living, all these have worked a wrought upon these people. They are as eternal as the woods and fields and heaths.

      It is to be observed that these Wessex folk display their thoughts and touches of humor most racily and richly, when their talk turns more upon the common emotions: birth and death, and the two or three intermediate affairs of the moment their talk is shrewd, rude of an earthly and material savor. He makes them talk in such a language as with a smattering of Wessex dialect, brings Wessex before our eyes and the echo of its speech resounds in our ears.

      These Wessex folk, fast rooted in the soil, have mental immobility i.e., orthodoxy. Their religion is represented as 'fetishistic': a primitive superstition about places and things, persons and practices, of a pagan original, and only disguised under a Christian nomenclature. They entertain many superstitions. They are impregnated with legendary lore.

      They lead a calm and quiet life, away from the tumult and turmoil, confused commerce and multitudinous traffic of the madding crowd. They live in the lap of nature and are deeply affected by it.

      It is by the creation of these full-blooded people who dance and sing, eat and drink, work and make love; and on some occasions they do more desperate things, such as murder and adultery, and moral cheating; that Hardy has impressed upon our minds a vivid picture of His Wessex.

His Complete Identification with Wessex

      In fact, Hardy has completely identified himself with Wessex. He is a part of his own Wessex world, one with his people, a child of his countryside. When he leaves it he is quaint and mannered, like a farmer comes to a town in a stiff suit or perhaps an old country doctor. But back in his own world, all his sagacity, scholarship, his first hand knowledge of place and people, of nature and the ineffable spirit of time and place, return to inform his art. Most of the novelists are not at home among the places of, their imagination: from first to last, they describe their woods and fields, not as long familiarity makes them appear, but as they appear to accustomed eyes; there is no art in them. But Hardy has the art of impressing upon us so strong a sense of familiarity with his scenes that we read of Wessex, and we think of our own homes, far away and far different though they may be. Hardy has celebrated Wessex not in an academic manner but in a popular manner i.e., his descriptions of the different aspects of country-life does not come from the graceful inspirations of culture but it is the 'pagan' sentiment, the sentiment of homely villagers that moves his pen and his genius gives a specialty to Wessex.

Conclusion

      Hardy's Wessex is much more than a scenic setting for his stories and poems; it is the dominating over character-brooding constantly above his works and casting its changeless shadow upon the author as well as the people in his books. 'Wessex and its people' is the only one and great theme, on which all of his novels are written. Without a proper appreciation of Wessex, it is impossible to appreciate his works.

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