Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeAll issues7ArticlesThe Art of Analogy in The Woodlan...


The Art of Analogy in The Woodlanders and Other Novels: Hardy’s Eco-Writing

Figures de l’analogie chez Thomas Hardy : lecture écocritique de The Woodlanders et autres romans
Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak


Hardy’s lifetime spanned a time of intense technological, societal and sociological change. Pushed away from pollution-saturated urban centres, the wealthiest classes sought to create an idealistic version of the countryside. A novelist like Thomas Hardy contributed, albeit unwittingly, to this myth-making; he also, in what one might call a counter-text, fiercely criticised the system producing a commodification of the countryside. It is the counter-text of one of his novels that I propose to examine in this paper; more specifically, I will focus on a rhetorical device recurring in Hardy’s prose works which is instrumental in the elaboration of this counter-text: the analogy between the human and the non-human. The likening of the former to the latter is what contributes to the creation of a timeless rural countryside and also what underlies the capitalistic, hierarchical relationships within the human community and also of men with Nature. This naturalisation of the human is completed by its opposite, namely the anthropomorphic treatment of Nature: it undoes the commodification of Nature and the human as enforced in Wessex but also in the real rural areas of England. Complementary to this process, the interrelatedness of the living world as a whole is also evidenced by the ethical dimension developed by the counter-text which posits that man’s stewardship of Nature is not only morally justified but also strongly recommended if human survival is to be secured. Eventually, Hardy’s text emerges as eco-conscious and resonates with our contemporary preoccupations and the solutions that are put forward.

Top of page

Full text

1Hardy’s lifetime spanned a time of intense technological, societal and sociological change. Yet, Edmund Gosse among others praised Hardy for creating a secure, timeless rural world immune to change, and he deplored any of Hardy’s departures from it: after the publication of Jude, he wished Hardy “would go back to Egdon Heath and listen to the singing in the heather. […] His early romances were full of calm and lovely pantheism” (qtd in Cox 280). More recently, some critics also seem to have ignored that Hardy’s fiction registers change and have held the view that Hardy’s fiction belongs to “the literature of pastoral retreatism this ‘literature of the land’” (Martin J. Wiener qtd in Tait 2010, 65). Similarly, Jonathan Bate thinks that Hardy “represents nostalgia for a simple, honest, rustic way of life among hedgerows, haystacks, and sturdy English oak trees” (Bate 541).

2However, unrest, that is to say modernity under the guise of capitalism with its exploitation of human and non-human resources for profit, does penetrate the countryside of Hardy’s texts:

Pastoral time in Hintock is as inexorable as factory time, too. The cyclical order that governs the natural world is subjected, under the acceleration motor force of industrial capitalism, to a relentless efficiency whereby every season, every phase of growth and repose, every species can be profited from. (Dolin 553)

3Accordingly, a novel like The Woodlanders does not relate the fatal encounter between “traditional cultures deeply embedded in a stable ecosystem” (Dolin 547) and “the forces […] of innovation” (Bate qtd in Dolin 545). Rather, it delineates “modern cultures deeply embedded in an unstable economic system” (Dolin 547) while simultaneously creating a countryside as the “illusory object of the desiring gaze” (549) of a reader longing for “immutability” (555) and “seeking a respite from the modern in the fresh air of […] outwardly untouched rural heartlands” (556–557). The Woodlanders (1887) thus comprises two simultaneous texts proceeding from “its apparent willingness and simultaneous reluctance to satisfy urban readers’ country fantasies” (548). One text addresses the reader’s expectations. It accounts for Hardy’s reputation as a “producer of rural tales for metropolitan markets” (548), and also his participation, albeit unintentional, in the commodification of the countryside:

As well as encourage cultural tourism, Hardy’s fiction did what cultural tourism does: appropriate the ‘immaterial resources’ – traditions, stories, scenery, accents and idioms, lifestyles, work practices – of an underdeveloped countryside for the benefit of a developed metropolis. (Frow 100)

  • 1 Keith Tribe speaks of “rural wage-labour or the hardiness of small farmers” (Tribe 36).

4The other text is a counter-text. It contains Hardy’s strong charge against the picturesqueness expected from him and also against the capitalist structures of the rural economy1, the relationships between the members of the human community and their understanding of the non-human living world.

  • 2 “Marx never made the mistake of treating ‘capitalism’ as if it were a creature of the nineteenth ce (...)

5This article examines the counter-text of Hardy’s prose fiction, with an emphasis on The Woodlanders and on a rhetorical device recurring in Hardy’s prose works, which is instrumental in the elaboration of such a counter-text: analogy between the human and the non-human. The likening of the former to the latter is what contributes to the creation of a timeless rural countryside and also what underlies the capitalist, hierarchical relationships within the human community but also with Nature. This naturalization of the human is completed by the reverse process, namely the anthropomorphic treatment of Nature, which undoes the commodification of Nature and the human as enforced in Wessex and also in the real rural areas of England2.

6Lawrence Buell objected to Hardy being called an ecological writer because “[m]easured against the totality of what might have been said about the Wessex ecosystem, even on the basis of biology’s still rudimentary state, Hardy barely scratched the surface” (Buell qtd in Tait 2017, 187). Earlier, D. H. Lawrence rather thought that “[t]his is a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels […] that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it” (Lawrence 18). Kerridge offers a conciliatory approach: “The special value of Hardy to ecocritics is precisely in the way he does not separate place and person” (Kerridge 141). As noted by Tait, by 2005 and the publication of The Future of Environmental Criticism, Buell had come to agree: “Hardy had in his opinion become ‘the greatest of all Victorian environmental novelists’” (Tait 2017, 188).

“The materiality of the human”3

  • 3 Cohen 5.
  • 4 Terry Gifford, referring to The Return of the Native, evokes “country clowns” offered to “sophistic (...)

7The past Hardy’s fiction supposedly celebrates is a dream past in a dream country as dreamt by his reader: Wessex was created as a world beyond the time and space the Victorian urban reader was used to, with a population (especially the rustics) characterized by traditions and practices peculiar enough for such a reader to feel socially distant and even superior. Wessex has its traditions and language, and the reader feels as if on a visit to a foreign country, if not a museum. For example, The Woodlanders is replete with practical details about life in a rural community: about thatching spars made for thatched roofing; about apple pressing, cider making, housecleaning and the polishing of wooden chairs with “greasy furniture polish” to give them a “mirror-like effect” (Hardy 1994a, 85), a practice which might not agree well with a sitter’s fine clothing, as Grace remarks (85). To the finely-educated young woman she has become, her people and her former place appear in their “crude rusticity” (134); these are Fitzpiers’s terms, but they could be hers. Accordingly, the dances at Giles’s party are mere “gyrations, of a very different measure that she had been accustomed to tread with a bevy of sylph-like figures in muslin” (89). Countryside ways appear to her uncouth and unrefined in light of her urban education. Felice and Fitzpiers – together with Grace, irremediably altered by her education away from home – represent an external gaze upon the Wessex rural community, possibly the reader’s own distant gaze. The members of this community are not transferable to a non-rural soil. Besides, they are systematically shown (to the reader) and seen (by external characters) as amusingly outlandish in their looks, speech and manners when they belong to the rustics4, and simply unsophisticated when they do not. All are looked down upon by the external, more cosmopolitan, characters to whom they appear brutish, lacking in manners, uneducated if not primitive and close to nature. Interestingly, none of them ever feels uncomfortable, scared or lost in Nature, whereas Felice and Grace are overwhelmed by fear after they have lost their way in the woods. The narrator enhances this nature/culture divide with obtrusively literary commentaries and references, establishing an implicit connection with his readers – and possibly his cultured characters – as members of the same cultural background: Nature is for them a literary topic, a recreational locus amoenus, both essentialised and timeless. To the other characters, Nature is the georgic environment where they live and work: the Hintocks are surrounded by nature and are part and parcel of the woodland. Giles and Marty are a case in point here. They are rustic enough for the reader to feel flattered in his sense of urban superiority, and adequately picturesque for him/her to feel immersed in a tale-like world where he/she does not belong. They are specimens of “rootfulness” whereas the reader’s own link to Nature has long been severed.

  • 5 “surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christian (...)

8That Giles and Marty are made to appear as part and parcel of the landscape, extensions of Nature itself, is unequivocal. Giles is “nature unadorned” (247) and “Autumn’s very brother” (246) as Grace sees him. Holding an apple tree when he is awaiting her on the day of her return, he is “fixed to the spot by his apple tree”, unable to move as if he were a tree himself: his apple tree is said to be his “ensign” (Hardy 1994a, 40). To Grace, Giles is of the same substance as Nature: he is “leafy and smeared with green lichen” or else “cider-stained and starred with apple pips” (335). Furthermore, Giles is also described by the narrator as having a special gift with trees which translates into a “sympathy between himself and the fir, oak, or beech” (72) transforming Giles’s act of tree planting into a life-giving gesture, to the extent that Grace calls him a “fruit-god “or a “wood-god” (335): “the roots took hold of the soil in a few days”, as opposed to the other journeymen who lose “one quarter of their trees” even though “they seemed to go through an identically similar process” (72). Giles’s is almost a magic gift, as his fingers are “endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch” (73). Like a magician initiated into Nature’s secret ways, Giles’s life-giving gestures respect nature without tampering with its habits: when he plants trees, he spreads the roots so that they take “their proper directions for growth” (73); like a caring parent, he sees to it that the trees will be strong enough in their adult lives: “He put most of these roots towards the south-west; for, he said, in forty years’ time, when some great gale is blowing from that quarter, the trees will require the strongest holdfast on that side to stand against it and not fall” (73). Marty South is Giles’s complementary double, “a figure who might be better understood in terms of her arboreal rather than human qualities”, fashioned by trees “as much as she remakes them” (Cohen 10, 11), whose hair colour is “a rare and beautiful approximation to chestnut” (Hardy 1994a, 8). After she cuts her hair, her resemblance to a tree is even more obvious, as she thinks of her head in terms of a “stubbly poll” (44); to Giles, her head looks like “an apple upon a gate-post” (22). Cohen sees this a category of being which he names “treeness”, connecting Marty “to forms of existence with a wider compass than the human” (Cohen 12). Marty wakes up to the sound of sparrows “walking down their long holes in the thatch above her sloping ceiling to their orifice at the eaves” (Hardy 1994a, 20). She is also described as an animal, namely an element of the living non-human world. For instance, she assists the barkers with removing the rind from the fallen trees with unusual skills and patience, as if she were among her own kind: once she has finished, she is said to “come out from the reclining tree” (160). Grace ultimately comes to an epiphanic vision of what Giles and Marty represent: “Marty South alone, of all the women in Hintock and the world, had approximated to Winterborne’s level of intelligent intercourse with nature” (399). The ensuing paragraph combines Grace’s vision with the narrator’s discourse: Giles and Marty alone are able to read “the hieroglyphs” of “the wondrous world of sap and leaves called the Hintock woods” as if they were “ordinary writing” (399). To Grace, Giles and Marty read Nature like pagans who have not yet joined the superior degree Christianity represents5.

  • 6 See Hardy’s essay “Candour in English Fiction”, published in 1890.

9Grace’s gently condescending and romantic vision of Marty and Giles’s idyllic relationships with Nature is also that of the reader; it ignores the dire economic plight Marty and Giles are in for the sake of turning them into the objects this vision requires. If Hardy’s own conception of Man and Nature are certainly embedded in the lines about Marty and Giles, this is not where his eco-consciousness lies. One only needs to be aware of the fates of Hardy’s close-to-Nature characters to understand that there is more here than simple praise of closeness to Nature: Giles dies, after losing the leasehold on his house; he is left by Grace twice, once when she marries Fitzpiers and then when she renounces her vows to Giles’s memory and resumes her life with her husband; Marty loses her home too and is poorer at the end of the story; the two are never made to embody the romantic couple readers may expect them to become. So much for Hardy’s blow to the “candour” demanded from novelists6. His “naturalisation” of the human might at first glance seem to participate in the creation of a timeless idealised Nature, but it also simultaneously delineates a very temporal and actual georgic world where identification with Nature is the sign of a lesser life.

Hair, brains and people for harvest

  • 7 Durante and Fisk insist on the low self-esteem developed by people with low socio-economic status.

10On the hierarchical scale governing the categories of the world in the Western tradition as “formalized in late antiquity as the Great Chain of Being” (Smith 424), humans enjoyed a position superior to non-human animals, plants and the mineral world. The “Darwinian revolution demolished the notion that there is a biological hierarchy” but the categories of “’higher’ and ‘lower’ kinds of organisms” were difficult to discard in Hardy’s age, “even [by] professional biologists” (Smith 425). The relegation to a “lesser human” status is also at work when it comes to social classes. People with a low socio-economic status “are dehumanized (either as animals or interchangeable objects): stereotypes of low socio-economic-status people picture them as primitive, bestial, and incompletely human” (see Durante & Fisk 45). These analyses reveal that whether the sub-human/animal-like label is a cause or a consequence of mistreatment, naturalisation of the human is always detrimental. In other words, to see Man as part of Nature in order to explain his behaviour or warrant actions done to him has effects on his dignity7, integrity, and possibly his life. Such conclusion is evidenced in The Woodlanders, where Fitzpiers explains his love theory by comparing the male lover’s gaze to a rainbow and the woman to a tree, making Grace “only the tree [his] rainbow falls on” (Hardy 1994a, 139), as Giles paraphrases. With Marty, the nature and animal analogy takes on a less personal and more political dimension. When she is adroitly peeling branches, she is also said to be standing “encaged amid the mass of twigs and buds like a great bird” (160). The negative charge of the past participle leads Dolin to conclude that even though she is “absolutely at one with the natural environment, [she is] also absolutely trapped by her class and sex” (Dolin 549). Being at one with Nature is also obviously what makes Marty vulnerable and maintains her in her plight.

11The Hardyan text’s likening of the human to Nature accomplishes a three-fold task. It appeals to the urban reader and flatters his/her sense of superiority; it offers Hardy the opportunity to express his sense “of the common origins of all species” and his vision of man “a creation [no longer] apart from all other creations” (F. E. Hardy 349); it sheds crude light on the reification of the human and the treatment of Nature, the human and Nature being equally seen as resources. This is where Hardy’s eco-consciousness starts.

12Hardy’s world, not immune to or remote from modernity (Dolin 553), is penetrated by the “inferior-as-resource” pattern characterising the capitalist system. Such a pattern evokes the law of Nature where stronger species utilise weaker ones for their own benefit (as food for example). In no way a Nature idealist, Hardy sees Nature as an offspring of “the Cause of Things” (F. E. Hardy 409). It is not idealised but shown in its a-morality, “neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: loveless and hateless […], which neither good nor evil knows” (409). Each species is motivated by its own survival: “Owls […] had been catching mice in the out-houses, rabbits […] had been eating the wintergreens in the gardens, and stoats […] had been sucking the blood of the rabbits” (Hardy 1994a, 24). To Hardy, what the capitalist does to the inferior classes and to Nature is not fundamentally dissimilar. Indeed, both Nature and the inferior classes supply the capitalist with workforce and material. “[T]he orchard region in The Woodlanders cultivates not just apples but other products for harvest: hair, brains, people” (Keen 45).

13Horses and trees are a case in point, with the former often made to work to exhaustion out of economic necessity by people like Mrs Dollery, who relies on a horse for her living – her van is drawn by an old horse “whose leg-joints, shoulders, and hoofs were distorted by harness and drudgery from colthood” (Hardy 1994a, 3). Yet, horses are also ridden to exhaustion to serve selfish purposes regardless of their well-being, like Darling at the hands of Fitzpiers (243). As for Nature, it is made visible in The Woodlanders by the constant presence and role of the woodland, defined from the point of view of its usefulness, namely its economic value. This is made clear right from the start: “Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing as the case may be” (1). Nature is given market value and is exchanged for money. Accordingly, all the main characters are involved in the tree business, both a source and a product of work. Marty’s occupation is “the cultivation and harvesting of timber products” (Cohen 18): she plants trees; she helps barking them and fashions spar gads, which are then used in the thatching craft to produce a commodity she cannot afford. Giles is “in the apple and cider trade” (26) and lends “his assistance to Melbury in the busiest wood-cutting season” (26); because trees must be a constant supply, he also plants trees. Grace’s father is this trade’s organiser. He is a “timber, bark, and copse-ware merchant” (15) and as such he sends his timber and bark to Port Breedy Harbour via turnpike roads. He also owns bonds in both the harbour and the turnpike. He has a financial interest in the roads being maintained for the transportation of his timber, in the harbour’s commercial activities and in a constant supply of trees to be felled. As it appears, Nature is shown to be used beyond the basic needs of the Hintock community in terms of timber and other wood products. It is commodified as a resource to exploit for financial return potentially on the national and international market.

14The woodland, and Nature in general, are not unique in that position. The human is, too, especially those at the bottom of the social scale. Those on the upper rungs, of whom Felice’s late husband is a representative, need resources in terms of workforce and of material. Mr Charmond was a British captain of industry owing his fortune to the industrial revolution and the iron trade: this branch of industry at the hands of “men of great capital” (Evans et al. 642) dominated the world market as British iron was exported without serious competition until the late nineteenth/early twentieth century (see Allen). The wife of a member of the landed gentry, Felice owns not only the estate with the mansion but also the “surrounding woods and groves” (Hardy 1994a, 28) whose trees she sells to Grace’s father. This pattern of land use is “the capitalization of the woodland estate” (Dolin 554), in which Mr Melbury plays no minor part, keen as he is on building a fortune to emulate the wealthy. The houses remaining on the Charmond estate, “several cottages and other houses in the two Hintocks, now [Giles’s]” (110), are doomed to “fall in and become part of the encompassing estate” (107) owned by Mrs Charmond after John South’s death; these houses are to be demolished, and consequently help “dispense with obsolete tenancy arrangements” (Dolin 554). The termination of Giles’s lease thus represents considerable financial benefit for Mrs Charmond, who displays formidable indifference on hearing about Giles’s loss. Giles is an obstacle to the full profitability of her estate, which her steward perfectly understands: the man chooses to ignore Giles’s plea to renew the lease. When he loses his houses, Giles is literally uprooted. He sells some belongings, stores the rest in a neighbour’s house and leaves, only to become a “travelling cider-maker” (Hardy 1994a, 209) in places where farmers do not keep their own “cider-making apparatus” (209). He now “wanders from place to place”, displaced and homeless, a resource of labour force for those who might need him. To the depleting of natural resources (wood) for the sake of investment – a natural disaster – is added the depleting of the vital forces of the community – a human disaster as Giles and Marty lose their homes. Ironically, these two “most deeply rooted locals” (Dolin 547), belonging to Wieners’s so-called “pastoral retreatism”, are in fact “more or less constantly uprooted, losing their homes and struggling to retain their livelihoods” (Dolin 548). Marty is workforce, like Giles, but she is also raw material – just like Grammer Oliver’s brain is intended to be exploited by the ambitious Fitzpiers. Marty’s hair, like apples, is exchanged against a higher sum of money than her meagre wages by Grace’s father. Indeed, Mrs Charmond has developed a whim for this bodily part of hers and must be pleased. Reluctant at first because she cares for her hair, she relents under threat of being expelled from her home – which, ironically, she will be anyway. Natural resources and human resources are exploited alike. When her hair has grown again, she happens to be poorer than she was, and she would most likely have sold it anew to some other wealthy fancy lady had the story been continued.

A readjustment of altruistic morals

15In a letter to the Secretary of the Humanitarian League dated April 1910, Hardy rejoiced over the twenty-year longevity of its Animals Defence Department. He judged that “a readjustment of altruistic morals” had to be conducted, given that “the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical” (F. E. Hardy 349). But for quite some time, he had had a sense of the inadequacy of the change that could result from the acknowledgment of that common origin. He understood that the slave-based, then feudal, and eventually capitalistic management of the human community had always functioned on a dominated/dominating pattern (social classes being one of its variants). The non-human living world is also part of the picture, considered an inferior realm to be conquered and exploited. This concern is the topic of Lynn White Jr’s 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”, which points out that

  • 8 The reference is provided by Hiltner.

[t]he victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. […] In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. […] Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. (White 1205–1206)8

16Hardy’s England was religious, fiercely imperialist, bent on conquering those it deemed non-Christian inferiors, and highly supercilious toward the lower classes, considered immoral and close to Nature. This Man-as-part-of-Nature view – or rather some-people-as-part-of-Nature – warrants the exploitation of both Nature and lower classes. The way out of such a pattern, as is made clear in Hardy’s fiction, requires to activate the reciprocity of the bond: the likening of Nature to the human. Both a naturalisation of Man and a humanisation of Nature are consequently part of the picture: the former because it is a scientific fact that Man is part of Nature and not above it; the latter as a condition without which no ethical treatment of Nature – Man included – is conceivable. This is what Hardy’s fiction tells us and where his eco-consciousness acquires the ethical dimension he claims in his letter.

  • 9 In a letter dated 1922, Hardy takes up the issue again and insists for a reform of slaughterhouse p (...)

17Occurrences of the non-human living world being granted human characteristics, either by a character or the narrator, are so numerous as to constitute a norm of the Hardyan text. For instance, animal suffering or animals in need are systematically depicted in terms applicable to the human. In Tess, the following sentence describes Prince just after he died: “Prince lay alongside, still and stark; his eyes half open, the hole in his chest looking scarcely large enough to have let out all that had animated him” (Hardy 1991, 22). It is almost evocative of Rimbaud’s “Dormeur du Val”, with his two red holes to his right side. Later in the story, Tess relieves pheasants from their agony. This time, it is human cruelty towards animals that is exposed as a gratuitous abuse of power by Man towards weaker next-of-kin to which he should offer his protection: “quite civil persons save during certain weeks of autumn and winter […] ran amuck, and made it their purpose to destroy life […] at once so unmannerly and so unchivalrous towards their weaker fellows in Nature’s teeming family” (218–219). Offering protection, or rather food, to animals is what Jude does, as for friends in need. He lets rooks pick from the freshly-sown field instead of frightening them away as he was asked to. To him, they are “gentle friends and pensioners” whose lives are “puny and sorry” just like his own (Hardy 1985, 54). He feels bonded to them by a “magic thread of fellow-feeling”, which ironically translates into his receiving “a smart blow upon his buttocks” (54) by the very instrument he was supposed to use against the birds, now in Farmer Troutham’s hands. Later, Jude’s compassion is stimulated again, this time for a pig the young man is supposed to kill. What he saw in the birds when he was a child, Jude now sees in the suffering animal: emotions abolishing the human/non-human categories like hunger, fear and pain, which are shared by all “creatures” (109). His use of this word unites the human and the non-human animal, whereas in Arabella’s discourse, “creature” signifies a relegation to otherness, namely to what the human is not. Jude’s gentle feeling extends to smaller animals: undaunted by the farmer’s blow, Jude returns home “carefully [picking] his way on tiptoe among the earthworms, without killing a single one” (55). The narrator echoes Jude’s empathetic attitude and evokes the pig’s reaction in terms easily transferable to a human (surprise, rage, despair, hopelessness), which is not the case with Arabella’s lexicon in so far as she sees the pig only as meat and raw material to be transformed into black pudding. The tired horse in The Woodlanders – who the narrator says would rather be seen grazing away his ultimate days than toiling them away transporting people – is another instance of the anthropomorphic treatment of non-human animals. More precisely, these examples account for a vision that condemns the suffering of animals for human pleasure (the pheasants in Tess; Hardy 1991, 218–219), human interests or economic necessity (the pig in Jude, with Arabella explaining that a slow agony supposedly makes for better meat and consequently increases its price; Hardy 1985, 110)9, and propounds an ethic of care based on the acknowledgement that his superiority of means makes Man responsible for non-human animals and ethically obligated to ensure the “application of ‘The Golden Rule’” (F; E. Hardy 349). The anthropomorphic treatment of the non-human in Hardy’s fiction does not make a human of the non-human. It simply composes a discourse free from religious influences, thereby decentring the human from his position of “a creation apart from all creation” (349). It also brings the Darwinian tenet further: “Darwin himself did not wholly perceive [the necessity to apply the Golden Rule to the whole animal kingdom], though he alluded to it” (349). Such a position differs from the way the Victorians viewed the issue:

The art critic and social reformer John Ruskin (1819–1900), addressing the Oxford branch of the Victoria Street Society in 1884, said that: ‘It is not the question whether animals have a right to this or that in the inferiority they are placed into mankind, it is a question of what relation they have to God…’. To see animals from a divine perspective, it was necessary to decide whether they possessed rational souls, and what happened to those souls after death. (Bates 43)

18As if anticipating Camus, Hardy considered that the whole living world (human and non-human alike) share the same fate, that of being cast into existence with no other purpose than the meaning it would itself create – considering that the human is cognitively better equipped for such a task and therefore duty-bound to the rest of the living world. It is the feeling that Jude experiences when he ponders over his birth into “a world which did not want [him]” (Hardy 1985, 53). This fictional anecdote echoes Hardy’s own existential questioning when, a young boy “lying on his back in the sun,” he thought of “how useless he was” (F. E. Hardy 15). He then “covered his face with his straw hat” (15), overwhelmed by the uselessness, i.e. the purposelessness, of an individual life. His whole fiction testifies to his removing of his hat from his eyes and his courage to face the silence of the universe which he countered by creating an ethic of charity: Man shares a common ancestry with the animal world – and the whole non-human world, we now know; we also now know that we are made of matter like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Reciprocally, the non-human world shares with the human the randomness of existence, vulnerability to death, pain/stress, and the need of nutrients for survival: the vegetal world is here included. It is therefore Man’s ethical duty to create a new ontology and cease considering non-human existence as inferior, servile and profitable. Hardy also saw that this could only be achieved by watching – and enabling the reader to see – Nature through the same lenses Man sees Man, namely via anthropomorphism. Indeed, Hardy saw that naturalisation creates hierarchy, and that to compare the human to the non-human, or to describe the non-human in terms reserved to it, leads to its depreciation and commodification. By contrast, the use of human-descriptive language obliterates the human/non-human categorisation. Indeed, as the human is the highest value in the western world another human is therefore another me, which makes racism and classism highly problematic and untenable; the same for cruelty to animals and the overuse, or rather depletion, of the natural world.

  • 10 This is not merely a metaphor since “collar” is the term used to describe the folded bark where a b (...)

19The anecdote of the smoking of the bees in Under the Greenwood Tree and the felling of trees in The Woodlanders are two cases in point. Although these were traditional activities by people living close to Nature, Hardy’s narrator is anything but neutral when describing them. For example, the preparations for the suffocating of the bees give the event the aspect of a brutal execution: “the preliminaries of execution were arranged, the matches fixed, the stake kindled, the two hives placed over the two holes, and the earth stopped round the edges” (Hardy 1994b, 161). Were “hives” replaced by “the captives”, or “the victims”, Mr Shiner would still be able to say of them that “‘they were a peculiar family’” (161). Even more accusatory is Mr Day’s admission that violence cannot be avoided: “‘The proper way to take honey, so that the bees be neither starved nor murdered, is a puzzling matter’” (162). Enoch finally brings the discussion to a close, with a felicitous paronomasia: “‘But ’tis the money,’ said Enoch musingly. ‘For without money man is a shadder!’” (162). In other words, to get m/h-oney without hurting the bees is impossible. The brunt of Hardy’s criticism here, later repeated with Jude’s pig, is the pain inflicted to animals for remunerative reasons and, on a larger scale, the system which considers a moneyless man a cipher. The accusatory tone is as bitter when it comes to trees about to be barked. “Doomed” to be literally “flayed”, the tree is first “attacked” by the man supposed to free its collar (Hardy 1994a, 159–160)10. The comparison is then made verbally explicit: this operation is “comparable to the ‘little toilette’ of the executioner’s victim” (160). Before it is sawn down, it stands “naked-legged and as if ashamed” (160). Sometimes, only branches are taken: “Above stretched an old beech, with vast armpits, and great pocket-holes in its sides where branches had been amputated in past times” (376). Images of trees as suffering, tortured and humiliated human bodies haunt the text throughout to expose capitalist practices: the greed of some for the accumulation of profit compels others who need to earn their living (here the workmen) to participate in the overuse of their woodland, which occurs because “they are paid by the ton” (164).

  • 11 In Hardy’s personal life, this disposition is evinced in his numerous letters against cruelty to an (...)

20Hardy’s sensitivity to the non-human and the human worlds alike accounts for the plea his texts make for respect, humility, care and what Orwell later called “common decency”11. On a larger scale still, his fiction points to the interconnectedness of the human and the non-human, and the fact that the mistreatment of one entails mistreatment of the other.

Conclusion: “Man is entirely subordinate to the world”12

  • 12 Bjork 76.

21Ken Hiltner’s introductory course to Ecocriticism points out that one can verify if a narrative has an ecological quality or is strictly anthropocentric by evaluating its “posture toward non-human life” and determining if “speaking for” this non-human life and “anthropomorphizing it does it any sort of service” (Hiltner). Hardy’s fiction appears to be both biocentric and anthropocentric. The biocentric dimension is achieved by way of the human/non-human analogy: it shows that the human and the non-human are tightly interwoven in so far as each is needed to characterise, “influence and construct” the other (Morrison 53). Were the non-human living world to be allotted less textual space, the stories and their characters would lose substance.

22Communities that are “totally dependent, or largely so, on the animals and plants of a particular area” are called “ecosystem people” (Morrison 137). They are “deeply accustomed to that area and in stable, sustainable relation to the ecosystem” (137). Morrison considers Marty and Giles such “ecosystem people”, to whom one might add Dick (Under the Greenwood Tree), Gabriel (Far from the Madding Crowd), Tess and Jude, with one reservation though: these characters are sometimes made unable to carry out sustainable practices because of economic constraints and owing to the capitalist system they live in.

23By exposing the damage such a system inflicts to the human and the non-human alike, Hardy does not lament over bygone days because there never were days without the commodification of Nature and people as practices that would form the basis of capitalism were implemented long before the system was theorised.

  • 13 Tait is here quoting from Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2004).

24Hardy looked to the future, his but also ours, it seems, as the issues he raised are still topical today. He delineated the only sustainable way for the natural world to continue to be the human’s oikos. It is the give-and-take relationship with Nature his ecosystem characters – notwithstanding the difficulties they do not overcome – are engaged in as genii loci: they protect it and take from it for their own survival. This relates to “the eco-critical concept of ‘dwelling’, that troubling question of how we might come to live upon the earth ‘in a relation of duty and responsibility’” (Tait 2010, 21913). It further echoes contemporary actions taken to grant Nature legal standing in order to ensure its preservation.

25The ultimate stage of the human/non-human analogy is indeed for Nature to be given rights as if it were human. The logic behind this rationale is the topic of Christopher Stone’s 1972 article “Should Trees have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”. After defining the concept of “legal rights”, namely “to have a legally recognized worth and dignity in its own right, and not merely to serve as a means to benefit ‘us’” (458), Stone goes on to demonstrate that such rights have already been granted to corporations, states, estates, infants, incompetents, municipalities or universities, all of which cannot speak but “[l]awyers speak for them” (464). Therefore, he says, “[o]ne ought […] to handle the legal problem of natural objects as one does the problems of legal incompetents – human beings who have become vegetables” (464). The ground-breaking epistemological change in the human vision of the non-human has permitted legal action14, emblematic cases on a national level15 being the granting of legal status as an ecosystem to the Whanganui River by the New Zealand Parliament in 2017 or the recognition by the Colombian Supreme Court of the Colombian Amazon as a subject of rights in 2018.

  • 16 It is Grace’s vision: “The woods were uninteresting, and Grace stayed indoors a great deal” (Hardy (...)

26Hardy knew that “almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature” (Hardy 1994b, 5); that “the unsealing of buds that [have] long been swollen accomplish[es] itself in the space of one warm night” (5); and that “the rush of sap in the veins of the trees [can] almost be heard” (Hardy 1994a, 158). He was “a man who used to notice such things” (“Afterwards”, Moments of Vision, 1917; Hardy 2001, 553), and his fiction makes his reader see them too. It is the function of his analogy device: it “alert[s] us to aspects of the world by inviting us to [accept such] comparisons” (Davidson 40). Then, like his narrator and his genii loci, we readers stop considering the woods, and Nature, as uninteresting per se16 and we are made able to integrate Nature in a network of meaning and to become attuned to “the song of the earth”, to borrow the title of Jonathan Bate’s 2000 book. Tait sees in Hardy’s disposition a link with Deep Ecology, whose tenets rest on “an identification of self with all that is” (Tait 2010, 205). To Aarne Naess, such identification is most compelling “when they see animals suffering” (Naess qtd by Tait 2010, 205). Thanks to his analogies, Hardy shows that the whole non-human world requires such human, and humane, attention. He had a sense of the interrelatedness of the living world and of Man’s necessary stewardship of Nature. From that perspective, he was a pioneer eco-conscious writer who anticipated our contemporary preoccupations.

Top of page


Allen, Robert C., “International Competition in Iron and Steel, 1850-1913”, The Journal of Economic History 39.4 (1979): 911–937.

Barrel, John, “Geographies of Hardy’s Wessex”, Journal of Historical Geography 4 (1982): 347–361.

Bate, Jonathan, “Culture and Environment: From Austen to Hardy”, New Literary History 30.3 (1999): 541–560.

Bates, A. W. H., Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Bjork, Lennart A. (ed.), The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy, Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1974.

Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1995.

Buell, Lawrence, The Future of Environmental Criticism, Malden & Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Cohen, William A., “Arborealities: The Tactile Ecology of Hardy’s Woodlanders, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 19 (2014): 1–19.

Cox, R. G. (ed.), Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, London & NY: Routledge, 2005.

Davidson, Donald, “What Metaphors Mean”, Critical Inquiry 5.1 (1978): 31–47.

Dolin, Tim, “Who Belongs Where in The Woodlanders”, Modern Language Quarterly 73.4 (Dec 2012): 545–568.

Durante, Frederica & Susan T. Fisk, “How Social-Class Stereotypes Maintain Inequality”, Current Opinion in Psychology 18 (Dec 2017): 43–48.

Evans, Chris, Owen Jackson & Göran Rydén, “Baltic Iron and the British Iron Industry in the Eighteenth Century”, The Economic History Review 55.4 (2002): 642–665.

Frow, John, “Tourism and the Semiotics of Nostalgia”, Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity, Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

Hardy, Florence E., The Life of Thomas Hardy. 1840–1928, London: Macmillan, 1962.

Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure (1895), London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Hardy, Thomas, Collected Short Stories, London: Macmillan (New Wessex Edition), 1988.

Hardy, Thomas, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), New York: Norton, 1991.

Hardy, Thomas, The Woodlanders (1887), London: Penguin Books, 1994a.

Hardy, Thomas, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), London: Penguin Books, 1994b.

Hardy, Thomas, The Complete Poems, ed. James Gibson, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Keen, Suzanne, Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination, Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2014.

Kerridge, Richard, “Ecological Hardy”, Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, eds Karla Armbruster and Kathleen Wallace, Charlottesville, VA & London: UP of Virginia, 2001, 126–142.

Hiltner, Ken, “Introduction to Environmental Humanities, Early modern English literature and the emergence of truly modern environmental issues, such as urban air pollution (environmental history) [Lecture notes], 2021. Retrieved from (last accessed 15 Oct 2022)

Lawrence, D. H. “Study of Thomas Hardy”, Selected Critical Writings, Oxford: OUP, 1998, 9–74.

Loughnan, S., N. Haslam, R. M. Sutton & B. Spencer, “Dehumanization and Social Class: Animality in the Stereotypes of ‘White Trash,’ ‘Chavs,’ and ‘Bogans’”, Social Psychology 45.1 (2014): 54–61.

Morrison, Ronald, “Culture and Agriculture in ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ and The Mayor of Casterbridge: An Ecocritical Approach”, The Hardy Review 15.2 (2013): 52–67.

Purdy, Richard & Michael Millgate (eds), The Complete Letters of Thomas Hardy, 7 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978–1988.

Smith, David Livingstone, “Paradoxes of Dehumanization”, Social Theory and Practice 42.2 (2016): 416–443.

Stone, Christopher, “Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects”, Southern California Law Review 45 (1972): 450–501.

Tait, Adrian, “‘Enchased and Lettered’: Thomas Hardy’s American Readers and the Nature of Place”, Transatlantic Literary Ecologies: Nature and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Atlantic World, eds Kevin Hutchings & John Miller, New York & London: Routledge, 2017, 182–195.

Tait, Adrian, From Wessex Poems to Time’s Laughingstocks: An Eco-Critical Approach to the Poetry of Thomas Hardy, PhD Diss., The Open University, 2010.

Tribe, Keith, Genealogies of Capitalism, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981.

White, Lynn Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1203–1207.

Wiener, Martin J., English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. 1850–1980, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Top of page


1 Keith Tribe speaks of “rural wage-labour or the hardiness of small farmers” (Tribe 36).

2 “Marx never made the mistake of treating ‘capitalism’ as if it were a creature of the nineteenth century, personified by cities, factories, railways and the proletariat which inhabited this new realm. While he suggested that ‘capitalist agriculture’ could only develop effectively on the basis of machinery, fertilizers and other products supplied to agriculture by advanced industrial concerns, he argued that the historical basis for industry was itself to be found in the development of capitalist relations in agriculture, assuming its classic form in England” (Tribe 35).

3 Cohen 5.

4 Terry Gifford, referring to The Return of the Native, evokes “country clowns” offered to “sophisticated urban audiences” (Gifford qtd in Tait 2010, 84). To John Barrel, Hardy often “writes with that distanced tone of amusement which so often, in spite of his protestations, clothes his ‘rustics’ in the comic uniform of ‘Hodge’ that, in Tess, he writes so eloquently against” (Barrel 349).

5 “surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks, and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature” (Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1643).

6 See Hardy’s essay “Candour in English Fiction”, published in 1890.

7 Durante and Fisk insist on the low self-esteem developed by people with low socio-economic status.

8 The reference is provided by Hiltner.

9 In a letter dated 1922, Hardy takes up the issue again and insists for a reform of slaughterhouse practices so that the killing of animals should be less painful than “natural death from old age or infirmity”. Echoing Jude, he speaks on behalf of “victims” and “fellow-creatures” (Purdy & Millgate, vol. 6, 144).

10 This is not merely a metaphor since “collar” is the term used to describe the folded bark where a branch meets the trunk of a tree.

11 In Hardy’s personal life, this disposition is evinced in his numerous letters against cruelty to animals, and in his choice to put his dog Wessex to sleep under the care of “two good-natured Doctors (not vets)” because a “dog of such strong character required human doctors!”, as he explained in a letter dated 1926 (Purdy & Millgate, vol. 7, 54).

12 Bjork 76.

13 Tait is here quoting from Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2004).

14 See the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund website: (last accessed 5 Dec 2022)

15 Many actions are taken at the local – state or city – level in the US and across the world. See the CELDF website.

16 It is Grace’s vision: “The woods were uninteresting, and Grace stayed indoors a great deal” (Hardy 1994a, 415). This sentence could be placed anywhere in the novel, as the young woman never manages to revive her former knowledge of, and interest in, the woodland.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak, The Art of Analogy in The Woodlanders and Other Novels: Hardy’s Eco-WritingFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 18 May 2023, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak

Independent researcher  

Dr Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak defended her PhD dissertation on Hardy’s short stories at Nancy University in April 2009 and has published it as a book, Les Nouvelles de Thomas Hardy. Stratégies narratives d’une écriture sous contrainte (Honoré Champion, 2011). Her research focuses on the subversive aspects of Hardy’s works and more particularly on gender issues.  


Top of page


The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search