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Reinterpreting Hardy’s “Child of the Soil”: Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Phenomenological Green Writing

Réinterpréter l’appartenance à la terre chez Hardy : une lecture éco-phénoménologique de Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Marie Bertrand


Famous for their detailed descriptions of bucolic landscapes, Hardy’s novels have often been classified within the pastoral genre, along with works portraying an idealised nature that should be protected from any contact with modern man. If this label was much debated over the last century, it becomes even more problematic when it comes to assessing the ecological dimension of Hardy’s writing, becoming an obstacle to a proper analysis of the relationship between characters and their environment. Indeed, this very relationship is precisely the point of origin of the term “ecology” and of the ecological movement, and it is precisely this idealised separation between human modernity and natural tranquillity that ecocritical studies need to overcome in order to estimate the ecological commitment of an author. Through the close reading of Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), this essay aims at reassessing the Victorian author’s “greenness” through an ontological approach, more specifically using conceptual tools offered by modern phenomenology. Hardy’s philosophical reflections that can be read between the lines of the novel are then to be reinterpreted in light of phenomenological concepts that only appeared decades after the publication of Tess. By demonstrating the affinity between the ideas of a Victorian novelist and those of the twentieth-century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I argue that Hardy’s writing was a pioneering one in the field of environmental philosophy.

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1From sleeping in his cradle with “a large snake curled up upon his breast, comfortably asleep like himself” (F. E. Hardy 15) to using “dead leaves [or] white chips” as paper while writing Far from the Madding Crowd (96), Hardy’s personal and artistic growth was undoubtedly tied to the non-human. His mapping of a partly-real, partly-fictionalised Wessex says a lot about the importance given to the setting in his novels, a setting D. H. Lawrence described as “a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it” (Lawrence 28).

  • 1 On pastoralism in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, see e.g. Martell. For an eco-critical approach (...)

2Shifting the focus from humanity to natural landscapes undisturbed by humans, Hardy’s works have often been read through the lens of the pastoral mode which, in its classical acceptation, “must understand nature as entirely separate from human infrastructure in order to function” (Martell 72). This attribution of a pastoral label to Hardy’s work, along with its implication of a fracture between the human sphere and the non-human sphere for the benefit of the latter, has been a key factor in hampering the study of his novels as green writing1.

  • 2 It might be relevant to note that Hardy entitled his Wessex edition of 1912 “Novels of Character an (...)

3Indeed, at the very core of the term “ecology”, coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1869, lies the study of “the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence’” (qtd in E.C. Miller 2018, 653; emphasis added). In order to reveal any ecological commitment in a work of fiction, one needs to focus on the author’s treatment of these interactions between characters (organisms) and setting (environment), rather than on any representation of an idealised nature one should protect by preserving it from human influence2.

4If a pastoral reading of Hardy does not allow for a thorough investigation of the “greenness” of his work, I argue that phenomenology, in its “unique capacity for bringing to expression, rather than silencing, our relation with nature” (Brown & Toadvine xii), offers a new ecocritical approach of the Victorian author’s work. Emerging in the 19th century and theorised in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl, modern phenomenology is a philosophical school that reflects on the meaning of existence through the study of experience, implying a particular focus on the interacting processes between the experiencing organism and the world in which the experience is felt. In this sense, taking up a phenomenological approach to read Hardy’s work is acknowledging that “environmental ethics requires an ontological commitment” (Don E. Marietta, Jr., qtd in Brown & Toadvine 121) and that, consequently, a novel focusing on the unfolding of one particular human life, in all its joys, sufferings, and existential reflections, may very well become the most ecologically committed of Hardy’s novels. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), which will be the focus of this article, is one striking example of a work that introduces ecological reflections under the cover of the eponymous character’s adventures. Throughout this essay, I will use phenomenological theories and concepts in order to reveal the different “green” layers of Tess. The first layer, I argue, is an ontological one, focusing on the ecological dimension of Hardy’s definition of humanity that crystallises both senses of the word, as the quality of being human and the quality of being humane. Then I suggest that the second layer stems from the representation of a phenomenological consciousness in the novel, ultimately leading to the emergence of a form of environmental consciousness. Finally, I aim to demonstrate that another “green” layer of Tess can be visible through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, which will unveil the eco-phenomenological dimension of Hardy’s work.

Hardy’s green ontology: what does it mean to be humane?

  • 3 A thing considered in its essence is called a “noumenon”, as opposed to a “phenomenon”.
  • 4 “Le monde naturel se donne comme existant en soi au-delà de son existence pour moi […] et nous nous (...)

5As the study of phenomena, phenomenology looks into the thing as it is experienced by a particular subjectivity, rather than into the thing in its essence3 (Leroy 249). Seeing the world in a phenomenological perspective is therefore acknowledging that one can never have access to the world otherwise than through one’s personal lens, and that, as a consequence, this world lies beyond one’s reach and understanding: “the natural world presents itself as existing in itself over and above its existence for me […] and we find ourselves in the presence of a nature which has no need to be perceived in order to exist”4 (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 178). The challenge of “green writing” is precisely to try and overcome nature’s unfathomable dimension in order to connect to it and enter into an ecological dialogue. What some critics of Hardy have called “an ambiguous anthropomorphism” (Beer 235), or even “a misattribution of character status to a landscape” (J. Miller 150), suddenly becomes, from a phenomenological point of view, the humble admission of humans’ inability to apprehend the non-human, while being inexplicably drawn to it and striving to connect to it.

6In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as in most of Hardy’s works, “the atmosphere […] is languorous” (T. Hardy 12) and “so transmissive that inanimate objects see[m] endowed with two or three senses, if not five” (122). If the first quotation personifies the landscape through the classical use of hypallage, the second instance relocates the description of the atmosphere within the subjective perception of the narrator, through the use of the verb “seem”. In a journal entry, Hardy refers to his use of personification as a result of his own, very personal, perception of the world: “in spite of myself, I cannot help noticing countenances and tempers in objects of scenery” (F. E. Hardy 285). In fact, these instances of anthropomorphism can be said to “describe not nature itself, but the response to nature of some character or implied observer” (Bonica 851). Tess, like her creator, perceives her surroundings as animated, endowed with a voice and an ability to express feelings: “she heard a pleasant voice in every breeze, and in every bird’s note seemed to lurk a joy” (T. Hardy 103). Here, the reader can sense that the narrator takes care to avoid any arbitrary attribution of human characteristics to nature, thus preventing anthropomorphism from dangerously shifting to anthropocentrism. The suggestion is that there is not a pleasant voice in every breeze and a joyful sound in every bird’s note, but that Tess gets the impression that there is – ecologically speaking, it makes all the difference.

7In Tess’s perception of the world, the stronger her inner feelings are, the more animated her surroundings become. The most painful and tragic conversation she has with Angel, confessing about her past, is saturated with pathetic fallacy:

But the complexion of external things seemed to suffer transmutation as her announcement progressed. The fire in the grate looked impish – demoniacally funny, as if it did not care in the least about her strait. The fender grinned idly, as if it too did not care. The light from the water-bottle was merely engaged in a chromatic problem. All material objects around announced their irresponsibility with terrible iteration. And yet nothing had changed since the moments when he had been kissing her; or rather, nothing in the substance of things. But the essence of things had changed. (T. Hardy 227, emphases added)

8The phenomenological dimension of this passage shows through the choice of particular conjunctions and verbs, most of all in the conclusion of the passage where the narrator emphasises the way Tess’s own fear of opening up to her husband is transforming her perception of objects – understood as phenomena rather than as noumena. Going against its traditional conception as an empowering process to the advantage of human characters, Hardy’s anthropomorphism, on the contrary, conveys the characters’ vulnerability and limitations as human beings. Because “the nameless birds came quite near to Tess and Marian” and yet “brought no account” (T. Hardy 288) of what they have seen and experienced, the narrator can only imagine their subjective experiences of the world “in humanly understandable terms” (Bonica 849), all the while writing an ecological dialogue between human and non-human subjectivities.

  • 5 The Animal’s Friend was a periodical published by The Victorian Society for the Protection of Anima (...)
  • 6 “[Hardy invoque] l’animal littéraire per se, puis […] s’en sert progressivement non plus comme une (...)

9As he explores what I will call phenomenological anthropomorphism in his writing, Hardy engages in a reflection both on our subjective experience of the world and on the particular value of that experience: should a human being’s experience of a phenomenon be more valued than a non-human’s? Any ontological reflection takes up an ecological dimension as soon as it provides a reconsideration of the place of humans in nature and, quite naturally, a revaluation of the status of non-human beings. Hardy’s strong empathy for the suffering of animals is a well-known feature of his work as well of his personality, and, one may argue, has been an important point of entry into the ecological reading of his work. As Anna Feuerstein asserts, “for Hardy, an ecological democracy depends upon the human to enact representation and encourage more equality between animals and humans” (Feuerstein 4). In Tess, the reader is led to sympathise with the animal condition early on in the novel as Prince is accidentally killed – or, as Tess would put it, murdered – because the heroine has fallen asleep; later on, as she kills animals again – pheasants that have been hunted down and wounded – but this time, to put them out of their misery. Such passages are obviously committed to advocate for a better, more empathetic treatment of animals, and might very well have been reprinted in The Animal’s Friend, as was the pig-killing episode in Jude the Obscure (1895)5. But as Peggy Blin-Cordon suggests, Hardy goes beyond a simple empathetic representation of animals in his fiction, transcending the boundaries of the fable where animals are only used to serve a moral purpose, and takes on an ecocritical approach by dealing with the realities of the animal experience: “[Hardy conjures up] the literary animal per se, then […] progressively stops using it as an end in itself and rather chooses to take up an ecocritical perspective so as to offer the reader the living experience of the natural animal, in its organic and biological dimension” (Blin-Cordon 1)6. Rather than representing non-humans exclusively in terms of the way they are encountered and treated by men, Hardy chooses a phenomenological approach that reminds his readers that “the magnitude of lives is not as their external displacements, but as to their subjective experiences” (T. Hardy 154).

10In Tess, the unreachability of others’ subjective experience is both acknowledged and transcended, as the narrator strives to link each subjectivity within a more general and all-encompassing understanding of experience. Tess, her fellow human characters and the non-human characters in the novel may perceive the world very differently, but they can all sense “the irresistible, universal, automatic tendency to find sweet pleasure, which pervades all life” (T. Hardy 103). There is a levelling effect at work in this quotation that is similarly rendered by Hardy’s extensive use of the words “figure” or “creature” in his work, which “neutralize the space between the human and the animal” (West 5). Without ever cancelling their individual specificities, human and non-human characters are often put on an equal footing through the way they are impacted by a natural phenomenon. For example, in the following passage, animals’ and human’s behaviours are equally influenced by the changing seasons, here, the arrival of spring: “a particularly fine spring came round, and the stir of germination was almost audible in the buds; it moved the wild animals, and made her passionate to go” (T. Hardy 99). In that instance, the parallelism of construction between the last two segments, along with the use of two semantically close verbs (“move” and “go”), show that, however different their perception of spring might be, no creature feels indifferent to it. On another note, the double meaning of the substantive verb “to move” – making someone/something change position, or triggering someone’s emotion – blurs the description of the actual experience of “wild animals”: the reader is thus left to wonder about the precise effect spring may have on such creatures.

  • 7 One immediately thinks about Prince’s death, which will lead Tess to Alec and precipitate her own d (...)

11As for human characters, the impact of non-human forces on their living experiences and destinies is dealt with at length in Tess, where nature often seems to lead the plot. I would argue that rather than “robb[ing] individual lives of their significance” (J. Miller 166), attributing an important role to the non-human in the diegesis performs a decentring of man, and consequently an ontological shift that is in keeping with ecological considerations. If animals are more often than not the origin of crises or plot twists7 (Blin-Cordon 2), natural phenomena are also given agency and may have an impact on the characters’ mental or physical experiences of the world. As Angel goes for a walk, “the outdoor air apparently [takes] away from him all tendency to act on impulse” (T. Hardy 231), and Tess’s physical appearance is complimented by Marian who suggests that the winter weather “rather does it good” (289). Again, the idea of a human existence to be understood in relation to external phenomena highlights both the phenomenological stance and the ecological dimension of the novel. In Hardy’s green ontology as in phenomenologist Charles S. Brown’s own understanding, “the ecological self is a dialogical self” (Vakoch & Castrillon 152), and only a dialogical conception of consciousness can lead the way to any form of environmental consciousness.

From phenomenology to ecology: the emergence of a Victorian environmental consciousness

  • 8 “être, c’est éclater dans le monde” (Sartre qtd in Leroy 136).

12Beyond a common concern for the felt experience between two organisms, phenomenology’s and ecology’s paths meet again in their conceptions of human consciousness. Indeed, phenomenologists are opposed to any understanding of consciousness as a self-sufficient entity that would be separate from its environment and would grow by itself, in itself. On the contrary, Husserl and his followers theorised a consciousness turned outward, that is, constantly engaging in a movement towards what is not itself, precisely. In order to describe such movement, Sartre defined the growing process of consciousness as a centrifugal, rather than centripetal, process (Leroy 133), through which a living organism might encounter otherness and be nourished by it: to Sartre, “to be is to burst out into the world”8. Through such concepts, phenomenologists have debunked the myth of the all-powerful human being who would be the only living organism endowed with a consciousness, and who would therefore not need any external help to grow. Like Sartre, Tess seems to have a centrifugal conception of existence, since she asserts quite early on in the novel that “our souls can be made to go outside our bodies when we are alive” (T. Hardy 120). Despite an apparent dualistic mode of thinking that I will qualify further on in this paper, Tess describes the expansion of the soul beyond the boundaries of the body as a “very easy” process, tightly linked to the experience of nature: for such a phenomenological state to be reached, one “is to lie on the grass at night and look straight up at some big bright star” (120). Being in physical proximity with nature and paying a particular attention to natural phenomena seem to be the two main requirements for any human consciousness to extend outward and fulfil itself as an environmental consciousness – in both senses of the word, as a consciousness made of its environment, and, ultimately, as a consciousness made aware of the need to protect what has nourished and nurtured it.

13In the novel, the passages that describe the most blissful and harmonious encounters with the natural world are often those which blur the boundaries between soul and soil, or, in the following example, between soul and sun: “her hopes mingled with the sunshine in an ideal photosphere which surrounded her as she bounded along against the soft south wind” (T. Hardy 103). Here, the photosphere metaphor, coupled with an alliteration of the fricative /s/, figuratively and phonetically portrays the smooth emergence of Tess’s environmental consciousness, as the result of a fusion between psychological and natural phenomena, that is, between her hopes and the sun and wind. If, in Hardy’s Wessex, “the world is only a psychological phenomenon” (85), it is precisely because the characters’ psyches are constantly spreading into the world, their moods always “fill[ing] the whole room” (22), as a literary representation of the phenomenological argument stating how “the primary orientation of our lives is outward” (Fisher 68). The positive, and often hyperbolic, terms describing the characters’ “ex-perience[s], ex-istence[s], ex-pression[s], [and] e-motion[s]” (68–69) further highlight the necessity of opening up one’s consciousness to the world, human and non-human, in order to experience life to the fullest. Even as characters are gathered in the off-licence Rolliver’s inn to chat and drink, the convivial and comforting atmosphere is only made possible by the men’s willingness to literally reach out to one another: “the stage of mental comfort to which they had arrived at this hour was one wherein their souls expanded beyond their skins, spreading their personalities warmly through the room” (T. Hardy 25). Far from conveying any Cartesian dualism, Hardy’s metaphor actually asserts the embodiment of the human soul through the use of the verb “to expand,” expressing the idea of spreading out or opening out, rather than dissociating from one’s skin (OED).

14In Tess, as in phenomenological writings, the status of the human skin is re-assessed and reconceptualised in order to serve the argument of an embodied consciousness. E. S Casey, in his essay “At the Edges of my Body”, defines his body’s edge as “a boundary insofar as this term is taken to mean a porous edge that permits flow or traffic across it in more than one direction”, and adds that “it is closest to being a threshold, given that it is through my body’s edge that I gain access to the world” (Casey 245). As his argument unfolds, Casey’s bodily edge becomes plural and comparable to sensorial gateways that remind us of the synesthetic quality of perception (Merleau-Ponty 1976, 275). Rendered possible by an embodied consciousness, synaesthesia takes up an ecological dimension in Tess, insofar as it allows for a profound connection to one’s environment, resulting in a state of “exaltation”:

  • 9 For a psychoanalytical perspective on this passage, see Ramel. Ramel’s reading of this passage is c (...)

Tess was conscious of neither time nor space. The exaltation which she had described as being producible at will by gazing at a star, came now without any determination of hers; she undulated upon the thin notes as upon billows, and their harmonies passed liked breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound. (T. Hardy 123)9

15The description of this experience as felt by the heroine’s subjectivity is performed both through the use of pathetic fallacy, as mentioned earlier, and through the enumeration and entanglement of four senses: hearing (the harp’s notes), smell (the smell coming from the weed-flowers), touch (breezes, dampness), sight (the pollen as musical notes made visible), and even the fusion of sight and hearing in “the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound”. As her different senses cooperate in order to enact a deep connection with her environment, Tess’s body and mind also fuse so as to allow a deep connection to her lover, Angel: “she could answer no more than a bare affirmative, so great was the emotion aroused in her at the thought of going through the world with him as his own familiar friend. Her feelings almost filled her ears like a babble of waves, and surged up to her eyes” (T. Hardy 194). The physical manifestations of Tess’s emotions perfect the reconciliation between body and mind and give the heroine an unmistakably material dimension: “how very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation” (150).

16Indeed, throughout the novel, Tess is repeatedly defined as a wholly organic character whose consciousness and body were born from the earth, as an early fictitious spokesperson for posthumanist thought. As Cary Wolfe reminds us, posthumanist thinking “requires us to attend that thing called ‘the human’ with greater specificity, greater attention to its embodiment, embeddedness, and materiality, and how these in turn shape and are shaped by consciousness, mind” (qtd in West 8). In their common ontological approach and particular focus on embodiment, phenomenology and posthumanism both share an ecological dimension that seems to crystallise in the character of Tess, apostrophised as a “genuine daughter of nature” by Angel (T. Hardy 120) or as “a child of the soil” by his mother (369). Most likely meant as a reference to Tess’s agricultural background, this last periphrase may also be understood in a phenomenological way, as a reference to Tess’s material body and embeddedness within the natural surroundings she was not simply born from but made of.

17Again and again, Tess’s consciousness and body are described as being rooted in the Wessex soil, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes quite literally, when she’s referred to as a replanted tree: “she was, for one thing, physically and mentally suited among these new surroundings. The sapling which had rooted down to a poisonous stratum on the spot of its sowing had been transplanted to a deeper soil” (T. Hardy 129). Hardy’s sapling metaphor is particularly apt since the word may refer to a young tree or to a young and inexperienced person (OED), thus blurring the boundary between the human and the non-human within Tess’s own identity. The anchoring of Tess’s existence in the land seems to go hand in hand with the anchoring of her consciousness in her flesh, and metaphors commenting on the effect of a physical trauma on the mind are always organic metaphors. For instance, an agricultural metaphor is used to describe Tess’s healing process after she was sexually abused by Alec: “Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest” (124). Not only does Tess have a proper environmental consciousness, born from the soil, but she seems to be drawing her very life-force from a ground which can support her – literally and figuratively – as she tries to mentally heal from a physical attack. But then, where does Tess’s self end and where do her natural surroundings begin?

Planting the seeds of Merleau-Ponty’s green phenomenology: the flesh of Tess’s world

18Through the character of Tess, Hardy seems to be reversing a growing tendency in late Victorians to “lo[se] touch with their environment” (Hardy qtd in E. C. Miller 2016, 263). Tess’s mental and physical rootedness in the land results in her being emotionally and affectively connected to it, “the surrounding hills” becoming “as personal to her as that of her relatives” (T. Hardy 37). This comparison of her natural environment to a family member highlights the development of her relation to nature into a relationship, that is, a proper kinship. To Vakoch and Castrillon, such a shift would be enough to define Tess as an ecological character since “ecocentric awareness is borne of experiences of intimate relating with the rest of nature” and “necessarily involves deep compassion and care for the rest of nature” (Vakoch & Castrillon 131).

  • 10 “La Nature comme l’autre côté de l’homme” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 322).

19In Hardy’s work as in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, this “intimate relating with the rest of nature” starts out with an understanding of the natural world as “the other side of man”10 (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 274), leading, in a work of fiction, to the description of characters and surroundings as two sides of one Möbius Strip. Indeed, in Tess, the environment in which the characters’ lives unfold is most often in keeping with their inner state, one mirroring the other, and vice versa. For instance, “as Clare was oppressed by the outward heats, so was he burdened inwardly by a waxing fervour of passion for the soft and silent Tess” (T. Hardy 149). Here, the antithesis between the adjective “outward” and the adverb “inwardly”, rather than opposing a natural phenomenon to a mental phenomenon, actually brings them closer, as two sides of one coin. At times, the connection between a character and his/her environment may get so intense that the characters’ mental state inevitably becomes a “mental atmosphere”, as demonstrated in the following example: “she could feel the vibrant air humming round them from the louvred belfry in a circle of sound and it matched the highly-charged mental atmosphere in which she was living” (213).

  • 11 “Il y a insertion réciproque et entrelacs de l’un [mon corps] dans l’autre [le monde]” (Merleau-Pon (...)
  • 12 “Où mettre la limite du corps et du monde, puisque le monde est chair ?” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 180).

20Page after page, the contours of Tess’s self get more and more blurry, to the point that they seem to fuse with an environment whose very etymology suddenly becomes unfitting. Condemned by Albrecht as “a product of erroneous dualistic thinking typical of the Anthropocene separation” (Albrecht 101), the term “environment” cannot possibly encompass the complexities of human-non-human interactions and interdependencies in Hardy’s Wessex. Seizing the world through an ecological lens, according to Albrecht, is first to recognise that “we actually live within the ‘symbioment’” and that, “at its foundation, life is all about the sumbios, or the ‘living together’, with each other and other types of beings” (101). In phenomenology, this very idea was translated by Merleau-Ponty into a concept that he called the Flesh of the World (“la chair du monde”) and that he defined as a “reciprocal insertion and intertwining”11 between organisms and the world (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 138). In Hardy’ novel, the mirroring effect at work in most descriptions of the characters’ emotions as felt within their “symbioment” is one illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s reciprocal dynamic, just as Tess’s symbiotic relation to nature is a fictitious example of the intertwining process described by the phenomenologist. As the reader follows the heroine’s long walks in the Vale, she is invited to enter into the very flesh of Tess’s world where “all be-ing is inter-being” (Vakoch & Castrillon 73): “Tess Durbeyfield’s route on this memorable morning lay amid the north-eastern undulations of the Vale in which she had been born and in which her life had unfolded. The Vale of Blackmoor was to her the world, and its inhabitants the races thereof” (T. Hardy 36). In this quotation, the repetition of the preposition and relative pronoun “in which,” coupled with the use of the adverb “thereof,” emphasises the idea of an experience of the world as co-belonging and co-dependence. “Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?”12 Merleau-Ponty asks (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 138). This question resonates as one reads the following description of young characters walking drunkenly home:

Each pedestrian could see no halo but his or her own, which never deserted the head-shadow, whatever its unsteadiness might be; but adhered to it, and persistently beautified it; till the erratic motions seemed an inherent part of the irradiation, and the fumes of their breathing a component of the night’s mist; and the spirit of the scene, and of the moonlight, and of Nature, seemed harmoniously to mingle with the spirit of wine. (T. Hardy 68, emphases added)

21In this particular example, one may say that the characters are intoxicated, both literally and figuratively, with alcohol and with the ecstatic experience of fusing with their surroundings.

22Through his later fiction, Hardy seems to have further developed – one may even say fleshed out – ontological reflections he had put down in a journal entry in 1885: “the human race to be shown as one great network or tissue which quivers in every part when one point is shaken, like a spider’s web is touched” (F. E. Hardy 177). In Tess, this conception of a “great network” applies not only to the human race but to the living experience as a whole, an experience which is characterised by what ecopsychologist and phenomenologist Will W. Adams calls “interpermeation” (Adams 39). A significant example of this interpermeation process can be found very early in the novel as Tess meets Angel for the first time, only to lose him to the horizon a few hours later: “it was not until the rays of the sun had absorbed the young stranger’s retreating figure on the hill that she shook off her temporary sadness and answered her would-be partner in the affirmative” (T. H ardy 19). Whether it be called the Flesh of the World, the interpermeation process, or, in Merleau-Ponty’s later use, the “chiasm”, this intertwining of organisms and world undoubtedly adds to Hardy’s novel another ecological layer insofar as it closes any gap between human and non-human concerns: “conscious of interpermeation, we tend to understand ourselves and reality differently, and to be more aware and compassionate with others and the natural world: awareness generates love as love generates awareness of interpermeation” (Adams 39). Yet, the reader of Tess cannot help but wonder how such a heroine, aware of her place within the symbioment and living in profound harmony with it, can be prevented from getting the love this awareness is supposed to generate. In the flesh of her world, Tess often seems to be losing herself.

23Henson’s affirmation that “Hardy’s landscapes are inescapably gendered” (Henson 127) ultimately requires a gender-study approach to inform our assessment of the author’s greenness. Indeed, as a female character, Tess seems to have abilities to fuse with her surroundings that are specific to her gender:

But those of the other sex were the most interesting of this company of binders, by reason of the charm which is acquired by woman when she becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein as at ordinary times. A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it. (T. Hardy 8788)

  • 13 “[...] pris dans un tissu des choses, il [le corps] tire tout à lui, l’incorpore, et, du même mouve (...)

24What could be simply interpreted as another striking illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s chiasm becomes more complex as the narrator makes a strong difference between the way a man and a woman relate to their natural surroundings. As Henson suggests, no actual reason is given to justify the way a field-man is able to preserve his individuality, while a field-woman has inevitably to lose herself to the field she is working in (Henson 194). The mere fact that her individuality should be lost in the process goes against Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the chiasm as resulting in “difference without contradiction”13 (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 135) rather than in any assimilation. If a man can only work in the field while a woman has to become the field itself, then the woman loses her subjecthood to become the object of man’s exploitation, that is, the ground which he can literally trample on. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty’s ecological Flesh of the World becomes a patriarchal chiasm, “a fleshy tabernacle” (T. Hardy 310), like her own female body, that keeps stifling her rather than allowing her to thrive as a human being.

25The previously-mentioned interpermeation process that should generate love often happens, in Tess, as a consequence of the heroine being threatened by male characters and having no choice but to let her femininity be absorbed by her surroundings. For instance, after having been harassed by men and having had to take shelter among dying pheasants, Tess decides to “run no further risks from her appearance” (T. Hardy 280), disguising herself with old clothes and cutting off her eyebrows. As a result of such change, Tess seems to be more than ever in harmony with nature: “Thus Tess walks on; a figure which is part of the landscape; a field-woman pure and simple, in winter guise; a gray serge cape, a red woollen cravat, a stuff skirt covered by a whitey-brown rough wrapper, and buff-leather gloves” (T. Hardy 280). Beyond its usual eco-positive connotation, Tess’s fusion with nature in this quotation serves as a condemnation of men’s “aggressive admiration” (280) that forces a woman out of her flesh, into the Flesh of a patriarchal world. As Bonica suggests, it is first and foremost “Tess’s sexuality” that “represents her connection to [the natural world]” (Bonica 853), thus linking the treatment of environmental issues to the treatment of gender issues in Hardy’s work. In what Henson refers to as “the narrator’s controlling gaze” (Henson 196), I actually read the male author’s phenomenological admission that he cannot fathom what a woman’s experience of life feels like, and yet, that he can, as a man, limit the negative effect he may have on that experience, just as one should do regarding the non-human. Portraying a female protagonist being absorbed by her natural surroundings the way she is being absorbed by patriarchal society is not condoning any effacement of the female self, but rather condemning a world that treats women and the non-human in the same destructive way – as non-men.

26Using phenomenological tools in order to reveal the different “green” layers of Hardy’s Tess serves to demonstrate the pioneering dimension of the novel, in the field of both philosophy and environmental studies. The ontological reflections taken up by the author through the use of a particular phenomenological anthropomorphism relocates the subjective experience of the world to the centre of the ecological debate. As Laing simply and aptly puts it, “if our experience is destroyed, our behaviour will be destructive” (qtd in Fisher 88). As a way to preserve this interactive experience of the world, Hardy reminds us of the utmost importance of keeping our consciousness open to the world and to “body-forth our existence” (Boss qtd in Fisher 69) so as to remain anchored in the earth that nourishes us. Decades before any phenomenologists or ecopsychologists could express it, Hardy seems to have sensed that “it is only when intimacy to something is felt palpably as no separation that its essential connection with care becomes evident” (Puhakka qtd in Vakoch & Castrillon 11). As soon as Hardy’s Wessex becomes a “symbioment” and his characters’ contours start to fade into the rest of nature, then the reader herself gets involved in the novel’s literary “symbioment” and Tess becomes green writing. By sketching a female protagonist entirely embedded in nature, the author seems to foreshadow Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the Flesh of the World, just as he initiates a very modern debate on the perception and representation of the female flesh in the world.

27As a sapling planted in a patriarchal forest, Tess will accept her death with resignation, probably tired of having striven so much to disentangle herself from sexist roots which, paradoxically, have prevented her growth. Within Hardy’s literary chiasm, philosophical, ecological and social reflections inform one another in order to create an eco-feminist novel that resonates in many ways with our own contemporary society. Whether it be applied to feminist studies or environmental studies, Hardy wisely reminds us that “every error under the sun seems to arise from thinking that you are right in yourself because you are yourself, and other people wrong because they are not you” (Hardy qtd in F. E. Hardy 165).

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1 On pastoralism in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, see e.g. Martell. For an eco-critical approach of Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, see E. C. Miller. For a reading of Hardy’s work as non-ecological, with a particular focus on The Return of the Native (1878), see J. Miller.

2 It might be relevant to note that Hardy entitled his Wessex edition of 1912 “Novels of Character and Environment”.

3 A thing considered in its essence is called a “noumenon”, as opposed to a “phenomenon”.

4 “Le monde naturel se donne comme existant en soi au-delà de son existence pour moi […] et nous nous trouvons en présence d’une nature qui n’a pas besoin d’être perçue pour exister” (Merleau-Ponty 1976, 191).

5 The Animal’s Friend was a periodical published by The Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals. Hardy had sent along the particular pig-killing episode to the periodical with an authorisation for reprinting it, free of charge. In December 1895, it was published in the magazine under the title “A Merciful Man (Scene from Jude the Obscure), by Thomas Hardy” (Tait 1–2).

6 “[Hardy invoque] l’animal littéraire per se, puis […] s’en sert progressivement non plus comme une fin en soi, mais bien dans une perspective écocritique, pour nous donner à vivre l’expérience de l’animal naturel dans sa réalité organique, biologique.” (my translation)

7 One immediately thinks about Prince’s death, which will lead Tess to Alec and precipitate her own downfall.

8 “être, c’est éclater dans le monde” (Sartre qtd in Leroy 136).

9 For a psychoanalytical perspective on this passage, see Ramel. Ramel’s reading of this passage is consistent with our argument since the Freudian “oceanic feeling” (57) she is referring to in relation to Tess’s experience adds to the sense of a strong, overwhelming connection between the character and her surroundings. Then, when analysed in Lacanian terms, Tess’s sensations become the result of “feminine jouissance,” a process involving a very incarnate soul (58), again supporting our analysis of Tess’s embodied consciousness.

10 “La Nature comme l’autre côté de l’homme” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 322).

11 “Il y a insertion réciproque et entrelacs de l’un [mon corps] dans l’autre [le monde]” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 180).

12 “Où mettre la limite du corps et du monde, puisque le monde est chair ?” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 180).

13 “[...] pris dans un tissu des choses, il [le corps] tire tout à lui, l’incorpore, et, du même mouvement, communique aux choses sur lesquelles il se ferme cette identité sans superposition, cette différence sans contradiction, cet écart du dedans et du dehors qui constituent son secret natal” (Merleau-Ponty 2016, 176–177).

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Electronic reference

Marie Bertrand, Reinterpreting Hardy’s “Child of the Soil”: Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Phenomenological Green WritingFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 25 May 2023, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marie Bertrand

Université Paul Valéry Montpellier3 (EMMA)

Marie Bertrand is a PhD candidate from Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier3 (EMMA). She teaches literature and translation classes at Sorbonne Université (Paris IV). The scope of her research extends from late 19th-century to early-20th century British literature, with a particular focus on Thomas Hardy's and D.H. Lawrence's ontological and environmental reflections in their novels. Her thesis is entitled “Feeling Human: Thomas Hardy’s and D.H. Lawrence’s Psycho-organic Conception of the Human Being” (“Se (res)sentir humain: la conception de l’être à la croisée du psychique et de l’organique dans les romans de Thomas Hardy et D.H. Lawrence”).  


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