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The “Poetic Justice” Done by Hardy to Nature in The Woodlanders

La « justice poétique » rendue à la nature par Hardy dans The Woodlanders
Annie Ramel


In the diegesis of Hardy’s novels, the symbolic appropriation of nature is manifest: it is brutal, mortifying. Tragedy often results from a linguistic “error” that conflates bodies and tropes – a deadly confusion between nature and culture. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s “corporeal blight”, which many Victorians viewed as a moral “fault”, ceases to be a metaphor when it turns into “sticky blights” making real stains on her skin. The sexual act taking place in the forest of the Chase is a form of writing on Tess’s body. Nature here is impregnated by culture. The novel ends with the triumph of the sign: the phallic tall staff, the “black flag” fixed on the tower of the Wintoncester prison, is a writing on the sky which indicates that Tess has been hanged. But Hardy’s poetic texts, whether they be poems or fiction, operate differently. This essay will try to argue that they take us beyond the Symbolic, “beyond the printed page”, to the Real, perhaps to “nature” itself. “Stepping over language” is conceivable in the perspective opened by the Lacanian concept of “lalangue” (“llanguage”), which does not reduce language to its signifying function. This essay will focus on the issue of the textual voice and will ask the following question: whose voice is it that we hear as we read the (silent) text? Do the famous assertions by Deleuze and Guattari on “becoming-animal” through literature seem relevant to Hardy? Could we see “llanguage” as operating a kind of reversal which cancels the symbolic appropriation of nature manifest in the diegesis, thus achieving some kind of “poetic justice” through the text?

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  • 1 A number of articles on Hardy and “The Letter” were published in FATHOM in 2013. See https://journa (...)
  • 2 On Tess as sign, see also Ramel 1991. Helena Michie shows how Tess becomes “a text to be read, inte (...)

1In the diegesis of Hardy’s novels, the symbolic appropriation of nature is manifest: it is brutal, mortifying. The letter1 is imprinted on the real of human bodies, and it “killeth”, as announced in the preface to Jude the Obscure. Tragedy often results from a linguistic error, “the fundamental error of taking figures of speech literally” (Hillis Miller 13), of conflating bodies and tropes. In Lacanian terms, we could speak of a deadly confusion between the Real and the Symbolic, or between nature and culture (Ramel 2015, 37–42). In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the bad bread made from the corn supplied by Henchard is said to be “unprincipled” (Hardy 1987, 32) because Henchard is an “unprincipled” man who sold his wife like a mare on a fair – a fact of which the Casterbridge people are ignorant: the moral judgment concerning him has materialized in the concrete essence of things, in the corn, and in the taste of the bread. The hypallage “unprincipled bread” is taken to the letter, its metaphorical function is lost, culture has left its inscription on nature. Similarly, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s “corporeal blight” (Hardy 1991, 129), which many Victorians viewed as a moral “fault”, ceases to be a metaphor when it turns into the “sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin” (127). The sexual act taking place in the forest of the Chase is a form of writing on Tess’s body: “Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive?” (77). Nature here is impregnated by culture, bodies are “intextuated” (De Certeau) or, to put it the other way round, the sign is incarnated – for the incarnation of the sign and the intextuation of the body are two sides of the same coin, an idea which Elisabeth Bronfen condensed in her formulation, “Insigned Bodies – Embodied Signs” (Bronfen 66)2. Tess of the d’Urbervilles ends with the triumph of the sign: the phallic tall staff, the “black flag” fixed on the tower of the Wintoncester prison, is a writing on the sky which indicates that Tess has been hanged. The intextuation of the body ultimately means its disincarnation.

  • 3 The Woodlanders was published in 1887, one year after The Mayor of Casterbridge, four years before (...)
  • 4 According to Cheryll Glotfelty, “ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature a (...)

2In contrast with that ending, The Woodlanders3 ends with the burning of books. What can be inferred from that? So far my reading of Hardy has seen the Symbolic at work in Hardy’s novels as a sort of pseudo-Symbolic, which mortifies because it leaves no space between nature and culture. In that perspective, “the disorder in Hardy’s tragic novels is not caused by culture interfering with nature (which, if left untampered with, would make for universal welfare), but by a deficiency in culture itself – a flaw in the Symbolic order” (Ramel 2015, 39). What if this reading of Hardy were re-assessed in the light of ecocriticism4? If our reading of The Woodlanders required a different approach, a shift from culture to nature? Indeed ecocriticism objects to placing “more emphasis on the cultural significance of things than on their material reality”, an approach which results in the “neglect of nature as an objective, material, and vulnerable reality” (Kerridge 531).

  • 5 Translated from “Avant-Dire” au Traité du Verbe (René Ghil), Paris : Giraud 1886, 5–7. “Je dis : un (...)

3Language as a metaphorical process substitutes words for things. When I say “a flower”, I somehow cause the real flower to disappear, for the real flower is, in Mallarmé’s words, “the one absent from every bouquet” (Mallarmé 76)5. Numerous metaphors in The Woodlanders associate plants, trees, and animals to humans, and thereby make them absent. Trees, in particular, are described by comparison with the human body, which somehow denaturalizes them: mats of moss spreading over the roots of trees “made them like hands wearing green gloves” (Hardy 1985, 41); a bough is swayed so low by the violent wind that it smites the roof of Giles’s hut “in the manner of a gigantic hand smiting the mouth of an adversary” (231–232); old oaks and elms are “wrinkled like an old crone’s face” (149); the rotting stumps of trees rise from their “mossy setting, like decayed trees from green gums” (234). Human feelings are attributed to trees: an oak stands “naked-legged, and as if ashamed” (103); we see “the naked arms of prostrate trees” (105). “Vanquished” (234) by men, they suffer mutilation at their hands: they have “decayed holes caused by old amputations” (149); an old beech has “vast armpits, and great pocket-holes in its sides where branches had been amputated in past times” (234). The reader is made to feel their pain: “the trunks and larger branches stood against the light of the sky in the forms of writhing men, gigantic candelabra, pikes, halberds, lances, and whatever besides the fancy chose to make of them” (193).

4From an ethical point of view, what can we make of those similes, which somehow substitute humans for trees, and thus “denature” them? Is not that metaphorical process one of “the forms of symbolic appropriation that translate the non-human world into words tied to human desires” (Rigby 80)? One first answer is that in The Woodlanders, similes also tend to compare humans to animals or plants, especially trees: humans have “arboreal qualities” (Cohen 19). For instance, the “mutual interest” between Grace and Fitzpiers “grew as imperceptibly as the tree-twigs budded” (Hardy 1985, 102). Humans are also frequently compared to birds: Grace is “modest as a turtle-dove” (252). They suffer the same subjection as that imposed on birds: Marty South “stood encaged amid the mass of twigs and buds like a great bird” (103); Grace, bursting upon Fitzpiers on Midsummer Eve, is “captured” by him “as if she had been a bird” (112). Humans and birds may be treated with the same tenderness: as Giles Winterborne lies dead, Grace lays her hand “reverently” on his eyelids, “pressing down their lashes with gentle touches, as if she were stroking a little bird” (241). Confusion between birds and humans also happens: the sound of Fitzpiers tapping on Mrs Charmond’s window is “light as if from the bill of a little bird” (199). But it is mostly Giles who is part of the natural world, in perfect communion with it: he looks and smells “like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his boots and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips” (156) – one may note that his hands are “clammy” not with sweat (as is often the case with clammy skin), but with the sweet juice of apples, as if sweat, a secretion from the human body, had been naturalized. Giles somehow belongs to the fauna that inhabits the woods: we see him, followed by Grace, “diminishing to a faun-like figure under the green canopy and over the brown floor” (217) – even though a “faun”, a human body with a goat’s horns and legs, is a construction of human culture, an interesting mix of the human and the non-human.

5But we must go further: the comparisons which assimilate Grace or Marty to birds captured by human hands can be viewed from an ecofeminist perspective, in which the subordination of women to men is akin to the domination of nature by men (Kerridge 538). Hardy suggesting that a woman caught in a man’s arms is “totally mastered”, encaged like a bird since she will be kept there all her life (Hardy 1985, 112), is a way of drawing a parallel between the oppression suffered by women and that suffered by animals. Marty, working hard amid the twigs and buds that she has to produce ceaselessly in order to make a living, is exploited, enslaved, “encaged” as if she were a bird. She, like a bird, is a victim of a society dominated by men. And here we understand that Hardy’s similes have an ethical resonance, which we may grasp if we lend an ear to the discourse of ecofeminism. Similarly, during the barking season, the “doomed” trees are “flayed”, “attacked” by men; they have to undergo “the ‘little toilette’ of the executioner’s victim” (103). Those trees, peeled and “amputated” by men, seem to be “writhing” in an agony of pain. They may be read as an ecological protest against the exploitation of nature by men.

  • 6 Several critics have written on the influence of Darwin on Hardy. On The Woodlanders and Darwinism, (...)

6Those similes must of course be understood in the Darwinian context of Hardy’s writing, in which “the discovery of the law of evolution revealed that all organic creatures are of one family” (Hardy 1984, 373). This introduced the new conception of ontological continuity, which implies that there is no clear line of demarcation between human and non-human creatures, and debunks the myth of anthropocentrism6. Indeed, in The Woodlanders, men and animals are “neighbours” (Hardy 1985, 19, 229, 234). But the law of evolution also concerns the different species of plants and animals, which are “neighbours” too, but have to struggle against each other in order to survive. “Owls that had been catching mice in the out-houses, rabbits that had been eating the wintergreens in the gardens, and stoats that had been sucking the blood of the rabbits” (19), all those creatures are just as merciless as men (Estanove 162–164). A parallel is drawn between the cruelty of men and that of “an encircling woodbine” inflicting “slow torture” upon thorns during their growth, “as the Chinese have been said to mould human beings into grotesque toys by continued compression in infancy” (Hardy 1985, 41). Trees, too, have to wrestle with one another: “Next were more trees close together, wrestling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows. It was the struggle between these neighbours that she had heard in the night” (234).

7But then, if we raise the question of ethics in a post-Darwinian world, what remains to be assessed is Hardy’s “greenness”, i.e. his involvement in the protection of natural life (Estanove 300). Can it be argued, as does Elisha Cohn, that a Derridean recognition of the radical otherness of animals is a prerequisite for an “ethic of care” (Cohn 500) to oppose the exploitation of animals? And that, as David Wood explains, “it is where obvious continuities break down that the ethical begins” (Wood 140)? In this case the Deleuzian approach, which in The Woodlanders seems to prevail, would appear incompatible with an ethic of care.

8Focusing on Hardy’s text inclines us to think otherwise. For one character in The Woodlanders embodies an ideal conception of the relationship between men and nature: Giles Winterborne stands for a harmony between humans and nature. As a woodlander who makes a living from the exploitation of trees, he acts so delicately, with such solicitude, that his touch is felt as a caress by the trees, which respond to his benevolence by growing, developing, prospering. His hands have a life-giving power:

He had a marvellous power of making trees grow. Although he would seem to shovel in the earth quite carelessly, there was a sort of sympathy between himself and the fir, oak, or beech that he was operating on, so that the roots took hold of the soil in a few days […]. Winterborne’s fingers were endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress, under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in their proper directions for growth. (Hardy 1985, 49)

9When he is no longer there to take care of the crop of apples, they weigh so heavily that the apple-trees are “bent to still greater obliquity by the heaviness of their produce” (141). Without him, the wood seems to be “a house of death”, but the life he has instilled into the copses and trees is still there as a reminder of his past care:

Winterborne was gone, and the copses seemed to show the want of him; those young trees, so many of which he had planted, and of which he had spoken so truly when he said that he should fall before they fell, were at that very moment sending out their roots in the direction that he had given them with his subtle hand. (245)

10An “ethic of care” is certainly embodied by Giles, even though there is no breach in the continuity which connects him and Marty to nature, no sense of an “abyssal rupture” (Derrida 398) between him and the non-human world. Like human beings, trees sigh when they are sad: “How they sigh directly we put’em upright […] said Marty […]. It seems to me, the girl continued, as if they sigh because they are very sorry to begin life in earnest – just as we be” (50).

11Such a conception of the harmonious intermingling of men and nature could be considered as a rather naive, prelapsarian vision – a myth which modern ecocriticism might debunk as a form of escapism indebted to the pastoral tradition (Gifford 27–35). In Hardy’s time, Little Hintock is a world apart, cut off from contemporary civilization. There is indeed an element of nostalgia in the novel, which would incline us to place it in the genre of the pastoral novel – even though there are neither sheep nor shepherds in the story, and despite the “sombre beauty” (Hardy 1985, 4) of the woods (see Gadoin 2010a). For, as Annie Escuret and Isabelle Gadoin have pointed out, the pastoral genre is the invention of peoples who felt nostalgia for a lost past: it resurrects the “state of nature” which prevailed in ancestral times, and opposes it to the civilized world supposedly corrupted by progress (Escuret 256–257, Gadoin 2010b, 57). The Woodlanders, like the pastoral, is full of nostalgia, and as in the pastoral, the faithful depiction of nature is interspersed with mythological references: Giles and Grace are “two Arcadian innocents” (Hardy 1985, 212), Grace is moved by a “Daphnean instinct” (224); her being likened to Artemis (“a woman who herself has more of Artemis than of Aphrodite in her constitution”, 236) makes her close to nature – Artemis being “the goddess of chastity, vegetation and wild animals” (236)  – yet places her within the frame of classical mythology. Giles too, as a “faun-like figure”, can be seen as at one with the “fauna” living in the woods, yet he is likened to the Roman god of the fields and woods – a construction of human culture.

12However, Hardy debunked the naive pastoral tradition a long time before ecocriticism viewed it critically. Several aspects of The Woodlanders differentiate it from the pastoral, one of them being that, unlike Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd, Giles does not play the flute. Music is the privilege of nature in “that wondrous world of sap and leaves called the Hintock woods” (Hardy 1985, 248): there is “music in the breeze” (4), it is nightingales, not men, which sing (186); it is “singing insects” which are heard (225). When the trees that have creaked all the winter leave off creaking, “the whirr of the night-hawk” forms “a very satisfactory continuation of uncanny music” (109). “Low harmonies” are produced “by the instrumentation of the various species of trees” (266); “the funereal trees rocked and chanted dirges unceasingly” (183) – note here the sinister tone of the music played by nature. More importantly, nature has its own language, on a par with that spoken by humans, “the tongue of the trees and fruits and flowers themselves” (249). That foreign tongue is understood by nobody among the population of Hintock woods – nobody, except Giles and Marty:

They had been possessed of its [the Hintock world’s] finer mysteries as of commonplace knowledge; had been able to read its hieroglyphs as ordinary writing; to them the sights and sounds of night, winter, wind, storm, amid those dense boughs, which had to Grace a touch of the uncanny, and even the supernatural, were simple occurrences whose origin, continuance, and laws they foreknew. They had planted together, and together they had felled; together they had, with the run of the years, mentally collected those remoter signs and symbols which, seen in few, were of runic obscurity, but all together made an alphabet. (248249)

  • 7 Giles’s fingers have “a gentle conjuror’s touch (Hardy 1985, 49) when he plants trees.

13Giles and Marty do not speak that foreign language, but “from the light lashing of the twigs upon their faces, when brushing through them in the dark, they could pronounce upon the species of the tree whence they stretched” (249, emphasis added). Giles’s and Marty’s ability to “pronounce” is somehow equivocal: it refers to their capacity to name the species of the trees in their own language, just as they can “name” a tree “from the quality of the wind’s murmur through a bough” (249); but what might also be overheard is that they can pronounce that language, and not just translate it. They are on the side of nature, they have access to its deeper mysteries – to the undecipherable Real of the natural word, which the Symbolic cannot catch in its meshes. For “the artifices of the seasons were seen by them from the conjuror’s own point of view7, and not from that of the spectator” (249). Here, Hardy’s writing sounds like a practice of “atonement or at-one-ment with nature’s rhythms and cycles” (Skigaj 38), very far from any form of “symbolic appropriation”. Hardy in this text is at his “greenest”. No wonder Fitzpiers can do nothing to win Grace’s forgiveness: “there was nothing to be done yet, while Giles Winterborne’s memory was green” (251, emphasis added).

14What The Woodlanders achieves is a sort of purification from the taint of the Symbolic (from the “madder stain”, the scarlet letter which ear-marks Tess), an analysis confirmed by the burning of books at the end of the novel. What is defeated is the symbolic appropriation of nature. The “distressing [or “dis-tressing”] business” of Marty selling her tresses to a barber is counterbalanced by Grace being “undressed” in the mantrap episode: in the first instance Marty is despoiled of a part of her body, a natural element which rightly belongs to her; in the second Grace loses her dress – an artificial element is severed from her body. Of course we are in the Victorian age, and claiming that Grace is “undressed” may be considered a little far-fetched: Grace is “in white up to the waist”, lacking only “the portion of her dress which the gin retained” (Hardy 1985, 268). And Fitzpiers will help her to restore her “customary contours” by retrieving a “silk mouthful” from the gin. Yet the mantrap has (temporarily) freed nature from culture (“I just freed myself by leaving the dress behind”, 269), and thus saved Grace’s life. The exact opposite happens in two tragic novels by Hardy: in The Mayor of Casterbridge Lucetta dies from the shock of recognizing her dress on the effigy carried in the “skimmington ride” and identifying herself to the dress (“She’s me – she’s me – even to my parasol, my green parasol”; Hardy 1987, 279); in The Return of the Native, Eustacia is one with her clothes, there being “no noticeable lines of demarcation between flesh and clothes” (Hardy 1990, 260). The confusion of nature and culture always leads to tragedy in Hardy’s novels, as I have already pointed out. What happens in The Woodlanders is the exact opposite: a severance that puts culture aside, and thus keeps tragedy away.

15In The Woodlanders, Grace being “undressed” means that a contact between bodies has become possible: Fitzpiers can now “press Grace to his breast” (Hardy 1985, 268), “press his face to hers” (269); he no longer needs to “press” her to return to him (“I would rather you did not press me on that just now”, 259). To the cruel verbal pressure exerted on Marty by Percombe the hairdresser (“don’t press me” […] “I won’t press you”, 10–11) has been substituted the tender pressing of one body to another. Fitzpiers pressing Grace to his breast concludes a paradigmatic chain which has repeated words containing the /res/ sound all along the text: “press”, “dress”, “tress”, “hairdresser”, “mistress”, “distress”, “stress”, “actress”, “address” (see Ramel 2015, 45–49). Those words usually connote an oppressive human culture, which is precisely what the text finally rejects when Grace is freed “by leaving her dress behind” (269): the “hairdresser” “presses” Marty to sell her “tresses” (but Marty strokes her tresses to reassure herself that she will not give in, 13); Fitzpiers strokes the false tresses which he believes to be Mrs Charmond’s (246) – Mrs Charmond being his “mistress” (his “mis-tress”) as well as the “mistress” of Hintock House (52, 68). It is worth noting that Mrs Charmond’s “mis-tresses” will eventually cause Fitzpiers to break from her when he discovers them to be false; she used to be “a play-actress”, whereas Grace is but “an inexperienced actress” (100). We have seen that Marty is “dis-tressed”, like Grace who is “much distressed” (66) when Melbury insists on her marrying someone socially superior to Giles; she enters Fitzpiers’s sitting-room with “distressful resignation” (98), and when he wishes their wedding to take place at a registry office, she objects “with real distress” (125). A few lines spoken by Giles in indirect free speech to convince himself that Grace is ill-suited to him summarize Melbury’s social prejudices, semblances whose falsity is exposed at the end of the novel: “A woman who could go to Hintock house, and be friendly with its mistress; enter into the views of its mistress, talk like her, and dress not much unlike her: why, she would hardly be contented with him, a yeoman” (52, emphasis added).

16When Grace frees herself by leaving her dress behind, she (briefly) transgresses the dress codes imposed by the dominant male culture of the Victorian age. But her liberation is not just a matter of dress, it is a more fundamental move: she gets rid of the social pressure symbolized by the “press-dress-tress-stress-mistress-distress-actress” paradigm. The novel ends with “a lapse back to nature unadorned”, a rejection of “the veneer of artificiality” (156). Grace is no longer offended by Giles’s “want of so-called culture” (166), because she now prefers “purity in the breasts of unvarnished men” (166). Her “passionate desire for primitive life” (157) is a rejection of semblances, and it calls into question the validity of human culture. When Fitzpiers endeavoured “to carry on simultaneously the study of physiology and transcendental philosophy, the material world and the ideal”, his aim was “to discover if possible a point of contact between them” (101). He longed for Nature to recover “her lost union with the idea” (99). His purpose was no other than “the symbolic appropriation of nature” (Rigby 80). Giles, on the contrary, owns a Bible, but keeps it at hand “mainly for the convenience of whetting his pen-knife upon its leather covers” (243); he is admired for “the purity of his nature” (236). The burning of books at the end of the novel is a plain statement: nature has to be preserved in its “purity”, freed from any imprint that culture might leave on it. Grace has become, in Fitzpiers’s words, his “pure, pure Grace, modest as a turtledove” (252): the simile here achieves a form of “atonement or at-one-ment” (Skigaj 38) with nature.

  • 8 Which does not necessarily imply a happy ending: whether Grace will live happily ever after with Fi (...)

17But how can a book about nature counter the “symbolic appropriation” of nature? How can The Woodlanders, a printed book, “step over language” and defeat the Symbolic? In my previous publications I had argued that the mantrap episode restored the Symbolic by putting an end to the confusion of nature and culture.8 In the light of ecocritism, I am now inclined to revise my first reading by drawing on Lacan’s later developments – which does not mean rejecting my first analysis, but going beyond it. Lacan, at the beginning of his career, put the emphasis on the Symbolic. But in his article “Lituraterre” (1971) and his XXth Seminar, Encore (1972–1973), he took “a U-turn back to the Real” (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 287). In “Lituraterre”, the focus is on “a prediscursive letter still permeated with the substance of enjoyment/jouissance, pointing to the dimension of the Real in the Symbolic” (287). Encore was a major conceptual shift which took Lacan “beyond the phallus” when he argued that women (as well as some men, especially artists) have access to an Other jouissance, which is “supplementary” (Lacan 1998, 73), that is to say beyond the “phallic” organization of the world, since the phallus (not to be confused with the male genital organ) is a signifier “intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified” (Lacan 1977, 285). In other words, the phallic function is what initiates the chain of signification and organises reality. As a signifier, the phallus is consequently the signifier of lack, of symbolic castration. It defines two modes of jouissance: phallic jouissance, mortified by the law of the Symbolic (which prohibits infinite jouissance), and an Other jouissance, which tends towards the infinite. For a woman is “not all” subjected to the phallic order: a part of her has access to an ineffable and mystical jouissance, which aims at a fusion with the Other – the paradigmatic example of that Other jouissance being Teresa of Avila as represented by Bernini in Rome (Lacan 1998, 76).

  • 9 In other words, lalangue has the capacity to incarnate the Thing: “It is because there is the uncon (...)

18In the same seminar, Encore, Lacan invented the concept of lalangue (translated as “llanguage”; Lacan 1998, 84): “llanguage serves purposes that are altogether different from that of communication” (Lacan 2008, 138). Language is a signifying tool, a system of representation which substitutes words for things, and thus mortifies nature. But the new perspective opened by Encore, which is centred on the body (“En-corps”; Lacan 1998, 46), “rehabilitates the possibility for the sign to incarnate the substance of enjoyment/jouissance” (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 290; emphasis added)9. The “second” Lacan goes against the hegemony of meaning, lalangue is a form of “resistance to the workings of the signifying chain” (290). It then becomes possible, especially for poets and artists, to “step over language”, to go beyond the “symbolic appropriation” of nature, and of the feminine body. At this point we discover that ecocriticism and ecofeminism have a common basis: the possibility of going “beyond the phallus”. Thus, can the second Lacan help us to read Hardy’s texts as having the capacity to take us “beyond the printed page to nature, to the referential origin of all language” (Skigaj 38)?

19“Stepping over language” is indeed achieved by Hardy’s poetics in his fictional texts. For Hardy often allows himself to “let go of sense in favour of sound” (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 89). Alliterations and consonances are frequent: the /f/ sound is repeated insistently in the description of Giles’s “wretched little shelter”, which is “of the roughest kind, formed of four hurdles thatched with brake-fern” (Hardy 1985, 235); so is the /m/ sound in the passage about Marty and Grace, “the two mourners”: “weeks and months of mourning for Winterborne had been passed by Grace in the soothing monotony of the memorial act to which she and Marty had devoted themselves” (251); /sk/, or its inverted form /ks/, as well as /fr/, are insistent in the mantrap episode:

She heard a scream from the other side of the ridge. […] He set down the origin of the sound to one of the superstitious freaks of frolicsome scrimmages between sweethearts […]. Feeling then a little uneasy, his mind reverted to the scream; […] his hand […] came in contact with a confused mass of silken drapery. (267)

20The /sk/ pair returns a few lines further:

The man-trap was thrown; and between its jaws was part of a woman’s clothing – a patterned silk skirt – gripped with such violence that the iron teeth had passed through it, skewering its tissue in a score of places. He immediately recognized the skirt as that of one of his wife’s gowns […]. (268)

21/f/, /gl/, /g/ form alliterations in the same passage:

Right and left of the narrow pass between the oaks were dense bushes; and now from behind these a female figure glided, whose appearance even in the gloom was, though graceful in outline, noticeably strange. She was in white up to the waist, and figured above. She was, in short, Grace, his wife, lacking the portion of her dress which the gin retained. “Don’t be grieved about me – don’t, dear Edgar!” she exclaimed, rushing up and bending over him. (268)

22Such repetitions give a rhythmical quality to the text. The pulse of Hardy’s poetics may be heard as “an answering to nature’s own rhythm, an echoing of the song of the earth itself” (Bate 75–76).

23But the most striking play on lalangue concerns the letter “r”. As in Tess of the d’Urberville and in The Return of the Native, it is often associated with the letter “u”, to form the “ur” pair (Ramel 2015, 154–163). In The Woodlanders, that pair of letters is found in a passage which repeats “r” with some insistence, as a grapheme or as a phoneme:

I dream of your fresh lips more frequently than I say my prayers; that the old familiar rustle of your dress often returns upon my mind till it distracts me? If you could condescend even only to see me again you would be breathing life into a corpse. My pure, pure Grace, modest as a turtledove, how came I ever to possess you? (Hardy 1985, 252)

  • 10 “the rustle of a woman’s dress had enormous sexual meaning for Hardy” (Gittings 59).
  • 11 “La poésie […] qui est effet de sens, mais aussi effet de trou” (Lacan 1979, 21–22).

24The letter “r” is interesting because it is muted in Standard English (at the end of a word or before a consonant), whereas it is resonant in the Dorset dialect, Hardy’s mother tongue, which was a rhotic language. The muted “r” produces a hole-effect in Hardy’s texts, something like a resonant silence. Here, such an effect is (over)heard in “returns”, “pure”, “turtledove”, contrasting with the resonant /r/ of “rustle” – the rustle of a dress being loaded with affect for Hardy10. Now, as Lacan has argued, poetry is a “hole-effect” (as well as a “meaning-effect”11). “The materiality of sound”, argues Josiane Paccaud-Huguet, “precipitates a condensation effect which itself produces a blind spot in signification: a silence which marks the emergence of a private letter – the only case when it is possible to say that a fragment of the speechless Real can accidentally be written” (Paccaud-Huguet 2006, 288). The private letters in our example are “u” and “r”. This shows how the letter (or lalangue) makes it possible to “step over language”, to resist the logic of substitution and move beyond the Symbolic, and thus to have access to the unsymbolisable Real.

25Another silent cipher produces a “hole-effect” in a passage that I have already commented upon. When Fitzpiers discovers his wife’s dress caught in the mantrap, his reaction is full of awe and despair: “‘O my own – my darling – O cruel Heaven – it is too much this!’ he cried, writhing and rocking over the sorry accessories of her he deplored” (Hardy 1985, 268). The letter “r” is repeated (with an alliteration in “cruel” and “crying”), so is the letter “o”, in the exclamatory “O” and in “too much”. But what is particularly insistent is the association of the two letters, in the “or” or “ro” pair: we hear an echo of “sorry” in “accessories”, and the muted “r” in “her he deplored” (where “her” is followed by “he”, the same word but with the “r” missing) opens a poetic hole in the text, a blind spot which makes us sense the horror of the situation. The muted “r” in “her” reminds us of Hardy’s reply to Madeleine Rolland, who had some difficulty in translating the “ur” pair in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (the characteristic intonation of Tess’s dialect “being the voicing approximately rendered by the syllable UR, probably as rich an utterance as any to be found in human speech”; Hardy 1991, 21). Hardy suggested pronouncing UR as the “rustics” pronounce “her”:

I think you could explain it by saying it was something like the UR in ‘hurler’ or ‘urgence’ ‘rhum’, much prolonged & deeper – though this would, after all, be obscure. In English the nearest approach I can think of is ‘urh’ (It is very noticeable in the word ‘her’, which the rustics pronounce ‘hurrr’). (Letter to Madeleine Rolland, 14 March 1921; Hardy 1978, vol. 6, 76)

26“Her”, a blind spot in Hardy’s texts? A void around which everything revolves, making audible in the silent textual voice “some fragment of the speechless Real”? A poem by Hardy, “The Spring Call” (Time’s Laughingstocks, 1909) – in which “her” rhymes with “de-uur” – is enlightening in this respect:

Down Wessex way, when spring’s a-shine
The blackbird’s ‘pret-ty de-urr!’
In Wessex accents marked as mine
Is heard afar and near.

He flutes it strong, as if in song
No R’s of feebler tone
Than his appear in ‘pretty dear’
Have blackbirds ever known.

Yet they pipe ‘prattie deerh!’ I glean
Beneath a Scottish sky,
And ‘pehty de-aw!’ amid the treen
Of Middlesex or nigh […]

Well: I’ll say what the listening birds
Say, hearing ‘pret-ty de-urr!’—
However strangers sound such words,
That’s how we sound them here.

Yes, in this clime at pairing time,
As soon as eyes can see her
At dawn of day, the proper way
To call is ‘pret-ty de-urr!’ (Hardy 2006, 220)

  • 12lalangue dite maternelle, et pas pour rien dite ainsi” (Lacan 1975, 126).

27“Her” rhymes with “urr”, the private letters which form a poetic hole in Hardy’s writings. “Her” could be an ideal woman, or perhaps the mother – for “her” and “de-urr” carry in their silent letters some remainder of an original jouissance that was lost to Hardy when he gave up his lalangue (“our so-called mother tongue […] which isn’t called that by accident”; Lacan 2008, 138)12 to be taught Standard English. And that primeval enjoyment is bound up with the Mother as the original object of desire. But in the perspective of ecocriticism, Hardy’s poem reveals something even more important: that the “rustics” of Wessex have a common language with birds, that a blackbird calling his mate says “pretty de-urr” in Wessex accents as marked as Hardy’s. “Her” is totally ambiguous in the poem: it can refer either to a blackbird’s mate, or to a loved woman that Hardy might call in exactly the same tones as the blackbird in his “song” – the only “strangers” being humans from Scotland or Middlesex (who share their pronunciation with their local blackbirds).

  • 13 The term is a neologism coined by Lacan, who commented in such terms on the possible ambiguity of t (...)

28Thus the phonetics of The Woodlanders, which convey to us some scraps of a primeval, pre-linguistic enjoyment, could be called faunetics. We have seen indeed that Giles was a “faun-like figure”; Lacanian scholars have borrowed the term from Lacan and used it in their reading of English literature13. With faunetics, something real arises from the humus of language, in perfect symbiosis with nature. This return to the literal is a way for the writer to “become animal”, in the sense used by Deleuze and Guattari: “it is through writing that you become animal” (Deleuze and Guattari 187). Hardy’s poem about a “Spring call” which can be the poet’s or the blackbird’s, addressed to either a bird or a woman, is indeed a way for him (and for us readers) of “becoming animal”. Thus the faunetics of a text cancel the symbolic appropriation of nature, and achieve some kind of “poetic justice”. Which leads me to conclude that (poetic) writing has an ethical dimension. Thomas Hardy’s faunetics may be one of the reasons why his memory is still green. And will be green for many years to come.

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1 A number of articles on Hardy and “The Letter” were published in FATHOM in 2013. See (last accessed 28 July 2022).

2 On Tess as sign, see also Ramel 1991. Helena Michie shows how Tess becomes “a text to be read, interpreted, and edited by her two lovers” (Michie 112–114).

3 The Woodlanders was published in 1887, one year after The Mayor of Casterbridge, four years before Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

4 According to Cheryll Glotfelty, “ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty & Fromm xviii). Lawrence Buell defines ecocriticism as a “study of the relationship between literature and the environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis” (Buell 430). Richard Kerridge defines ecocriticism as “literary and cultural criticism from an environmentalist viewpoint. Texts are evaluated in terms of their environmentally harmful or helpful effects” (Kerridge 530).

5 Translated from “Avant-Dire” au Traité du Verbe (René Ghil), Paris : Giraud 1886, 5–7. “Je dis : une fleur ! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets”.

6 Several critics have written on the influence of Darwin on Hardy. On The Woodlanders and Darwinism, see Gadoin 2010a. On the end of the “anthropocentric illusion”, see Estanove 299.

7 Giles’s fingers have “a gentle conjuror’s touch (Hardy 1985, 49) when he plants trees.

8 Which does not necessarily imply a happy ending: whether Grace will live happily ever after with Fitzpiers or is doomed to an unhappy life with an inconstant husband (Hardy quoted by Matchett, 248) is an open question, which I would not attempt to answer. The only positive point is that, at the end of the novel, Grace is her own mistress” (Hardy 1985, 258, 273), freed from paternal domination.

9 In other words, lalangue has the capacity to incarnate the Thing: “It is because there is the unconscious – namely, llanguage […] – that the signifier can be called upon to constitute a sign (faire signe?). You can take sign here as you like, even as the English ‘thing’” (Lacan 1998, 142).

10 “the rustle of a woman’s dress had enormous sexual meaning for Hardy” (Gittings 59).

11 “La poésie […] qui est effet de sens, mais aussi effet de trou” (Lacan 1979, 21–22).

12lalangue dite maternelle, et pas pour rien dite ainsi” (Lacan 1975, 126).

13 The term is a neologism coined by Lacan, who commented in such terms on the possible ambiguity of the English word “who” (which might be misunderstood as the French word “où”): “There is something ambiguous in this phonetic use, which I might just as well write f-a-u-n. The faunesque of the thing rests entirely on the letter, that is to say something which is not essential to language, something tressed by the accidents of history” (my translation from: “Il y a je ne sais quoi d’ambigu dans cet usage phonétique, que j’écrirais aussi bien f-a-u-n-e. Le faunesque de la chose repose tout entier sur la lettre, à savoir quelque chose qui n’est pas essentiel à la langue, qui est quelque chose de tressé par les accidents de l’histoire”; Lacan 2005, 166). Jacques Aubert used the term in his reading of Joyce; so did Josiane Paccaud-Huguet about Woolf: “Woolf’s language is “faunetic”, even wild, as close as possible to phonic matter and to rhythm” (my translation from: “La langue woolfienne est “faunétique”, sauvage même, au plus près du travail sur la matière phonique et le rythme”, Paccaud-Huguet 2012).

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Electronic reference

Annie Ramel, The “Poetic Justice” Done by Hardy to Nature in The WoodlandersFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 18 May 2023, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Annie Ramel

Université Lumière-Lyon 2

Annie Ramel, professor emeritus at Université Lumière-Lyon 2, is vice-president of FATHOM. Her publications include: Great Expectations, le père ou le pire (Messene, 2000), articles on Charles Dickens, Henry James, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy. She co-edited Rewriting/Reprising: the Paradoxes of Intertextuality with Josiane Paccaud and Claude Maisonnat. She has edited or co-edited four volumes of the e-journal FATHOM, including “Desire and the Expressive Eye”, as well as the volume on “Liminality” of The Hardy Review (Spring 2013). She has published The Madder Stain: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Thomas Hardy (Brill-Rodopi, 2015).  


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