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Introduction: Hardy’s Various Shades of Green

Introduction : Les nuances de vert de Hardy
Isabelle Gadoin

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1This issue proposes a rereading of Hardy’s oeuvre (novels and poetry) in light of the most recent developments in the field of ecocriticism and nature studies in general. With its emphasis on the natural landscapes of Wessex, and its many warnings about the dangers of the incipient mechanisation of agricultural labour, Hardy’s work indeed seems to qualify as a perfect example of a nature-conscious type of writing, denouncing the ravages of the Anthropocene long before the notion was even thought of. Hardy could thus read as an ecologically-aware or ecologically-committed author before the letter – more: a possible “pioneer of environmental philosophy” as Marie Bertrand cautiously proposes here. But it may also be necessary to question this anachronistic affiliation, which may largely derive from our present preoccupations, inevitably colouring our perception of Hardy’s texts. Does his work indeed fully comply with the definition of “green”, or “environmentalist”, fiction? Or could we not trace possible points of divergence between his approach of nature and today’s readings of man’s relation to a more and more endangered environment? While Hardy no doubt develops an in-depth reflection on our relationship to the world around, the environment and circumstances he depicted much differed from ours, and their specificities should obviously be taken into account. So reassessing his oeuvre with the question of ecology in mind will often lead us to nuance the theses of current ecocritical philosophy. Hence the central question raised by this issue: “How green was Hardy?”

2Hardy’s “environmental” fibre is immediately suggested by the general title, “Novels of Character and Environment”, under which he gathered his Wessex novels – and Peggy Blin-Cordon also points to the very telling semantic fusion of character and place in such titles as “The Woodlanders”, which construe identity as the fact of belonging to a precise living and working space. D. H. Lawrence, another great “nature writer”, insisted on the power of this environment when describing Hardy’s Wessex as “a great background, vital and vivid” (Lawrence 70). But, we must correct, it is precisely not a “background” in the sense of distant scenery, but rather a living milieu, where humanity is only defined through its interactions with the world around. Hence, perhaps, the mistake of considering the characters’ perceptions of their living world in terms of “pathetic fallacy”, this Romantic projection of feelings and emotions. Although Hardy himself once remarked “I cannot help noticing countenances and tempers in objects of scenery” (Millgate 1984, 302), man’s relations to nature in his novels are certainly not (or not only) to be interpreted in terms of literary tropes – be they comparisons, metaphors, hypallages or any other strategy of anthropomorphic analogy. Hardy’s works on the contrary illustrate humanity’s deep rootedness, the sense of belonging to a natural milieu – which is not only the effect of an anchored consciousness, or of the perception of man’s radical embeddedness in the world, but a form of biological, organic continuity between human and non-human.

3Men and animals share the same nature, in both senses of the latter word; and as Marie Bertrand recalls in her contribution here, “Reinterpreting Hardy’s ‘Child of the Soil’: Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Phenomenological Green Writing”, the most useful concept to seize this continuity might be that of the “flesh of the world” unfolded by the French philosopher of phenomenology Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his late writings, a universal “flesh” encompassing both human and non-human, be it animal or vegetal. Bertrand subtly picks up the homophonic play on “soul/soil/sun” in Tess as making us hear this fundamental blurring of boundaries between the (ill-)named animal, vegetal and human “realms” which, Hardy amply shows, can in no way be understood as separate spheres.

4In her analysis of “The Art of Analogy in Hardy’s The Woodlanders and Other Novels: Hardy’s Eco-Writing”, Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak largely concurs with Bertrand. Without using the tools of phenomenology, she reaches the same conclusions about the constant intercourse and the special bond between characters and nature, thus complying with Kerridge’s remark about eco-writing “not separat[ing] place and person” (Kerridge 141, qtd by Bantz). Bantz-Gaszczak studies the dense network of images through which Giles Winterborne is described as being “of the same substance as nature”, and Marty South as sharing “arboreal qualities” – a degree of existential integration in nature which William Cohen simply called “treeness” (Cohen 12, qtd by Bantz). Yet Bantz-Gaszczak is also attentive to the fact that the woodland is no green paradise: it is the place where the exploitative tendencies of early capitalism can already be seen at work, in the growing commodification of nature. With Jude the Obscure, this exploitation of the natural world comes to extend to the animal kingdom, and Jude’s “fellow-feeling” for the birds he is supposed to be frightening away from arable land may read as one of the early foreshadowings of his own fate – which the gruesome pig-killing episode will only confirm and amplify: to Hardy, the same logic links the vision of the earth as resource and the oppression of animals, who are part of easily available natural resources.

5It is also the organic and ontological continuity, or fluidity, between human and non-human animals which Junjie Qi investigates in her Deleuzian analysis, “The Aesthetics, Politics and Ethics of Becoming-Animal in Thomas Hardy’s Novels”. For Hardy, the existential link between men and animals, she shows, goes far beyond mere “fellow-feeling”: what the novels dramatize is the “becoming-animal” of human beings; and Tess’s life follows the perfect arc of Deleuzian de-subjectivation and deterritorialization. In this case, it is the logic of sensation, and of intensities of affect roaming along nomadic or rhizomatic lines, that bring Tess closer to the whole animal – and, we might add, vegetal – kingdom. Through this “becoming animal”, Hardy works at “undoing anthropocentric binarism” – or, to put it differently, at “debunking the myth of separateness” between human and non-human animals, in Bénédicte Meillon’s words (Meillon 113, qtd by Lanone). Yet Qi finally questions whether this process is ever fully achieved, or on the contrary only remains a distant horizon.

6Catherine Lanone’s contribution, “Of Furtive Hedgehogs and Steam Machines”, proposes “an Ecofeminist Reading of Thomas Hardy”. It could somehow read as a fable woven around the poetic image of the “furtive hedgehog”, the vulnerable animal hiding from men, and only noticed by the hyper-sensitive poet who “used to notice such things” (“Afterwards”). Around the hedgehog, it is a whole ecosystem of small animals – rabbits, mice, snakes, etc. – which is menaced with death by invasive machines and careless men. But the poem, and many such scenes in the novels, serve as “interpellation”, reminding us of the integral part played by smaller creatures within the wider scheme of things – or, in Lanone’s subtle phrasing, as “a plea for fragile ecosystems by the roadside”. Interestingly the article weaves together the oppression of animals and that of women. Lanone recalls Tess’s constant association with birds; but in Hardy’s work the Romantic nightingale has been replaced by caged birds, made mute by their imprisonment – and many other suffering birds. The dramatic scene in which an empathetic Tess breaks the wounded pheasants’ necks while crying and reflecting that she on her side “be not mangled” and “be not bleeding”, offers gripping evidence of their common condition as “kindred sufferers” (Hardy 1991, 219). Her direct address to the pheasants when lamenting “such misery as yours!” (219) proves her deep ecological concern for smaller beings, illustrating C. S. Brown’s assertion that “the ecological self is a dialogical self” (Vakoch & Castrillon 152, qtd by Bertrand). In the end, Lanone recalls, both animals and women are crushed by the mechanisation of work, and the growing disconnection between natural ecosystems and disruptive rhythms and tools.

7Fiona Fleming pushes the possibility of ecofeminist interpretations of Hardy’s novels a step further, by reading them through the prism of “Ecosexuality”. Following Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle’s “Ecosex Manifesto” (2011), Fleming reads Hardy as moving away from the Romantic vision of the Earth as mother to that of the Earth as lover. Indeed the interconnectedness between humans and nature in Hardy’ novels is such that the bond often is of a truly sexual or at least erotic quality, as reflected by the images of sensuous caresses given by ferns, mosses or foliage to Bathsheba, Eustacia or Tess. Far from limiting itself to an environment, the Earth becomes a fertile female body, whose embrace delights female characters with a wealth of visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory impressions. One is reminded here of the notion of “symbioment” (introduced by Bertrand in her article), which was coined by Glenn Albrecht in Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (2019), by fusing together “symbiosis” and “environment”. However, this close, “vital and vivid” contact does not limit itself to purely sensual pleasure; it also entails an ethical type of commitment, or responsibility, which the authors of the Ecosex manifesto insisted upon: if the Earth is a lover, man’s duty is to cherish it and therefore learn to preserve it rather than exploit or mis-use it.

8All the articles gathered here thus agree on Hardy’s acute awareness of the continuity between human and non-human animals, and his treatment of the Earth as a living and loving milieu instead of a simple resource. In those texts constantly recur the same notions of “relationships”, “intercourse”, “(inter-)connectedness”, “interdependencies”, “coexistence”, “participation”, etc. His work thus seems to ask for an ecocritical reading, insofar as ecocriticism was precisely defined as “the study of the interactions between organisms and the environment” (Buell 2005, 140, qtd by Blin-Cordon). Yet it is necessary to recall that Hardy’s deep-felt conviction of the kinship of all living creatures was premised on very different ideological principles than today’s ecocritics – namely his early reading of Darwin’s evolutionist theory and his conversion to the “law” of evolution, in which hostility, destruction, competition for adaptation and survival are inherent parts of natural life. So while his ideas undoubtedly chime with today’s concerns for an over-exploited earth, and while his imagery perfectly illustrates man’s “rootedness” in nature, we nevertheless have to remember that his worldview largely differed from ours.

9What Hardy definitely shares with contemporary perception is the consciousness of man’s belonging to a world he does not dominate – in other words, his sincere ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric, convictions, which did not fail to shock his contemporaries. He thus wrote publicly that “the discovery of the law of evolution, which revealed that all organic creatures are of one family, shifted the centre of altruism from humanity to the whole conscious world collectively” (Millgate 2001, 310). In the same way as today’s critics of anthropocentric conceptions, though much earlier in the history of the development of the Anthropocene itself, Hardy clearly foresaw the decentring of man resulting from the evolutionist worldview. Again and again, in both his fiction and his non-fiction, he calls up the image of the web when wishing to recall the interrelatedness of all lives – for instance in the quote from his journal speculating on the possibility of showing the human race “as one great network or tissue which quivers in every part when one point is shaken, like a spider’s web if touched” (4 March 1885, qtd by Gregor 33). The image of the web, brought to visibility by the dew drops of dawn in Tess, or pictured by the entangled branches of the trees in The Woodlanders, or the criss-cross of labyrinthine paths on Egdon, is indeed one of the strong visual topoi of his fiction.

10But the image does not only have poetic value, and Hardy realized that the result of man’s decentring, and of his inextricable entanglement in the natural world, was an ethical one:

[T]he most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical: […] it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals, by enlarging, as a necessity of rightness, the application of what has been called “the Golden Rule” from the area of mere mankind to the whole animal kingdom. Possibly Darwin himself did not quite perceive it.

(Letter to the Humanitarian League about the Moral Rights of Animals, 10 April 1910, Millgate 2001, 310–311)

11Tess, aware as she is of sharing the same flesh as the wounded pheasants, does perceive it though; and she stands as the incarnation and the voice of this emerging consciousness of the vulnerability and necessary humility of man vis-à-vis “the whole conscious world collectively”. Through his more sensitive characters, Hardy discovers the necessity of an ethics of care.

12Hence his indefatigable campaigning for “the moral rights of animals” as just mentioned, displacing the fight from the poetic text to the strictly legal field. In this sense, his eco-ethics was not only a literary effect or a writer’s pose – it really was the fight of a lifetime; and as he grew older, he only seemed to become more vocal and more committed, in the same measure as his “public voice” became more audible. His public letters against “cruel sports”, or “blood sports”, became more numerous, and maybe also more hopeless – so much so that he called his battle for animal rights a “Quixotic one” (2 June 1910, Millgate 2001, 315). Interestingly, at the end of his life the scales seem to have turned, and he called “the less favoured of our fellow-mortals […] nobler than ourselves” (Millgate 2001, 403; emphasis added). In Hardy’s own hierarchy, then, animals came to surpass men in nobility: “You have all my sympathy in protesting against cruel sports”, he wrote to one of his correspondents; “but I fear that the human race has emerged so little from a stage of savagery that not much can be done” (15 October 1926, Millgate 2001, 455; emphasis added). A few days later: “the human race being still practically barbarian, it does not seem likely that men’s delight in cruel sports can be lessened except by slow degrees” (Letter to The Times, 5 March 1927, Millgate 2001, 458; emphasis added).

13This is not to say that Hardy sees man as all-powerful in his cruel propensities; far from it: the law of relativity applies everywhere, and he too becomes little else than a powerless animal when judged against the wider background of Darwinian nature. This nature is not only endowed with agency: it has a Will of its own, which the writer strove to define as either the Immanent Will or the “Unconscious Will of the Universe”, or “the Prime Cause”, “the Great Will”, etc. (Millgate 1984, 360–361). And the workings of this Prime Cause are incomprehensible from man’s limited point of view: it is blind, and not a judge of its own actions, as he repeatedly posits in his (auto-)biography. In other words, nature is neither good nor evil but amoral – which comes to slightly relativize the appositeness of the idea of ethics in relation to it.

14When studying “Architectural Conservation and the Natural Landscape in Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, Carolina Elices discloses this natural will opposing its capacity of resistance to man’s building efforts. Starting from the initial “interconnectedness” of architecture and humanity, she soon uncovers the defiance, if not the hostility, of nature to man’s efforts: again and again the novels dramatize the way in which natural entropy, alongside weather hazards, is able to “reclaim” man-made buildings by eating away at the stone, covering walls with ivy and other creepers, hiding nails and rivets under moss, and generally recovering mastery of the place. It is a far cry here from the contemporary ideal of “sustainability”: in this case, the fusion of buildings with their environment only leads to their natural dis-integration, or what Elices calls “the disappearing creation”.

15It is also this at times overpowering environment which Peggy Blin-Cordon throws into relief in her ecocritical reading of The Woodlanders: “Supernature and EcoGothic”. Broaching the novel from the angle of the author’s generic choices or “shifting modes of representation”, and using in particular the lever of Eco-Gothic, Blin-Cordon revisits the type of nature at work in the woods of Hintock. The Gothic heritage can easily be traced in the overall inimical woods of Hintock, where the characters tend to lose their paths. Depending on whether the characters belong or not to the place, the gaze shifts between internal and external viewpoints, causing the perception of the woods to fluctuate between the sublime and the uncanny – but on the whole suggesting a type of “supernature”, indifferent and alien, much in keeping with Hardy’s definitions of “the Unconscious Will”. Yet genetic theory allows Blin-Cordon to go beyond this: in the episode of Giles’s agony in “One-Chimney hut”, she reads reminiscences of fairy-tales, in which the characters’ wanderings through the forest – the archetypical site of terror, cut off from the world of culture – take on initiatory value. The moment of alienation of course serves purposes of Gothic horror, but it also recalls the necessity of working for greater, finer “attunement” with the world around (Morton 174, qtd by Blin-Cordon).

16The conclusion here is double: first that Hardy does not see nature as universally benevolent but as often alien to man’s preoccupations; his “nature”, or “supernature”, extends far beyond the oikos, or the living, intimate, nourishing environment that “ecology” etymologically worked on and grew out of. And second, that our perception or understanding of it is largely filtered by, or construed through, literary or cultural notions. It therefore becomes necessary to question the limits of Hardy’s “green” philosophy; and this is what Andrew Hewitt does, by deploying the various connotations of the colour green on “Hardy’s Palette”. Hewitt very rightly underlines the distance Hardy took from the “green” tradition of pastoral poetry. By comparing John Clare’s poem on the “Yellowhammer” with Hardy’s poem of the same title (though the latter hyphenates the noun), Hewitt shows that Hardy’s poetry is also a “distancing act” from the great pastoral tradition, which he actually parodied in the early novel Far from the Madding Crowd (see Gadoin 2010). Whereas Clare’s speaker was absorbed in nature, Hardy’s adopts an ironical posture that surveys the long line of “bird poems” – be they Keatsian nightingales, or “darkling” thrushes – to partly de-mythologize it. The “green” line of poetry mostly lives on the white page, through the perpetuation of poetic topoi, that Hardy only conjures up to distance himself from them. Hardy’s “green”, Hewitt concludes, is not a bright one; it is rather sombre, tinged with brown, and with the disillusionment of the fin-de-siècle/Darwinian poet, which Laurence Estanove studied in depth in her PhD thesis.

17Hewitt is right to recall that besides The Woodlanders and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which hold pride of place in this special issue, is a novel like The Return of the Native, in which the natural environment is of a brownish tone: Egdon Heath is a “sombre stretch of rounds of hollows”, and a “near relation of night”, which has worn from all time the “same antique brown dress”. It is also Civilisation’s enemy (Hardy 2002, 8, 10). In point of fact, the near-complete absence of this novel from the corpus studied by the contributors of the present issue cannot fail to call our attention: Egdon is by definition the unreclaimable place, utterly resistant to, and ultimately defeating, man’s efforts of accommodation and exploitation. As an instance of the wilderness, neither to be owned nor exploited, Egdon seems to escape even ecocritical efforts to make sense of our environment.

18Annie Ramel’s analysis concurs with Hewitt’s reading of nature as a literary construct. Nature, she shows, is constantly “impregnated” with Culture; ultimately, it is impossible to have access to the “real nature” of nature. What that would require – but this is utopia – is to do entirely without the tool of language and symbolization, to “step over” the mediation of words, in our attempt to seize the direct truth of the world around. But as the examples of Egdon and of the Hintocks fully demonstrate, the natural world extends far beyond the nourishing milieu or oikos. It opposes man with its capacity of resistance, and mostly obtains as the speechless, or the “undecipherable Real”. One of the few possibilities to try and catch something of this unseizable real, Ramel ventures, might be offered by the pure play of sound and rhythm in poetry, bypassing signifier and signified to make us perceive things sensorially, and thus more directly, in symbiosis with nature. After Qi’s exploration of man’s “becoming animal”, poetry might offer us the possibility of “becoming sound”.

19Although his “supernature” is indifferent and often hostile, there is much in Hardy, then, that accords with the theses of “Deep Ecology”: his vision of the equality and interdependence of all species, including man; his instinctive – and intellectual – rejection of any human superiority and centrality; his awareness of the ethical consequences of this inter-species solidarity and of man’s responsibility; his obvious delight in the diversity and luxuriousness of nature, and his warnings against the effects of mechanical exploitation of natural resources, both on animals and men (or more specifically women). All this means that it makes infinite sense to start re-interpreting Hardy from eco-conscious perspectives.

20And this is what Anna West finally invites us to do, by showing how up-to-date his reflection may be: working on the basis of a sustained comparison between the organisation of Wessex farms and the contemporary (extractive) logics of farming, she unveils the cautionary value Hardy’s tales might have for us. Leaving aside pastoral idealisation, his novels testify to a moment of redefinition, from “land as a natural relative” to “land as an exploitable resource”. This diachronic perspective helps us understand the many changes affecting Wessex farms, and the relativity of our conception of nature. Time and scale, West contends, should always be factored in when considering the world around us: for this is not a permanent, unchangeable milieu; what appears as immutable might in fact be in jeopardy. West takes up the images of the microscope and the telescope which Hardy delighted in, to illustrate the dangers of the “mismatches” between nature, man and the machines – or what Lanone called the “disconnection” between natural ecosystems and mechanical work. With Hardy we reconnect with the overwhelming grandeur of nature that brings man back down to an insignificant scale.

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Electronic reference

Isabelle Gadoin, Introduction: Hardy’s Various Shades of GreenFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 18 May 2023, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Isabelle Gadoin

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Isabelle Gadoin is Professor of British Art and Literature at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle, France. She is a Thomas Hardy specialist and one of the founding members of FATHOM, as well as a member of the editorial board of the association’s online journal. Apart from her interest in Victorian literature, she has worked mostly on the question of visual perception and the apprehension of space in novels and travel narratives, and more generally in the field of Visual Culture Studies and text-and-image studies, on which she has published extensively.

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