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Of Furtive Hedgehogs and Steam Machines: An Ecofeminist Reading of Thomas Hardy

Le hérisson furtif et la machine à vapeur : pour une lecture écoféministe de Thomas Hardy
Catherine Lanone


In “Afterwards”, Thomas Hardy includes the furtive hedgehog among the things and creatures that he draws attention to. Such a detail is symptomatic of Hardy’s ecopoetic approach to the nonhuman. While poems devoted to birds highlight man’s insensitivity, “The Mother Mourns” lays down Hardy’s own Gaia hypothesis, so to speak, as if he foresaw the extinction of species. This environmental ethics helps to cast light on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where prevailing patriarchal models of capitalist development threaten the eponymous protagonist, but also animals and the land. An ecofeminist reading of the novel may trace the disquieting undertones of the apparently idyllic dairy of Talbothays, as well as the viral progression of machinery in Wessex. The novel dismisses the ideological dichotomy virgin/sinner and calls for an ecologically sound, non-exploitative version of agriculture as well as for women’s ability to use their bodies freely.

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1Coined in 1974 by the French feminist Françoise D’Eaubonne to explore the ways in which, in Western patriarchal culture, the oppression of women goes hand in hand with the destruction of nature, the concept of ecofeminism has gained new currency with critics like Greta Gaard, Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva, or in France Bénédicte Meillon, who argue that in both industrial societies and developing countries, women maintain everyday life and bear the brunt of industrial catastrophes and ecological destruction. Reading Thomas Hardy, a male canonical writer, in terms of ecofeminism, might seem surprising. Yet many critics now read Hardy’s nostalgic sense of place in terms of environmental concern. Richard Kerridge considers how Hardy’s Wessex connects landscapes and local communities: “the ecocritical canonization of Hardy would help to produce an ecocriticism (and a nature writing) less preoccupied with deep withdrawal from society” (Kerridge 126). Anna West has drawn attention to Hardy’s concern for animals, like Peggy Blin-Cordon, while Adrian Tait has significantly reframed Hardy’s bioregional vision: “perhaps critics have misread as escapist what is in fact utopian, and in doing so, rewritten as reactionary what is in fact radical” (Tait 2016a, 18). Following in their footsteps, this paper wishes to connect Hardy’s attempt to give a voice to vulnerable animals in the poems and to a silenced woman in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (what Annie Ramel calls the strangled voice of Tess). This may cast light on the new economy of Talbothays, as well as on hyperobjects like the viral steam machinery, that threaten both the landscape and the female body.

1. Of hedgehogs and elegies

2For Bénédicte Meillon, ecofeminism seeks to debunk “the myth of human separateness”, in a revisionist process that calls “for nonanthropocentric paradigms”; this shift towards an ecopoetic representation of Gaia, in order “to re-instil a sense of reverence for the complex order, beauty and mysteries of the wild” (Meillon 113) may be traced in Thomas Hardy’s poems, which draw attention to the nonhuman.

3“Afterwards” (published in Moments of Vision when Hardy was seventy-seven) is usually read in terms of the topos of one’s own death:

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
    And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
    ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?

                                           (“Afterwards”, Hardy 2001, 553)

4Pinpointing the time of death (through the personified “Present”, leading in the next stanzas to the hypotheses “If it be in the dusk”, “If I pass during some nocturnal blackness”) the poem is indeed a valediction, akin to the “bell of quittance”(553) tolling. The cyclic seasons, from the cold stars in winter to the rebirth of reverdie in spring, enhanced by the alliterative [m] and [g] (“And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings”) illustrate the slippage between life and death. A “profoundly modest assessment” (Johnson 73), the poem focuses, like the speaker, on small things; indeed, the speaker just slips out the “postern” (or back door) unceremoniously, as if his death mattered little after all. As the personified Present latches that door, the signifier “postern” (or post/earn) also raises implicitly the question of post/erity. Like Keats’s “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” (Keats 118), “Afterwards” queries the afterlife of the speaker not in a religious sense – rustling leaves replace the wings of angels –, but in terms of being remembered as a poet. The new leaves spun like gossamer might represent the new poems that may be inspired by the work of the speaker, or that may come to eclipse him.

5Hardy writes his own elegy, however, with a twist. As the poem deploys its refrain, only tentative presences — “a gazer may think”, “One may say”, “And will any say” (Hardy 2001, 553), that is to say unspecified local witnesses and/or readers of his poems — may testify that the poet “used to notice such things”, an unlikely epitaph. What people will remember is that he once saw the new leaves, the crepuscular “dewfall-hawk” landing upon a wind-swept bush of hawthorn, or flitting moths on a warm night, hedgehogs furtively crossing a lawn. In short, this is (or once was) a poet sensitive to local life and nonhuman entities. Here, “like an eyelid’s soundless blink” (553), elegy turns into ecopoetry. The poem becomes, to borrow Clark’s definition of ecopoetry, “a redemptive natural space in which the reader participates in some broader realm of shared, non-individual life” (Clark 2019, 58).

6It is significant that hedgehogs, and the need to protect them, should be included in this bioregional vision:

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
      When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
      But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

                                           (“Afterwards”, Hardy 2001, 553)

  • 1 For Hardy and insects, see West’s reading of “An August Midnight” (West 2016, 42).
  • 2 The concern with the impact of motorcars is a staple feature of the Edwardian age, as suggested for (...)

7Butterflies are a common feature of vanities, hedgehogs less so. Interestingly, here, the moths1, hawk and hedgehog are to be considered less as aesthetic objects than as living creatures, flitting or moving around, with an existence that does not revolve around humans. They also constitute what Bruno Latour calls “matters of concern” (Latour 225): they must be protected (though, unlike pets, they must also be left undisturbed). Moths are drawn to light and burn themselves in candle-flames. Hedgehogs may be destroyed out of wilful ignorance (perhaps a dim reminiscence of the Elizabethan “Preservation of Grain Act” that forced villagers to kill all creatures listed as vermin, including mice, foxes, badgers, ravens and hedgehogs), or simply (since this was, after all, 1917 and motorcars were already encroaching upon the countryside by then) they may be run over if they leave the lawn2. Given that, “Afterwards” may be read as a different kind of elegy, a plea for fragile ecosystems by the roadside.

8In that sense, what emerges is less the smug self-portrait of a sensitive man with a poet’s eye, than a daring kind of interpellation, in Judith Butler’s sense of the term. The poem mixes temporal layers, the sensation of fleeting moments in the past (the warm, “mothy” night), the implicit present when the speaker is considering his own demise, and the temporality “afterwards”, the future in which he can play no part. At the very moment when the speaker states that “he could do little for them” (and “now he is gone”, implying he can do nothing at all), handwriting becomes a living hand still pointing at the biosystem; the neighbours recalling that “he was a man who noticed such things” are the mediators re-enacting the poet’s call, again directing the readers’ attention to the vegetation and the creatures the poet desperately wants them to see. This in turn prompts them to look at the hawk, the butterflies and hedgehogs, as part of a mesh (to use Timothy Morton’s concept), not simply a poetic web but an ecosystem which must be preserved, and which includes humans as considerate fellow dwellers, not as hubristic owners of the land. The poem is less a wistful elegy than a performative wake-up call. Another version of this call may be traced through the semiotics of sound, that is to say both the “voice” of nature speaking for itself, and the sound of whistling birds.

2. Anxiety, the Anthropocene and the semiotic of sounds

Gaia’s lament

9A keen version of this call for human responsibility is “The Mother Mourns” (Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901), which may be read as a prosopopeia steeped in Romantic lore and/or Darwinism (with the familiar themes of the survival of the fittest and the extinction of species) and as a striking instance of ecopoetry. Adrian Tait traces the kinship with Shelley, in order to show that Hardy actually distances himself from Romantic views of Nature, exploring instead an empathy with the nonhuman, a critical turn which Tait calls “the ecocentric impulse” (Tait 2011, 57).

10Indeed, Hardy’s poem engages with the irreversible change wrought by man’s invasive practices in the Anthropocene, as the poet’s persona listens to the wind, the whirling needles of pine trees and Nature’s dirge. Giving Nature a voice is often dismissed as an anthropomorphic fallacy, but critics run the risk of throwing the baby with the bathwater. A distinction should be made between the device used in La Fontaine’s fables or Kipling’s Just So Stories – i.e. personifications that merely dabble in anthropological fantasy – and the way in which Hardy decentres speech to depart from human logic and give space for Gaia’s lament, or warning. It may recall instead, for instance, John Clare’s “The Lament of Swordy Well”, which Clare composed in the 1820s to denounce a place ravaged by mining. For Clark,

Clare’s text exemplifies the kind of linguistic and conceptual inventiveness required to give voice to environmental outrage. The literary protest technique deployed is that Clare makes the land itself the speaker of the poem. It cries out in person about being plundered and stripped following local acts of enclosure, the government-sanctioned appropriation by the wealthy of once communal land. (Clark 2019, 7)

  • 3 Giving nature a voice is akin to Latour’s call to consider political agency in the Parliament of Th (...)

11Similarly, “The Mother Mourns” challenges pastoral complacency and registers a scale of damage that, if continued, can only lead to ecological disaster; the poem lets the earth speak for itself, to call for an ethics of care and responsibility. The “voice” is no backward Virgilian exercise, but the kind of inventive “literary protest” noted by Clark, designed to fight for animal rights and land rights, and make them heard by a tone-deaf human society3.

12In spite of the anaphoric repetition of “My” opening each line, the lines stress dispossession and spoiling. Birds as different as the variegated parrots (“popinjays”) and the ordinary larks are “dwindling”, and so are bigger animals, like the elephants (the “tusky ones”) and exotic game (the “leopardine beauties”):

‘No more such!... My species are dwindling,
    My forests grow barren,
My popinjays fail from their tappings,
    My larks from their strain.

‘My leopardine beauties are rarer,
    My tusky ones vanish,
My children have aped mine own slaughters
    To quicken my wane.

                                 (“The Mother Mourns”, Hardy 2001, 113)

13The metonymy “tusky ones” seems to revive an eighteenth-century fondness for circumvolution and poetic diction, but only to stress that the hunters see nothing but the ivory tusks, ignoring the huge intelligent beasts themselves. Similarly, the convoluted “leopardine beauties” may connote the feline grace of the living animals but also spontaneously brings to mind the spotted skin, the prized fur that is part of the circuit of trade and commodification. Rhythm also highlights the speed of destruction; if we consider that “my” is the locus of tension challenging human appropriation, then it must be stressed, so that each item of the list begins with a spondee — i.e. a spondee, an iamb and a trochee, “My tus/ky ones/vanish”; or a spondee and an anapaest “My larks/from their strain”. The first example uses the trochee to stress the disturbing scale of erasure, pitting the elephant against the verb “vanish”; with the dynamic anapaest, the second one enhances the swiftness of change. Laurence Estanove has drawn close attention to the use of punctuation in Hardy’s poems. Here, the use of dots after an exclamation mark is indeed striking, as the extra pause echoes the sense of loss and lack of sustainability.

14From that perspective, the choice of the verb “aped” is also significant. Laurence Estanove has unravelled the Darwinian undertones of Hardy’s poetry, and such an allusion may be found here. As is well known, Darwin spent months visiting chimpanzees and orangutans in a zoo, gradually sensing that they had emotions and that this was not anthropomorphism (the projection of human feelings on the nonhuman). He therefore drew the conclusion that the differences between apes and humans were a matter of degree rather than kind, and that they must share a common ancestor, leading to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 — and to many cartoons mocking the theory of evolution by depicting Darwin as an ape. Here Hardy further subverts the hierarchy of species by making men, not apes, the mimickers. Whereas animals kill for the sake of eating and surviving, men imitate such violence but bring slaughter to a whole new scale. This endangers the biosphere, and precipitates “Nature’s wane”. Extraordinary animals (leopards and elephants) and common ones (larks) are equally threatened; pathos aims to kindle awareness, and calls for reverse action, as quickly as possible.

15This brings to mind “By the Earth’s Corpse” (Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901), where flesh and herb are mere fossils or dust, and all life has ceased on the globe; God only rues the “wrongs endured /By Earth’s poor patient kind” (Hardy 2001, 126) and repents that he created not only Earth and life, but man too. Here God’s “voice” is shaped by anxiety or early ecological despair, making Hardy an early representative of post-apocalyptic eco-writing.

16In “The Mother Mourns”, humans and most living forms are equally doomed, but perhaps not the globe. Nature as we know it cannot recover, beauty being targeted by thanatocratic human rule. Should anything survive, it will be shapeless, a theme that again comes close to today’s post-apocalyptic discourse:

‘Let me grow, then, but mildews and mandrakes,
      And slimy distortions,
Let nevermore things good and lovely
      To me appertain;

                                       (“The Mother Mourns”, Hardy 2001,113)

17The alliteration in [m] (“mildews”/“mandrakes”/“slimy”) stresses the return to primeval matter, where forms of decay (fungi, or perhaps, if we return anachronistically to our contemporary concerns, the “slimy distortions” of viruses) will spread, replacing the mysterious beauty of multiple creation.

The wonder of birds

18The road to extinction is paved with the inability to foresee the consequence of human actions — the dwindling forests and species — and with the inability to feel the pain of others. Besides the conservation of all species in the near future, Hardy’s ecopoetry also tackles man’s deafness to the pain inflicted upon animals. The semiotics of sound conveys this deeply felt anguish.

19Denied a soul by the Christian tradition and mechanistic epistemology, animals have been considered since Descartes and the Enlightenment as biological machines rather than sentient organisms. A fervent member of the RSPCA, Hardy sought to defend the agency and corporeality of the nonhuman in his work. As West and Blin-Cordon have shown, the vulnerability of animals is a staple feature of his novels, from the stones cast at a dog in Far from the Madding Crowd to the slaughtered pig in Jude the Obscure. Similarly, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard brings a bird to his estranged daughter Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding-day. The rejected father leaves, forgetting the cage with a piece of newspaper “tied round the little creature’s wire prison” (Hardy 1987, 323), shutting it from everyone’s eyes and thoughts. In the end, Elizabeth-Jane finds the dead bird and goes to look for Henchard, who has already died too. The bird is a metaphor connoting pathos, arousing sympathy for the disreputable Henchard, but the text also draws attention to birds as mere playthings, a theme which pervades the poems that call for an inter-species ethics.

  • 4 I am grateful to Emilia Gabelics for drawing my attention to this article.

20In “The Caged Goldfinch” (Moments of Vision, 1917), a jilted woman leaves on her lover’s tomb the caged bird that he once gave her, before committing suicide. Elaine Shefer reads the recurrent motif of the caged bird (and the girl with pursed lips kissing the bird) in Pre-Raphaelite paintings and in Victorian iconography as a symbol both of the bird’s acceptance of captivity and of the woman’s acceptance of an existence confined within the home: “The caged bird happily receiving the attention of its owner is thus symbolic of the woman’s acceptance of her position, a pet that is nourished and adored” (Shefer 1985, 437)4. In Hardy’s poem, the bird left on the tomb is akin to the jilted woman, still mentally caged by the seducer, unable to go on living. The barely sketched sentimental plot, however, is only part of the story. The doomed bird is still moving (hopping in the silence of the deserted churchyard), still expressive (with its wistful eye), still combative (it tries to sing) yet getting weaker and weaker (it can only attempt to sing once):

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage

That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;

                  (“The Caged Goldfinch”, Hardy 2001, 491)

21The opening is illocutionary, making the reader mentally reach out for the cage – much like today’s television adverts for the protection of animals feature dogs tied to trees on the eve of summer holidays, when social pressure calling for a good time erases the sense that the animal is a companion with rights of its own. Similarly, Hardy’s goldfinch is a metonymy for the animals that are trapped and abandoned. The name of the goldfinch, a popular pet at the time, suggests a kind of natural value (it is after all a golden bird) that contrasts with human indifference.

22If the caged bird on a tomb is a victim of contingency and, more widely, of the commodification of birds, Hardy draws attention to other kinds of cruelty that are taken for granted. In “The Blinded Bird”, the opening and the closing lines of each stanza echo one another, making a strong case for the bird being far superior to man, with its astonishing resilience, its capacity to endure, to forgive maiming and go on singing. In the last stanza, the shift from the opening “Who hath charity? This bird” to the last line “Who is divine? This bird” (Hardy 2001, 446) reaccentuates St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians by attributing godliness and divine charity to the bird rather than a man (capable of blinding birds to win a contest). For Barbara Hardy, the poem “wrests morality from the moral test to claim virtue for an animal and put down Christian anthropocentrism” (B. Hardy 70). Significantly, in 1920, blind World-War-One veterans campaigned against this so-called sport, in keeping with this 1916 poem.

23“Sport” as a euphemism for cruelty to animals is a staple feature of Hardy’s work. “The Puzzled Game-Birds” (Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901; Hardy 2001, 148) adopts the animal’s viewpoint to explore the absurdity of shooting parties. Hardy was appalled by such killing sprees; Michael Millgate recalls that when Hardy and his wife attended a ball given by Lord Wimborne in 1881, they were told that the squire and his guests had shot 1418 pheasants in a single day (Millgate 218). For Tait, “[c]learly, hunting, fishing, shooting are themselves long-standing rural pursuits, but what is in question here is not (or not only) their usurpation by the socially privileged, but their systematic expansion along highly structured and organized lines” (Tait 2016b, para.24). Not only were such figures staggering, but Hardy was struck by the lack of challenge, as the pheasants, bred for this specific purpose, were tame rather than wild, and unable to fend for themselves or escape. To mock such so-called feats, Hardy opts here for the triolet, with a single eight-line stanza and a limited rhyming scheme (ABAAABAB): “be” rhymes with treachery, while “us” is repeated four times, raising the question of the common, of trust, since the “shapes” of the carers have become the shapes of the killers. The poem is tightened by repetition: the line “They are not those who used to feed us” (Hardy 2001, 148) is repeated three times, and the second line, “When we were young – they cannot be –” becomes the last line of the poem, the last dash being replaced by an exclamation mark (148). The poignant question (“These shapes that now bereave and bleed us?”, 148) with its alliteration in [b] (“bereave”/”bleed”, and implicitly “be”) raises an ontological question, querying not simply the identity of the men who feed and/or kill, but also the identity of the birds that suffer both from their own injuries (they bleed) and from seeing each other being killed (they are bereaved). The birds too are a community. The tight form stresses the paradox of raising in order to savagely hurt, a process which, seen from this perspective, makes absolutely no sense:

They are not those who used to feed us
When we were young — they cannot be —
These shapes that now bereave and bleed us?
They are not those who used to feed us,
For did we the cry, they would heed us.
— If hearts can house such treachery
They are not those who used to feed us
When we were young — they cannot be!

                   (“The Puzzled Game-Birds”, Hardy 2001, 148)

24It may seem far-fetched to draw a parallel between the pheasants raised to be hunted and the Durbeyfields raising their daughter to offer her to the predator, Alec, in the hope of making a rewarding match; yet the thought cannot quite be dismissed, since, as seen below, the image of the bleeding pheasants seeps into Tess of the d’Urbervilles. As Lori Gruen claims, “any interpretation of an ecofeminist vision must include a re-examination of our relationship to the nonhuman animals […]. The role of women and animals in post-industrial society is to serve/be served up; women and animals are the used” (Gruen 61). Or as Hardy put it, “What are my books but one long plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ – woman – and to the lower animals?” (Hardy qtd in Millgate 379).

Whistling, or the problematic status of birds and girls

25The comparison between Tess and a snared bird has often been noted. At Talbothays, though she is not yet twenty-one, Tess cannot love Angel freely, having “been caught during her days of immaturity like a bird in a springe” (Hardy 1965, 165); Alec drives a “trap” (275) and when Tess faces him at Flintcomb Ash, she looks him straight in the eye when she slaps him with her glove, “with the hopeless defiance of the sparrow’s gaze before its captor twists its neck”(275). She also feels trapped by Farmer Groby “like a bird caught in a clap-net” (242), in a chapter that depicts the Arctic birds, “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes” (240). This might seem a staple Victorian metaphor, recalling Jane Eyre for instance.

26But Hardy does not simply use birds as a metaphor, but rather probes into the logic of oppression regarding both birds and women. For Gruen, ecofeminism shows that “[c]onstructing, and then naturalizing, hierarchies has been one of the more insidious justifying mechanisms for the oppression of both women and animals” (Gruen 80). Hardy exaggerates such hierarchies to make a similar point.

  • 5 This also brings to mind the fateful beehives that trigger Tess’s downfall, when she fails to reach (...)
  • 6 The strawberries out of season are a hint of the shift towards a productivity that ignores temporal (...)

27At Trantridge, the seat of new money where the Stokes have usurped the aristocratic name of the d’Urbervilles, Tess is “appointed as supervisor, purveyor, nurse, surgeon, and friend” to a “community of fowls” (Hardy 1965, 47). Linguistic slippage parodies the Victorian fondness for pets. In this mock farm, everything is upside down, like the beehives where the hens lay their eggs in the garden of a cottage which now belongs to them5; though generations of cottagers once lived in this house and took good care of it, humans have been expelled, infants replaced by chicks. The trampled garden with its “enclosure” (47) is a diminutive version of the spread of enclosures, laying a grid on what once was common land. The scene mirrors the distortion of traditional agricultural practices and new kinds of social domination. The blindness of Alec’s mother is symbolic; she handles, strokes and checks the hens, calling each by its name as if it were a child, and as if Tess were the parson delivering it into her hands, in an “avid pantomime” or “Confirmation” “ceremony” (48). The odd ritual is the strange counterpart of the scene which takes place after Tess has left Trantridge and returned to Marlott when, transfigured by faith and candlelight, the young woman subversively baptizes her illegitimate baby. Here the elderly mother pets her fowl attentively, but remains wilfully blind to what her son is doing, and “bitterly fond” (49) of him despite his antics; though she seemingly cares for Phena or Strut, she ignores the girls in her employ, letting her son free to pick, seduce and forget them, to consume them out of season, like the strawberries6.

  • 7 When Tess breaks free from Alec, she tells him that she has simply been blinded for a while.

28Besides, the dazed, hoodwinked7 Tess must also whistle to Alec’s mother’s bullfinches. At the time, training birds to sing was common, since caged birds tend to remain silent. Just as the birds (that sing naturally in the open air) must be controlled and “not go back in their piping” (49), Tess, who has been trained to speak proper English at school and to keep the dialect for home, finds that she can no longer whistle (and must later depend on vernacular knowledge again, “for she had caught from her musical mother numerous airs that suited those songsters admirably”, 51). The semiotics of sound is sexualized. For Shefer, the caged bird functions as a sexual euphemism in Victorian iconography – it may stand for love, female genitals or loss of virginity should the birds fly away (Shefer 1991, 448). Instead of using the bird as a mere innuendo, Hardy carefully parallels the girls and the birds’ situations. Just as she is supposed to teach the birds, Tess must let Alec teach her how to whistle. For Anna West, “Tess’s status as animal – and specifically, as bird – is reinforced by the mirrored role between herself as caretaker of the birds and Alec as her supervisor” (West 2016, 2). Alec watches her pouting, blowing lips as he places her on the other “side of the wire-netting” (Hardy 1965, 50), supposedly to make her feel safe, in effect putting her in a cage. When she whistles away in Mrs d’Urberville’s bedroom, Tess catches sight of Alec’s shoes beneath the curtain – an intrusion that places her in a state of heightened visibility, as if she were a caged bird and the room a panopticon. Both the girl and the birds are taught to whistle unnaturally, and treated as pets that may be discarded, if they no longer please.

29Whereas hens are glorified and caged bullfinches must entertain with new tunes, other birds are simply slaughtered. The critique of this random process of selecting which bird may be loved and live in semi-liberty, which bird may be caged and which bird may be hunted without a chance, lies at the heart of Hardy’s conception of a warped ecosystem. The pheasants are the counterparts of the pampered hens. The text does not adopt the viewpoint of the bewildered birds, as in “The Puzzled Game-Birds”, but still seeks to shock the reader. When Tess, on the way to Flintcomb Ash, flies away from Groby (another groping/grabbing would-be predator whom she happens to encounter again) and into the wood, she nestles in dry leaves to sleep; but she keeps hearing strange sounds throughout the night, “a flutter”, “a sort of gasp or gurgle” (Hardy 1965, 232) and the dull thud of things hitting the ground. In the early morning light, she discovers that the strange fruit falling from the trees overhead were wounded pheasants.

  • 8 See Rebecca Stott’s analysis of the novel’s rewriting.

30Hardy added the scene to circumvent censorship, when he was forced to hack through his novel8; it echoes and replaces the earlier seduction scene, when Alec leaves Tess in a nest of dry leaves, before returning to rape her. The pheasants’ blood is, in one sense, a displaced signifier of sexual penetration, a traumatic wound that drains Tess’s energy for the rest of her life, despite the seeming respite at Talbothays.

  • 9 This is reminscient of the death of Prince, the stoical horse, towards the beginning of the novel.
  • 10 “one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life” (Hardy 1965, 34).

31But this is also a scene that must be read at face value, as a comment on men’s treatment of animals, a matter of concern displayed in compelling terms in “The Puzzled Game-Birds”. After the inability to sleep or see all night, the shock of the sickening spectacle is dramatized by the anaphoric repetition of “some”: “some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out – all of them writhing in agony” (Hardy 1965, 232). The verbs (“contorted”, stretched out”, staring”) might apply to human bodies, the birds become individuals, regardless of species. Hardy arouses the reader’s sympathy for such pain, gratuitously inflicted by firearms. Agony is prolonged; the mortally wounded birds have fled, stayed in the trees as long as they could, then dropped to the ground9. In the following paragraph, Tess’s thoughts reflect Hardy’s activism. The portrait of the hunters, bizarrely dressed, poking through bushes with their guns, “a bloodthirsty light in their eyes” (Hardy 1965, 232) blends sexual aggressiveness with pathological behaviour (a similar light conveys Alec’s desire for Tess10). The clichéd phrase (running “amuck”, 232) turns the upper-class hobby into senseless savagery, “like the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula” (232), an incongruous image which metonymically connects hunting with the colonial framework, casting aspersion on the masculine ethos. Contrary to social stereotypes, the hunters are the very opposite of a true gentleman, “at once so unmannerly and so unchivalrous towards their weaker fellows in Nature’s teeming family” (232). As previously seen with the poem, there is nothing heroic or “chivalrous” about shooting pheasants that have been bred in captivity. Hardy is asking his readers to rethink their approach to biodiversity; the cycle (overproduction of a species/ waste and cruel destruction) is emblematic of the aberrations of the Anthropocene. This contrasts with the mesh, the “teeming family” of interconnected human and nonhuman species.

32Peggy Blin-Cordon discusses Tess’s “empathetic relation” to the birds, “abolishing all hierarchy” between the human and the non-human (Blin-Cordon 19) and creating a “community of the living” (“une communauté du vivant”, Blin-Cordon 20). Unlike the hunters, Tess takes pity on the pheasants, and wrings their necks “tenderly” (Hardy 1965, 233), an apparent oxymoron that conveys her sympathy for the animals. As she mourns their plight, she slips into the dialect: “I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding” (233). Yet Tess is indeed, in a sense, wounded; as previously stated, the scene is a metaphorical echo of the rape, while the wringing of necks may foreshadow Tess’s hanging. As Anna West puts it, “[w]hile Tess sees the birds’ dying agony as outweighing her human anguish, their plight parallels the situation in which Tess has been trapped by society” (West 2017, 31). In a patriarchal society where rich men may hunt freely, women and birds may be caught, maimed and abandoned.

33It may be noted that, although the fair Angel Clare seems in Tess’s eyes the very opposite of the devious Alec, there is a sense in which he too considers Tess as a pet bird. Indeed, Angel initially fails to distinguish Tess by sight from the other girls decked in white at Marlott, whereas at Talbothays, he is first drawn to her “fluty voice” (Hardy 1965, 101) which singles her out. While the content of her speech may appeal to the Romantic in him (though making one’s soul leave one’s body may actually, in Tess’s case, refer either to an epiphany or to traumatic dissociation), it is also the sound of her voice that touches him, as he is musing on music and lost in his own “phantasmal orchestra” (101). Like a bird’s song, her voice triggers his instant idealization of her as a “fresh and virginal daughter of Nature” (102), crystallizing his desire for her. His love is akin to the diamonds he gives her on their wedding-night, which transfigure her beauty as “fine feathers make fine birds” (186), a glittering web of sparkling signifiers (turning her into Artemis or Demeter, an ethereal apparition) which is ripped by the truth (for him, this bird-like woman cannot possibly have a past). Life at the dairy may not be as idyllic as it seems.

3. Scale, hyperobjects and viral machinery

34When Tess first walks towards Talbothays on a lovely May morning, she seems to reach the equivalent of the Biblical land of milk and honey (“the Valley of Great Dairies, the valley in which milk and butter grew to rankness, and were produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at her home”; Hardy 1965, 86), but it is above all a place where agriculture functions on a different scale. The pastures can only exist because woods have vanished (“The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain”, 10). This recalls Clark’s “invisible deforestation” (Clark 2019, 51), as the human eye is unaware of such change:

It was intrinsically different from the Vale of Little Dairies, Blackmoor Vale […]. The world was drawn to a larger pattern here. The enclosures numbered fifty acres instead of ten, the farmsteads were more extended, the groups of cattle formed tribes hereabout; there only families. These myriads of cows stretching under her eyes from the far east to the far west outnumbered any she had ever seen at one glance before. (Hardy 1965, 86–87)

35This may still be the countryside, but there is no wilderness left. The realm of enclosures has triumphed, creating wide areas occupied by countless cows. Though Tess is dazzled by the “bird’s eye view” and the sun’s rays stroking the bright “white-coated animals” against the “green lea” (Hardy 1965, 87), the shift from “families” to “tribes” also suggests disconnect, the loss of some vital link with animals that were not simply used for milking but also, for a while, part of family life. There are a hundred cows or “milchers” at Talbothays (requiring a “battalion of maids and men” and suggesting a modern scale of exploitation), which are given names, but there is little individuation, this only serves to identify animals that may be easy or hard to milk. The glorious depiction of the cows ends with a close-up on the udders: “Their large veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock; and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed forth and fell in drops to the ground” (90). While on the one hand the milk on the ground may be seen as a sign of Edenic profusion, on the other hand the oversized udders hanging like sandbags connote commodification, enforced fecundity, and the withdrawal of calves. In Critical Ecofeminism, Greta Gaard draws attention to “the embodied experience of a dairy cow” (Gaard 2017, 62), with painful udders and warped maternity. Dairyman Dick milks the hardest ones himself, for if the hands are too gentle the cows will “go azew”, dry up, and the cow must be forced to give milk as long as possible.

36It is perhaps significant that Tess should also be shown nursing her baby among the fieldworkers at Marlott. Maternal care must be squeezed in the slots allotted for rest. While the reproductive cycle of cows is tampered with to get more milk, Tess’s baby runs the risk of becoming an object controlled by the father and the vicar, though Tess, by naming him, manages to wrestle his identity back (yet not to save him). In both cases, maternal care is challenged by men’s structures.

  • 11 There may be other reasons for mistrusting milk, besides taste. Being close to the railway was cruc (...)

37At Talbothays, there is also a disconnection between production and product. Dairyman Dick is stunned when Tess asks for milk when she first arrives. His answer, uttered with a “slight contempt” (Hardy 1965, 91), dismisses the liquid as if it were the worst of alcoholic liqueurs: “’Tis what I hain’t touched for years – not I. Rot the stuff; it would lie in my innerds like lead” (91). Such disdain is at odds with Crick’s jovial persona. The curse (“Rot the stuff”, 91) underlines less lactose intolerance than the commodification of milk, as a product to be sold, not to be drunk at the dairy11. Such milk is not meant for local consumption, it is part of a wider circuit of distribution.

  • 12 The tension between town and field is inscribed in Tess’s names, Durbeyfield and d’Urberville.

38When considering the evolution of dairy work in England and the United States, Greta Gaard states that the urban availability of milk constituted a triumph of culture over nature: “from 1850 onward, milk was commodified on a large scale, with its highly perishable liquid form inspiring urban dairy production, railway transport, and finally doorstep delivery” (Gaard 2017, 50). In Hardy’s text, Angel and Tess bring the cans of milk to the station, where they are swept away by such railway transportation12. Tess muses that the Londoners that will drink the milk on the next day have never heard of them, “ladies and tradeswomen, and babies who have never seen a cow” (Hardy 1965, 158). This is the beginning of the great cleavage between production and consumption, where the animal grows invisible for the consumer.

  • 13 Like the mail cart, the system of swift circulation signals both progress and disruption.

39The train carriages that pick up the milk constitute the local manifestation of a wider network that is hard to grasp. This may be considered in terms of hyperobjects, or entities “which encompass scalar dimensions that exceed our capacities to think beyond their local or partial manifestations” (Clark 2019, 70). The train smoke becomes a “steam feeler” that tentatively gropes its way then retracts itself, “as if what it touched had been uncongenial” (Hardy 1965, 157), a sign of viral encroachment that is only just beginning. There is a striking contrast between the cart that brings Angel and Tess to the station, at such a slow pace that Angel may flirt and pluck blackberries as “they [creep] along” (157)13, and the swift engine that glides into the station on wet glistening rails. Hardy uses a striking pre-cinematic effect, with a sudden shot/countershot that first registers the train from the viewpoint of Tess as the train pulls up and the milk is quickly loaded, then switches to a view of Tess as perceived from the train, as if seen by the machine itself:

The light of the engine flashed for a second upon Tess Durbeyfield’s figure, motionless under the great holly tree. No object could have looked more foreign to the gleaming cranks and wheels than this unsophisticated girl, with the round bare arms, the rainy face and hair, the suspended attitude of a friendly leopard at pause, the print gown of no date or fashion, and the cotton bonnet dropping on her brow. (Hardy 1965, 157)

40While the train pulling up might be a topos (foreshadowing the yet-to-be-created “Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat Station” by the Lumière brothers), the reversal of perspective is more interesting. Tess, rather than the machinery, becomes a “foreign” “object”, with her unfashionable dress and ordinary bonnet. It is as if a dress code came with the train, a certain mode of consumption which excludes the dairy maid, uproots her from her surrounding, as either obsolete or a wild throwback. The feline metaphor is odd, to say the least, suggesting both beauty and a certain wild energy that might be unleashed if things go wrong, but also recalling the “leopardine beauties” of soon-to-be-extinct animals in “The Mother Mourns” (Hardy 2001, 111–113). With its feelers and train carriages, technology has begun its viral progression infecting the countryside, a process which is also marked by machines.

41The gradual moulding of the English landscape towards greater productivity is most obvious in the scenes where machines change the pace of fieldwork. Hardy maps a gendered space where both women and the land are turned into the cogs of ruthless productivity. Hardy’s Wessex may often look like a pastoral site, yet it bears the brunt of transformation. The harvest scenes are no idyllic celebrations of fecundity, but moments of excessive demand where the land and the female body are taken to task.

42At Marlott, the ominous red machine circles round the field, entrapping the animals that seek shelter in the middle. The machine’s ticking only sounds like “the love-making of the grasshopper” (Hardy 1965, 73); wild animals (rabbits, hares, snakes, mice), considered as enemy species rather than elements of an ecosystem, are put to death by the teeth of the machine or the villagers’ sticks.

43As Clark points out, the Anthropocene may be considered to have begun not with the twentieth century but with the invention of the steam-engine by James Watts (Clark 2015, 1). A “revolving wire-cage”, the steam threshing machine intrudes upon the “pellucid smokelessness” (Hardy 1965, 269) of Flintcomb Ash and Wessex. The engine-man, “a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness” (269), hardly casts a glance on the landscape and the “natives” (270) surrounding him, having simply come “to amaze and discompose its aborigines” (269). Like the choice of a colonial vocabulary suggesting that the industrial machine has come to conquer and colonize the countryside, the verbs are to be taken literally, as work becomes a maze in which the human body loses composure, and runs the risk of breaking down. Such decomposition mostly threatens female workers; Tess, strong as she is, is made to work beyond endurance. Being the best worker among the women, she earns the dubious distinction of staying on the machine for hours on end, handing out sheaves; she is shattered by the ceaseless motion and noise of the machine, unable to stop or exchange a word with anyone. When she finally steps down, white as a sheet, her knees shake so much that she can hardly walk.

44Tess’s time at Flintcomb Ash is marked both by sexual harassment (the relentless hostility of Farmer Groby) and by the unnatural demand made upon the landscape. In winter, the land must yield crops of swedes, and the women break their backs digging up tubers from the frozen ground, in fields of flint rather than of soft soil. As the name suggests, Flintcomb Ash is a wasteland; Groby embodies the lack of concern both with the sustainable cycle of seasons and with the plight of women-workers, as land use is restructured for maximum profit in times of depression.

45The economic demand for productivity colonizes both the fields and the field-women. Not only is the body shaken beyond endurance, but people are systematically uprooted. The women must go from place to place and hire themselves in all seasons, to earn a living. Families drift towards urban poverty, or keep changing places, a seasonal exodus which Hardy compares to water running uphill, suggesting that technological progress has destroyed the sense of place and belonging, harming minds and bodies alike: “A depopulation was also going on. […] [T]he process, humorously designated by statisticians as ‘the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns’, being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery” (Hardy 1965, 292).

  • 14 In The Juridical Unconscious, Shoshana Felman considers the interaction between trauma and justice, (...)

46To conclude, Tess of the d’Urbervilles shows how the old feudal order (embodied by Tess’s ancestors, who thrived on the exploitation of the poor and used to rape peasant women) has been replaced by new forms of sexual and agricultural exploitation. If Tess’s trial occurs offstage, denying the reader the expected sensational ending, it may be because the age itself, rather than the woman, is on trial14. Fighting for women’s and animals’ rights, and dismayed by the mechanization of agriculture and the speed of change, Hardy calls for a common ground of sustainability in both the poems and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. As a final note, perhaps, responding to earlier bird-songs, we may end with the ode published on December 29, 1900, in The Graphic, in which Hardy revisits Keats’s ecstatic nightingale and greets the turn of the century with the song of “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,/ In blast-beruffled plume” (“The Darkling Thrush”, Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901; Hardy 2001, 150), an ironic image befitting not simply an aging poet but an aging world, in which hope for awareness and preservation may at best be tentative:

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

                   (“The Darkling Thrush”, Hardy 2001, 150)

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1 For Hardy and insects, see West’s reading of “An August Midnight” (West 2016, 42).

2 The concern with the impact of motorcars is a staple feature of the Edwardian age, as suggested for instance by E. M. Forster’s Howards End, where a cat is run over.

3 Giving nature a voice is akin to Latour’s call to consider political agency in the Parliament of Things.

4 I am grateful to Emilia Gabelics for drawing my attention to this article.

5 This also brings to mind the fateful beehives that trigger Tess’s downfall, when she fails to reach the market and Prince is killed by the mail-cart.

6 The strawberries out of season are a hint of the shift towards a productivity that ignores temporal cycles. Though dressed up by her mother to appear more mature, Tess is still a young girl, and Alec’s seduction is untimely.

7 When Tess breaks free from Alec, she tells him that she has simply been blinded for a while.

8 See Rebecca Stott’s analysis of the novel’s rewriting.

9 This is reminscient of the death of Prince, the stoical horse, towards the beginning of the novel.

10 “one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life” (Hardy 1965, 34).

11 There may be other reasons for mistrusting milk, besides taste. Being close to the railway was crucial. Until its sterilization or pasteurization in the early 1920s, milk was one of the major public health issues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transmitting infections of various types, along with epidemic diseases such as scarlet fever, typhoid, and tuberculosis.

12 The tension between town and field is inscribed in Tess’s names, Durbeyfield and d’Urberville.

13 Like the mail cart, the system of swift circulation signals both progress and disruption.

14 In The Juridical Unconscious, Shoshana Felman considers the interaction between trauma and justice, and suggests that the representation of legal cases may put history itself on trial.

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Electronic reference

Catherine Lanone, Of Furtive Hedgehogs and Steam Machines: An Ecofeminist Reading of Thomas HardyFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 22 May 2023, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Catherine Lanone

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle


A former student of École Normale Supérieure, Catherine Lanone is Professor of nineteenth and twentieth-century literature at the university of Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris. She has written a book on Emily Brontë (Les Hauts de Hurlevent d’Emily Brontë: Un vent de sorcière, Paris : Ellipses, 2000) and a book on E.M. Forster (E.M. Forster, Odyssée d’une écriture, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1998), and many articles on the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf.


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