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An Ecocritical Reading of Hardy’s The Woodlanders: Supernature and EcoGothic

Lecture écocritique de The Woodlanders : entre surnature et éco-gothique
Peggy Blin-Cordon


In The Woodlanders Thomas Hardy builds a kaleidoscopic vision of nature and the environment thanks to shifting modes of representation and the use of multiple generic perspectives, each one of which entails a specific discourse on ecology. Reworking Romantic aesthetics, using the supernatural and the fantastic forms and ecoGothic or adding a fairy-tale dimension to his novel, helps Hardy unfold a complex, idiosyncratic ecocritical vision which goes beyond the mere use of nature as a backdrop to his novels. In The Woodlanders, Hardy ceaselessly addresses the question of “belonging” or “not belonging”, of consuming nature or being part of it. Through a subtle generic interplay, using well-identified topoi (the woods, the tree, the hut) and turning them into supernatural images, Hardy asserts in his 1887 novel that the human and the non-human cannot be considered as distinct.

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  • 1 For a more extensive analysis of the distinction between Hardy and Emily Brontë with other nineteen (...)

1Although not acknowledged as a central object of study for ecocritics, Hardy is either mentioned or briefly analysed in many seminal works on ecocriticism. Critics such as Jonathan Bate, Cheryll Glotflety or Lawrence Buell among others seem to agree on the fact that Hardy differs from other Victorian writers such as Dickens or Eliot, for whom “the social realm – the human morality play – is a far more powerful presence than nature” (Sanders 183)1. It appears that Hardy is tantamount, in spirit at least, to Buell’s most studied Thoreau:

Again and again in the great works of American literature, the human world is set against the overarching background of nature. As in Hardy’s novels, this landscape is no mere scenery, no flimsy stage set, but rather the energizing medium from which human lives emerge and by which those lives are bounded and measured. (Sanders 183)

2In this article I focus on Hardy’s 1887 novel The Woodlanders: of all the works of fiction by Hardy, it is the one whose title contains the most direct evocation of Wessex’s nature in relation to its inhabitants. If one of the aims of ecocriticism is “the study of the interactions between organisms and the environment” (Buell 140) and the relations between men and their environment and vice versa, this novel holds the promise of a stimulating ecocritical debate. This article also aims at measuring the impact of some generic choices in Hardy’s ecocritical approach in The Woodlanders, choices which promote a certain vision of the relationship between man and the non-human. For example, I shall try to explain more specifically how the idea of “supernature” congregates the originality of Hardy as regards ecocriticism in general and ecoGothic in particular. The concept of “ecoGothic” emerged in 2013 thanks to Andrew Smith and William Hughes’s work, EcoGothic, which offered to merge Gothic studies and ecocriticism. Smith and Hughes stress the importance of fragmentation at the heart of both critical spheres, as well as the importance of alienation. Soon after them, David Del Principe suggested another definition of the way ecology engages with the Gothic: “An ecoGothic approach poses a challenge to a familiar Gothic subject – nature – taking a nonanthropocentric position to reconsider the role that the environment, species, and nonhumans play in the construction of monstrosity and fear” (Del Principe 1). This study will explore such a dimension through several Gothic tropes present in The Woodlanders, which systematically unveil the supernatural dimension of the environment at the heart of the idea of a Hardyan “supernature”, with great repercussions on our vision of the environment.

“Of woods and men”: the choice of a title defining an ecocritical stance

  • 2 See Alan Manford’s introduction to the novel (Hardy xxxi).
  • 3 The truth is, Fitzpiers is more “out of” Hintock than “at” Hintock: he comes and goes out of it a l (...)

3Preliminary observations on the final title and the working title of The Woodlanders can be of some help to understand the ecoGothic stance taken by Hardy in the novel. Indeed, the titles he first contemplated open on two diverging ecocritical paths: for the serial publication of the novel in Macmillan’s Magazine, Hardy wavered between “The Woodlanders” and “Fitzpiers at Hintock”2. If both titles offer a human-centred conception of the environment, the former strongly puts the stress on the men and women working in the woods, who are explicitly mentioned, while the latter gives pride of place to one specific character, associated to a precise topographical indication. The effect is twofold: what is put forward in the final version of the title is the bond – albeit an exploitative one – between the men and women and their environment, which defines their identity. On the contrary, the discarded title points towards a civilized Fitzpiers, clearly the outsider, treading on foreign, exotic, folkloric territory, and could almost be glossed as a condescending “Mr Fitzpiers and the Wessex rustics”, in an awkward version of The Return of the Native and its Promethean undertones. The protagonist of “Fitzpiers at Hintock”3 epitomises exactly what Raymond Williams resented in some of the criticism on Hardy: “It is common to reduce Hardy’s fiction to the impact of an urban alien on the ‘timeless pattern’ of English rural life” (Williams 200). Tim Dolin and Jonathan Bates stressed after him what is already present in the titles: the “sense of belonging” clearly experienced in the final title excluding Fitzpiers and what he represents, versus the glorification of the odd one out, a character who will forever be the spectator of rural life at Hintock: “The condition of the modern man, with his mobility and his displaced knowledge, is never to be able to share this sense of belonging. He will always be an outsider; his return to nature will always be partial, touristic, and semi-detached” (Bate 1999, 554). The text then resists individuation and chooses community and nature over the individual, against the rest of the rural world, in a perfect association of “character and environment”.

4Two titles, two ecocritical stances in literary tradition, give different visions of the relationship between men and their environment: this subject is at the centre of Bate’s Romantic Ecology, whose definition of “Romantic ecology” challenges our vision of the Romantic discourse on nature. It puts the “green” aspect of Romantic discourse back into focus, the better to see that idealised nature (or Nature) prevented us from seeing the changes operated by men, and the true bond and connection of men with their (natural) environment:

The “Romantic ecology” reverences the green earth because it recognizes that neither physically nor psychologically can we live without green things; it proclaims that there is “one life” within us and abroad, that the earth is a single vast ecosystem which we destabilize at our peril. In sharp contrast to the so-called “Romantic Ideology”, the Romantic ecology has nothing to do with flight from the material world, from society – it is in fact an attempt to enable mankind the better to live in the material world by entering into harmony with the environment. (Bate 1991, 40)

5This true bond is also central to John Kerridge’s reading of The Woodlanders, a novel fundamentally linked to a Romantic vision which is essential to understand its generic mapping: “The unalienated lover of nature inhabits; the alienated lover of nature gazes. The first is a native, deeply embedded in a stable ecosystem; the second is a Romantic, a tourist, a newcomer and a reader” (Kerridge 2001, 134). What is most specifically condemned by some ecocritics is

the anthropocentrism and individualism inherent in the romantic ecology’s aesthetic consumption of landscapes by solitary individuals. Its very understanding of “nature” as essentially places unaffected by human activity, however, paradoxically perpetuates a dualistic world view, in which humanity is condemned to denaturalize and destroy an exoticized natural “other”. (Goodboy 64)

  • 4 About the link between ecocriticism and political ecology, Kerridge argues that “questions of what (...)

6However, our point here is not to establish a literary judgment4, but to analyse in what way the generic choices made by Hardy in The Woodlanders address the question of ecology.

7To start with, the character of Fitzpiers, as defined by the Romantic ideal, is rooted in the village of Buckbury Fitzpiers where his family comes from, and where stand the ruins of the family castle:

She had no doubt that it represented the ancient stronghold of the Fitzpiers family. The remains were few, and consisted mostly of remnants of the lower vaulting, supported on low stout columns surmounted by the crochet capital of the period. The two or three arches of these vaults that were still in position were utilized by the adjoining farmer as shelter for his calves, the floor being spread with straw, amid which the young creatures rustled, cooling their thirsty tongues by licking the quaint Norman carving, which glistened with the moisture. It was a degradation of even such a rude form of art as this to be treated so grossly, she thought, and for the first time the family of Fitzpiers assumed in her imagination the hues of a melancholy romanticism. (Hardy 241242, emphasis added)

8The ties to the Romantic stereotype are clearly stated in the excerpt, corroborating Bate’s vision of the character as a detached, alien manifestation of the genre. But giving the excerpt a closer look, we are struck by Hardy’s subversive discourse. The topos of the castle in ruins, evocative of Romantic aesthetics (for instance in Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, 1829) evoke, in Grace’s eyes, “the hues of a melancholy romanticism”; but here they are debunked by Hardy in their traditional representation when reconquered by the rural community of Buckbury Fitzpiers, with tongue-in-cheek undertones: the pragmatic colonisation of the decrepit castle by the calves seeking coolness defines basic animal needs with organic precision, a sacrilege felt by Grace, which contrasts with the dream-like vision of the ruins which ecocritics often demand we break away from. Such a passage humorously illustrates the way “nature is always reclaiming its space, as seen in the crumbling ruins so prevalent in the Gothic” (Kröger 26). On a metaphorical level, the alien and estranged Fitzpiers is proleptically “evicted” by the members of the community who are in tune with their direct environment. Such an extract is representative of Hardy’s reluctance to give the consumer-readers described by Tim Dolin and John Kerridge, the expected ready-made Romantic fantasy.

EcoGothic and fairy-tales

9Several episodes in the novel insist on the supernatural powers of nature: a “supernature” which is presented as overwhelming, disquieting and ominous. The awe-inspiring opening of the novel comes as a potent indication of arboreal menace. The description of the woods, only perceived from their fringe, gives the impression that the grounds trodden by Percombe on his way to Marty South’s house, albeit charted territory, are not entirely safe. The road taken by the coach in which he travels represents a seemingly reassuring peripheral path. They seem to have no doubt as to their destination, but everything in the description of their journey suggests they had better not get lost if they “do not belong” (Hardy 6), since order and control are merely apparent:

The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards. Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing, as the case may be, make the wayside hedges ragged by their drip and shade, stretching over the road with easeful horizontality, as if they found the unsubstantial air an adequate support for their limbs. […] The spot is lonely. (Hardy  5, emphasis added)

10The paratactic and seemingly neutral final assertion then gives way to an openly uncanny atmosphere, with devilish undertones gradually turning to loneliness, then to “solitude”, to “the forlorn”, and finally to the spectral:

The physiognomy of a deserted highway expresses solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools. The contrast of what is with what might be probably accounts for this. To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the hedge of the plantation into the adjoining pale thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.
At this spot, on the lowering evening of a by-gone winter’s day, there stood a man who had entered upon the scene much in the aforesaid manner. […] It could be seen by a glance at his rather finical style of dress that he did not belong to the country proper; and from his air, after a while, that though there might be a sombre beauty in the scenery, music in the breeze, and a wan procession of coaching ghosts in the sentiment of this old turnpike-road, he was mainly puzzled about the way. The dead men’s work that had been expended in climbing that hill, the blistered soles that had trodden it, and the tears that had wetted it, were not his concern; for fate had given him no time for any but practical things. (Hardy  56, my emphasis)

11This Gothic opening sets the tone for many crucial episodes unfolding in the often-hostile woods. What the Gothic helps Hardy bring out in this ominous passage is what Bate, studying John Clare’s poetry, calls “a repository of communal, not individual memory” (Bate 2000, 174). Indeed, the hills and adjacent woodland are presented as a strategic topological and historical landmark, the same way as Clare’s elm tree in his poem “To a Fallen Elm” on which Bate focuses: “our identities are constructed by a combination of environment and memory” (Bate 2000, 173). These identities are here expressed thanks to what can be called an ecoGothic discourse making the past visible in nature thanks to the idea of “the past in the present”, encapsulated by the revenants. Although Percombe is oblivious of the many reminiscences of the spot because he is not prepared to actually perceive it (which sets the tone for the split explored by the novel between the characters who “belong” and who can “see” through their environment, and others), the narrator unveils it for us and dedicates long lines to the minute description of the reasons why Percombe is overwhelmed by an impression of loneliness. Defined by death, suffering and ghosts, with connotations of the Sublime (“a sombre beauty in the scenery”), the place appears as a liminal or in-between space in which some characters can feel the presence of the dead or at least the “presence” of past lives. The separation between the known and the unknown is clearly drawn by hostile natural demarcations (“the [ragged] wayside hedges”), but the explicitly personified trees try to impinge on the space domesticated by men, “stretching over the road with easeful horizontality”, regardless of the use men could make of them (“timber or fruit-bearing”).

12The landscape of Little Hintock seems to be fashioned by the men having trodden its paths and by the layers of dead leaves accumulated through the seasons (Hardy  12). The woodland is pictured as a gigantic natural vault where the living and the dead form a community which unites human and non-human entities, past and present. Hardy considers that the members of such a community inscribe their mark in the timeline of the environment they inhabit and share the exact same past and history. The man truly inhabiting the woodland

must know all about those invisible [animate and inanimate objects] of the days gone by, whose feet have traversed the fields which look so grey from his windows; recall whose creaking plough has turned those sods from time to time; whose hands planted the trees that form a crest to the opposite hill; whose horses and hounds have torn through that underwood; what birds affect that particular brake; what bygone domestic dramas of love, jealousy, revenge, or disappointment have been enacted in the cottages, the mansion, the street or on the green. The spot may have beauty, grandeur, salubrity, convenience; but if it lacks memories it will ultimately pall upon him who settles there without opportunity of intercourse with his kind. (Hardy  189190 emphasis added)

13Losing one’s path is what often happens to many characters of The Woodlanders. If Giles and Marty have no trouble at all mapping the woodland and being clairvoyant (theirs is “a clear gaze” whereas others are said to be “spectators” [Hardy 482] merely able to bestow “casual glimpses” only on the woods [481]), many characters literally and metaphorically get lost in the forest. Grace belongs to this category. Out of tune with nature the same way as Percombe is, when she leaves “the main road” and civilisation, accompanied by Mrs Charmond, she loses her bearings and cannot read her environment anymore:

In the excitement of their long argument they had walked onward and zigzagged about without regarding direction or distance. All sound of the woodcutters had long since faded into remoteness, and even had not the interval been too great for hearing them they would have been silent and homeward bound at this twilight hour. But Grace went on her course without any misgiving, though there was much underwood here, with only the narrowest passages for walking, across which brambles hung. She had not, however, traversed this the wildest part of the wood since her childhood, and the transformation of outlines had been great; old trees which once were landmarks had been felled or blown down, and the bushes which then had been small and scrubby were now large and overhanging. She soon found that her ideas as to direction were vaguethat she had indeed no ideas as to direction at all. If the evening had not been growing so dark, and the wind had not put on its night moan so distinctly, Grace would not have minded; but she was rather frightened now, and began to strike across hither and thither in random courses. (Hardy  352, emphasis added)

14Several expressions clearly signal confusion: the characters “zigzag”, Grace’s “ideas as to direction [are] vague”, “she ha[s] indeed no ideas as to direction at all” and struggles forward “in random courses”: it is a strong warning as to the danger that the woods actually represent when men cannot decipher them anymore. Suddenly, the sounds of economic activity dealing with woodcutting fade away, plunging Grace deeper and deeper into a less fathomable world, and into a new dimension which escapes her social and rational habitus and, most of all, her mind-mapping of the territory. Adrian Tait studies the fragile balance between humans and trees, a balance which depends on the characters’ ability to “read” their arboreal environment:

[…] a great deal depends on a tree’s human interpreter, and on her or his ability to translate those signs into a mode of existence that balances human needs with a recognition that trees are alive, agential, and animate. Moreover, and as Hardy insists, the survival of such a relationship is contingent on the ebb and flow of human history, and on wider, social, economic, and intellectual shifts that were in Hardy’s own time increasingly inimical to its sustainability. (Tait 378)

15The woods also serve as a symbolic expression of what is “outside”, out there, echoing Bachelard’s description of what cannot literally and metaphorically be contained. In this extract, the uncanny world of the “outside space” suggested by the terrifying and even horrific sounds of the woods has the exact opposite effect to that of the woodcutters’ reassuring sounds, operating as some auditory Ariadne’s thread that would enable Grace to find her way out of the forest, or at least some auditory link to the civilised world of the “inside”, or “place”. The metaphor of the wounded tree is repeated countless times in the novel and adds to the omnipresent ghastly image of trees silently rubbing their vegetal hands in morbid expectation in the shadows. Their “easeful horizontality” (Hardy 5) denotes some potential ability to stretch and grab: “many branches and twigs – its many limb and digit-like appendages – exemplify our fears of being touched and grabbed. It effectively illustrates, through its reaching, creeping branches, what we might call ‘tentacular horror’” (Parker 76). Much later in the novel Grace reckons that the woods have “a touch of the uncanny, and even the supernatural” (Hardy 481). When she enters them in the summer (435), the entrapment of the female character under an opaque and oppressive green lid, without her being fully aware of her progressive seclusion, can be identified as a well-known characteristic of Gothic literature.

16The Gothicised woods reveal Hardy’s representation of, and relationship to, nonhuman nature, insofar as it centres upon lifetimes mingling with natural time outliving humans, which again questions any anthropocentric perspective. It reminds us that despite the exploitation of the forest by the inhabitants of the woods, trees remain powerful, overwhelming, and spectral: the anthropomorphised and haunted woods disturbingly question civilisation’s hegemonic hold.

17This agential power becomes overwhelming in the case of John South’s elm tree. The tree, an emblematic, even stereotypical manifestation of “Gothic green” – South’s tree evokes Caspar David Friedrich’s Tree of Crows (1822) – is symbolic of the connection between nature and man. South and his tree act as a Gothic echo of Giles the “tree-man”, whose “fingers [are] endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch in spreading the roots of each little tree” (Hardy 100). A darker version of this link is presented through John South’s essential connection with “his” tree. Such a tie is explicitly recalled when he lies on his death bed:

The tree was a tall elm, familiar to [Giles] from childhood, which stood at a distance of two-thirds its own height from the front of South’s dwelling. Whenever the wind blew, as it did now, the tree rocked, naturally enough; and the sight of its motion and sound of its sighs had gradually bred the terrifying illusion in the woodman’s mind that it would descend and kill him. Thus he would sit all day, in spite of persuasion, watching its every sway, and listening to the melancholy Gregorian melodies which the air wrung out of it. This fear it apparently was, rather than any organic disease which was eating away the health of John South.
As the tree waved, South waved his head, making it his flugel-man with abject obedience. “Ah, when it was quite a small tree,” he said, “and I was a little boy, I thought one day of chopping it off with my hook to make a clothes-line prop with. But I put off doing it, and then I again thought that I would; but I forgot it, and didn’t. And at last it got too big, and now ’tis my enemy, and will be the death o’ me. Little did I think, when I let that sapling stay, that a time would come when it would torment me, and dash me into my grave.” (Hardy 140)

18We understand that this connection is at times unbearable, and not only for John South, as Giles tries to explain to Fitzpiers: “The shape of it seems to haunt him like an evil spirit. He says that it is exactly his own age, that it has got human sense, and sprouted up when he was born on purpose to rule him, and keep him as its slave. Others have been like it afore in Hintock” (Hardy 154). Later, we realise that the “illusion”, which could be discarded as superstition, actually becomes tangible, for when Fitzpiers cuts the tree down, South dies (154).

  • 5 In the tale, four sisters, the daughters of a woodcutter, mean to take shelter in turns in a hut in (...)
  • 6 See Vladimir Propp’s chapter on the “Mysterious Forest” in The Historical Roots of the Fairy Tales (...)

19The most striking evidence of such a supernatural association might lie in the passage dedicated to Grace and Giles’s stay in the woods. The depiction of Little Hintock as an isolated place, almost a world apart, in which time and reasoning are challenged by the supernatural, is developed in this part of the novel. The chapters dedicated to the seclusion in the woods can be seen as organised following a Chinese boxes structure: an unexpected narrative embedded in the main narrative, the episode represents a fictional world of its own, a closed literary and natural space within the novel contained in a couple of chapters, and materialised in the story by the topos of the hut in the woods. “One-Chimney hut” is Giles’s home in the woods after Mrs Charmond has evicted him from her house. It represents a place out of time, outside the map of Little Hintock. It recalls the witch’s house in the woods evoked in the tale “Hansel and Gretel”, and is also reminiscent of “The Hut in the Forest” by the Brothers Grimm5. It might be associated with Baba-Yaga’s isba in the woods of the Russian tale6, another hut representing the transitional space from the world of the living to the world of the dead. This is precisely the function of the hut in The Woodlanders: to shelter dying Giles and to offer some kind of ecological epiphany for Grace. Giles’s hut becomes the matrix which enables Grace to connect with nature:

No sooner had she retired to rest that night than the wind began to rise, and, after a few prefatory blasts, to be accompanied by rain. The wind grew more violent, and as the storm went on, it was difficult to believe that no opaque body, but only an invisible colourless thing, was trampling and climbing over the roof, making branches creak, springing out of the trees upon the chimney, popping its head into the flue, and shrieking and blaspheming at every corner of the walls. As in the grisly story, the assailant was a spectre which could be felt but not seen. She had never before been so struck with the devilry of a gusty night in a wood, because she had never been so entirely alone in spirit as she was now. She seemed almost to be apart from herselfa vacuous duplicate only. The recent self of physical animation and clear intentions was not there.
Sometimes a bough from an adjoining tree was swayed so low as to smite the roof in the manner of a gigantic hand smiting the mouth of an adversary, to be followed by a trickle of rain, as blood from the wound. (Hardy 449450, emphasis added)

  • 7 See Stacy Alaimo’s work on the environment and its interconnexion with the human body.

20The hut here represents a fragile man-built “place” in the middle of the “space” of the forest, a space fiercely trying to invade this locus which cannot fully protect Grace. In this Gothic evocation, the extreme violence of the wind in the forest forces Grace, in a cathartic impulse, to “dissociate” and become “a vacuous duplicate”, as in some Radcliffean representation of nature: “The environment, at least for the characters of Radcliffe, acts as a kind of conduit of emotions, a way to experience feelings and sometimes to purge them. Whether it is a feeling of creativity and renewal or even an indication of the potential evil in someone, the environment is alive as it responds to these characters who reside within its boundaries” (Kröger 19). As the wind comes to get her, in a horrific anthropomorphic metaphor, Grace can now “feel” nature again, and truly “sees” Giles. This change is what Bate strongly stresses in Song of the Earth: experiencing instead of thinking the environment. It allows Grace to acknowledge the bond between deep self and nature, in a way that is reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s vision of space: “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other as it were, in their growth” (Bachelard 218). This move enables Grace to discover that “the interior order of the human mind is inextricable from the environmental space which we inhabit. Sanity depends upon grounding in place” (Bate 2000, 173). In a moment of “trans-corporeal transformation”7, as Stacy Alaimo called it, Grace abolishes the barriers between the human and the non-human, and she can finally literally decentre herself and stand out of her old self (her “vacuous duplicate”), in order to become receptive (or a receptacle) to her environment. Throughout the episode the narrator repeatedly points out her blindness and egotism: “The grateful sense of his kindness stirred her to action, though she only knew half what kindness really was” (Hardy 441). For that reason, she was first unable to comprehend the language of the forest; but after this crucial night by herself in the woods, she stops misinterpreting the sounds of nature, in a passage much relying on internal focalisation and fraught with anaphoras and rhetorical questions revealing her growing awareness of her environment:

And then, as her anxiety increased with increasing thought, there returned upon her mind some incidents of her late intercourse with him, which she had heeded but little at the time. The look of his face—what had there been about his face which seemed different from its appearance as of yore? Was it not thinner, less rich in hue, less like that of ripe Autumn’s brother to whom she had formerly compared him? And his voice; she had distinctly noticed a change in tone. And his gait; surely it had been feebler, stiffer, more like the gait of a weary man. That slight occasional noise she had heard in the day, and attributed to squirrels, it might have been his cough after all. (Hardy 450)

21Contrary to her journey into the woods to reach One-Chimney Hut, during which she had to entirely trust Giles to lead her (and contrary to her disoriented straying with Mrs Charmond earlier in the novel), she is at present able to find the path to her father’s house, where Fitzpiers now lives, and her way back to the hut on her own (Hardy 460).

22Grace’s seclusion in the woods further strengthens the fairy-tale dimension associated with Gothic fiction, in which “supernature” prevails. The woods become the space for supernatural manifestations and an archetypal site of terror:

We may intellectually ‘theorise’ as much as we like about the reasons behind our fears of the woods, and even think we understand them, but this does not diminish them. Our stories remind us that we can still get lost in the woods – and this knowledge, which undermines our anthropocentric hubris, is simultaneously frightening, important, and thrilling. Mythos, in the Gothic forest, will always triumph over logos. (Parker 277)

  • 8 The phrase was coined by Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography and a prominent scientis (...)

23Yet, it is important to mention that if the supernatural experience in the Wessex woods mainly means hardship for the characters, it also offers them a regenerative possibility, and a new opportunity to bond with nature, at least for Grace. This transformation is the mark of fantasy fiction, which presents the forest as a place for a new growth, a territory where the quality of the connection between humans and nature is at its utmost, through a renewed perspective on space and time, such as in the later literary production of William Morris (see the forest of Mirkwood in his 1889 The Roots of the Mountains or The House of the Wolfings the same year), and later in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, and in what is sometimes called “eco-fantasy”. In The Woodlanders, the forest represents a powerful element to portray intimate and physical connections and (ex)changes, to prove that human and non-human cannot be considered as distinct. Hardy uses the many facets of the forest in his novel, often quite far away from the economic sylvian ecosystem which the title suggests. A character in transition, Grace epitomizes such exchanges and could be considered the product of a generic ecotone8, or to be more specific, of an ecocline, “a physical transitional zone”. We can see that characters are clearly not “just” woodlanders in the novel: in the late episode in the woods, they are forced to seclusion from the rest of the community and are finally stripped off their cumbersome social status (Grace is pushed to break social conventions to go to Giles’s rescue), but only after “supernature” has once more confronted them with the essence of what “being” and “belonging” really means.

24In his essay “Seeking Signs Amongst ‘Sylvan Phenomena’: Trees in the Work of Thomas Hardy”, Adrian Tait studies The Woodlanders in the light of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “ecognosis”, a key concept which involves a necessary attunement to the environment:

What is the present? How can it be thought? What is presence? Ecological awareness forces us to think and feel at multiple scales, scales that disorient normative concepts such as “present,” “life,” “human,” “nature,” “thing,” “thought,” and “logic.” Dark Ecology shall argue that there are layers of attunement to ecological reality more accurate than what is habitual in the media, in the academy, and in society at large. These attunement structures are necessarily weird […]. Weirdness involves the hermeneutical knowingness belonging to the practices that the humanities maintain. […] The attunement, which I call ecognosis, implies a practical yet highly nonstandard vision of what ecological politics could be. In part, ecognosis involves realizing that nonhumans are installed at profound levels of the human – not just biologically and socially but in the very structure of thought and logic. Coexisting with these nonhumans is ecological thought, art, ethics, and politics. (Morton 174)

25The vision of nature which The Woodlanders provides through the use of the ecoGothic prism might be indeed the most striking element in Hardy’s fiction, testifying to the need for “attunement”. This attunement is what Grace learns to do by being so close to sylvan life form; it is what South tries to achieve too, and in general, what Hardy gets us to do in his ecoGothic representation of woodlife in the novel. A close reading of Morton’s definition allows us to elaborate and argue that the “weirdness” which seems inherent to the concept of ecognosis is actually conveyed by the ecoGothic perspective we have attempted to put forward. What is considered as supernatural in generic terms might in fact correspond to some inner, “essential” quality of the woods that we have to acknowledge, in order to reassess our way of thinking about the environment.

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Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (1958/1964), trans. M. Jolas, London: Penguin, 2014.

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1 For a more extensive analysis of the distinction between Hardy and Emily Brontë with other nineteenth-century writers such as Dickens or Austen, see John Carroll’s article: “The Ecology of Victorian Fiction”, Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (October 2001): 295–313.

2 See Alan Manford’s introduction to the novel (Hardy xxxi).

3 The truth is, Fitzpiers is more “out of” Hintock than “at” Hintock: he comes and goes out of it a lot, for business, or leisure, and sometimes barely succeeds in coming back (see his horse accident when he comes back from visiting Felice Charmond), so that he ends up in the periphery of the narrative for several chapters when eloping abroad with Felice Charmond.

4 About the link between ecocriticism and political ecology, Kerridge argues that “questions of what makes a particular text good or bad in ecocritical terms have to be answered in terms of the needs of the particular moment. Ecocritical assessments of literary quality are not reducible to questions of what might make people care, but, under such exceptional pressure, they seem inextricable from those questions” (Kerridge 2014, 370).

5 In the tale, four sisters, the daughters of a woodcutter, mean to take shelter in turns in a hut in the forest inhabited by an old man – in fact a bewitched prince – who traps them, until one of them breaks the spell by showing kindness with the animals keeping the old man company. The sympathy towards all living beings, men and animals, allows the last daughter to set herself free, in some ecological morality which can be put in perspective with Grace’s own turn of mind in the episode in Giles’s hut.

6 See Vladimir Propp’s chapter on the “Mysterious Forest” in The Historical Roots of the Fairy Tales (1946).

7 See Stacy Alaimo’s work on the environment and its interconnexion with the human body.

8 The phrase was coined by Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography and a prominent scientist contemporary of Darwin (both had reached the same conclusions founding Darwin’s theory of evolution, but Darwin published his work in 1859, eclipsing Wallace’s contribution to the subject). Wallace’s arguments and what would later be called geocriticism in literature could shed light on interesting aspects of Hardy’s Woodlanders.

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Electronic reference

Peggy Blin-Cordon, An Ecocritical Reading of Hardy’s The Woodlanders: Supernature and EcoGothic FATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 18 May 2023, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Peggy Blin-Cordon

CY Cergy Paris Université

Peggy Blin-Cordon is a senior lecturer in British literature at CY-Cergy Paris Université, where she teaches literature and translation. She wrote a thesis on generic experiments in the novels of Thomas Hardy and specialises in Hardy and literary genres. She is the current president of FATHOM.

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