- landscape: a section or expanse of rural scenery, usually extensive, that can be seen from a single viewpoint. (Random House Dictionary)
The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes, a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, sending them spinning across the grass.
To understand the importance of a concept or term, it is first necessary to know its meaning. "Landscape" in literature is the breadth of nature that faces the characters and that is described by the narrator (author). In the second chapter, Hardy illustrates the importance of landscape to his novels by beginning with describing the landscape facing Gabriel, the protagonist of the novel. You can see the expert I inserted in the above box for reference, a few lines of which are quoted immediately above.
Hardy focuses on landscape for two reasons: (1) realism; (2) character symbology. Hardy was a Victorian writer and wrote in the style a realism. Consequently he was a writer who felt the importance of the actual detail of individuals, setting and nature involved in a narrative and, feeling this importance, described things realistically to produce a strong sense of that which is real. This is very different from the preceding Romanticists who imparted the sense of romanticized reality or improved reality or poignantly enhanced reality in their works. Compare Hardy's tale to the works of Romantic novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, in whose works romantical words like "heart-burning" "whimsical" and "femoral habiliments" (The Fortunes of Nigel) are common. Also compare Madding Crowd to Wordsworth's poem A Ruined Cottage.
In addition to realism, a mode that sets Hardy as the bridge way between Realism and Modernism, Hardy uses the landscape as character symbology: locations and descriptions have symbolic importance to character description and/or to character-in-plot development. In other words, through Hardy's description of landscape you can either learn something about a character or about what a character is or is about to go through in the plot.
Looking at the above realistic excerpt, what can we tell about Gabriel or about what the plot does or will hold for him? Firstly, we understand that Gabriel is sturdy in inner character and mind; he is used to harsh elements and finds his place within and his way through them: "may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion." Secondly, we learn that whatever may befall Gabriel through the course of the novel--in relation to the vain young lady in the wagon of the first chapter or in relation to Gabriel's sheep farm--he will hang on, weather the storm and come into a spring of life once again: "A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them." While the leaves eventually fall, the symbolic image of holding on has nonetheless entered the reader's vision and is associated with Gabriel, while, at the same time, a sensation of suspenseful wonder is created and felt as the (perhaps unarticulated) question: "Will he, too, finally fall?"