What is the setting of the novel Tess of the d'Ubervilles?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of Thomas Hardy's once very controversial novel is Hardy's own beloved Dorset, England, which he fictionalizes as Wessex, "a fertile and sheltered tract of country in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry." At times, this description of the landscape of Marlott by Hardy is truly poetic,

The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.

This is an innocent, pure landscape, so much like Tess herself. For, it is as though Tess becomes a metaphor for the land, once pristine and lovely, but later a victim to the forces which overpower her.

That Tess is aligned with the setting is evinced throughout the narrative; for instance, the setting clearly mirrors the emotions of Tess after her loss of innocence in Part II, Chapter 13:

…a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason.  It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she…she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of innocence.
In a more expansive use of setting, Thomas Hardy depicts the dilemmas created by the Industrial Revolution upon this agricultural land.  The railroad that now spans England allows products to be shipped rapidly so that large dairy farms such as that of the Talbothays can thrive. This mass production as well as the invention of the steam thrashing machine depersonalizes the farms that have strangers working for them in contrast to the closely knit small farms such as that of the Durbeyfields--who are like the Dorset cottagers Hardy knew--on which families lived, worked, and died. For, the machine is viewed as a monster that must be maintained and fed its grain. In Chapter 47, Hardy calls it
...the engine which was to act as the primum mobile of this world"
While Tess lives on Flintcomb-Ash farm, she is underfed and later threatened by the reappearance of Alec d'Uberville; in short, it is a bleak site of Darwinian struggle.  And, it is no coincidence that Tess is arrested and taken to her execution from Stonehedge, that cold monument of prehistoric times, a testament to the endurance of nature against man's forces.
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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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