Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
Under the Greenwood Tree is the novel that confirmed Thomas Hardy in his profession as a writer. His first novel, an unpublished work called “The Poor Man and the Lady (wr. 1867), had been suppressed at his own request, while Desperate Remedies (1871), a novel of sensation, was, he felt, poor stuff by comparison, although it was successful.
Under the Greenwood Tree is the creation of person who had served his apprenticeship as a writer, during which time he found his voice and, most important, his subject. Although gentler in tone than many of his later novels, a pastoral idyll rather than a full-blown tragedy, Under the Greenwood Tree nonetheless establishes the distinctive characters of the Wessex countryside and people that will permeate Hardy’s later novels. To create his particular version of Wessex, Hardy draws heavily on memories of his own childhood and the characters, customs, and music that he recalls from that time. This is further underlined by the book’s structure, which sets the courtship and marriage within the space of one year that is punctuated with country festivals. Consequently, the portrait of Reuben Dewy and his family and friends is heavily tinged with nostalgia for a time now past; one might argue that Hardy is alert already to the need to record these customs before they are irrevocably lost.
At the same time, however, while critics have argued that Hardy is lamenting the loss of the old ways, a close reading of Under the Greenwood Tree would suggest that Hardy also knows that times change; while he would not necessarily support change for change’s sake, he nonetheless recognizes that without change, a culture will ossify. Thus, in Under the Greenwood Tree, Fancy Day personifies the spirit of modernity. Quite apart from being a spirited and independent young woman, who also is well educated and now taking up the role of schoolteacher in Mellstock, she also brings with her such newfangled notions as the idea that the women within the congregation should also participate in the singing, rather than simply leaving it to the men of the Mellstock Quire (choir). This, in turn, prompts the new and progressive vicar, Maybold, to consider replacing the choir with an organ, which Fancy will then play. Whether Maybold is driven by the desire to encourage female emancipation, as Fancy desires, is debatable.
When he formally proposes to Fancy, Maybold’s desire is to see her as an ornament to his drawing room, where she will sing and play and hold court. Attractive as that at first seems to Fancy, her true mettle is shown when she subsequently rejects his proposal in favor of that of Dick Dewy. She turns down a passive female role for something more dynamic as the wife of the oldest son of a local businessman, but a son who is now branching out into business in partnership with his father. It seems doubtful that Fancy will sit quietly at home in the drawing room. She has, in effect, rejected an old-fashioned clerical lifestyle for a more contemporary role as a country businessman’s wife, in the same way that she demurred when her father insisted that she should allow Farmer Shiner, a prosperous local landowner, to pay her court.
Fancy’s father, head keeper on an estate, sees marrying into the gentry as the way forward, but it is as though Hardy has already realized that the clergy and the landowner are already outmoded country figures. The motif of the triangle of suitors is one that Hardy will return to most notably, and with more tragic results, in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). In this famous novel, Bathsheba Everdene takes on the role of a more wilful Fancy and rejects modernity in the shape of Gabriel Oak, a working farmer, before discovering the weaknesses of the more traditional country figures of the soldier and the landowner.
Much of Under the Greenwood Tree is focused on the business of keeping up appearances, and no one seems to be immune to this occupation, with perhaps the exception of Shiner. As his name implies, however, he already is so well polished that he draws criticism for being too immaculate. Hardy often uses the maintaining of appearances as a way of extracting a little gentle comedy from situations. In one scene, Dick visits the Day family and stays for a meal. Mrs. Day gradually strips the table service around them and replaces the “everyday” table setting with her best setting, normally reserved for special guests. Likewise, Mrs. Dewy is concerned to put on a good show for her neighbors on high days and holidays, although appearances slip as, in one case, evening wears on and the men and women begin to dance.
Furthermore, Dick is a little anxious that Fancy devotes a good deal of attention to her appearance and is deeply vexed when, for her first performance as organist at church, she dresses her hair in curls, although he will not be there to see her; those same curls, of course, are what convince Maybold that she will make a perfect wife. While attempting to court Fancy, Dick, too, is not immune to making the best of his own appearance. He participates in a long discussion about what will be most suitable for him to wear when he approaches Fancy’s father. Throughout the novel, Hardy underlines how conscious the families are of how they appear to others, and how they want themselves to be seen. Again, modernity is knocking at the door.