The Woodlanders

by Thomas Hardy

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Characters

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Last Updated April 26, 2024.

Grace Melbury

At the threshold age of 20, Grace Melbury is both a product of and a victim of her upbringing. Her wealthy father’s misdirected desire to shape her into a refined woman of taste backfires. She returns from her year away at finishing school unwilling or unable to accept her identity. Gone for all of one year and to a school that even her father admits is not a top-tier school, Grace returns determined not to trust her own heart.

When she reunites with Giles, who has loved her since childhood, Grace reveals her flawed character. As Giles talks about how he missed her, Grace quotes Shakespeare and drones on about art galleries, ancient monuments, and fancy homes she visited. Educated now, Grace dismisses Giles as too ordinary, too not of her class. In negotiating her way into a disastrous marriage with the educated and wealthy Fitzpiers, Grace realizes how refinement has distanced her from her own heart.

Grace changes as she watches Giles die, understanding that he sacrificed his life for her and realizing what she denied years earlier: Giles was the love she needed. 

But Hardy does not doom Grace with insight too late. In reconciling with her husband, Grace accepts that Fitzpiers has himself changed and agrees to commit to making their marriage succeed. It is not a happy ending but rather a happy enough ending.

Giles Winterbourne

It is Giles Winterbourne’s triumph and tragedy that he is simple. Not simpleminded but rustic, Giles is a character whose actions—unlike the other characters—are uncomplicated by self-interest, greed, or lust.

His love for Grace began in childhood before he understood the realities of wealth or sexuality. Hence, Giles brings to the novel its only example of authentic devotion. Unlike the other characters, Giles is tied to nature. Even as Hardy delivers a stinging indictment of the wealthy who treat nature as a commodity, Giles exemplifies how nature endows its most sincere defenders with morality, good-heartedness, and trust.

Giles’ good-natured perception of people, however, leaves him vulnerable. He loses his home, modest wealth, and the woman he loves. Despite all that, Giles never wavers in his love for Grace.

His death underscores this combination of nobility and humility. Grace is on the run from reuniting with her estranged husband. Yet Giles will not compromise Grace’s reputation by sharing his cottage with her. Despite his sickly nature, he insists on spending several cold, rainy nights sleeping outside while Grace stays inside, her reputation intact.

In this, Grace finally understands the dimensions of love that she could never learn from a book or her husband. That understanding allows her to give her rouge husband a second chance. Thus, Giles, through death, saves Grace.

Edred Fitzpiers

Dr. Edred Fitzpiers would make an easy villain in the tragedy of Grace and Giles’ unrequited love. After all, he is a manipulative narcissist, a Victorian-era player who dabbles in hip existential philosophy enough to justify reducing pretty women to commodities. Hardy uses the metaphor of poaching to suggest the dark reality of Fitzpiers’ seduction of Grace, who finds in the charming, educated, and hunky doctor a trade-up from Giles.

Fitzpiers’ affairs during his engagement (with the very married Suke Dawson) and after his marriage (with the wealthy widow Felice Charmond) reveal his lack of moral integrity and indifference to others. He struggles to build a medical practice because the backwoods folks intuit Fitzpiers’ lack of compassion. When, in confronting the possibility of public humiliation with the revelation of his affair with Mrs. Charmond, Fitzpiers runs off to Europe with her, his character as a despicable villain seems complete.

But...

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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Hardy is not interested in cartoon villains. After Mrs. Charmond’s violent death at the hands of one of her ex-suitors and then his suicide, Fitzpiers undergoes an epiphany. He sees the danger of a life of sensual pleasure played out in a consequence-free environment.

His return to Hintock reveals unsuspected depth. He loves Grace “more than ever before,” but “it is a different kind of love…less passionate, more profound.” He abandons love driven by sensuality or defined by materialism. Thus, Grace’s decision to return to the marriage endows Fitzpiers himself with the benefit of the doubt and gifts the reformed Fitzpiers a second chance. 

Felice Charmond

Right up until her emotional talk with Grace just weeks before her violent death at the hands of a distraught ex-lover, Felice Charmond appears to be a character easily defined. She takes and takes and takes. Indeed, that violent death can seem a fitting price for a life of selfish indulgence.

An actress by profession and hence adept at pretending emotions, Felice married a much older wealthy landowner and then took over his family’s manor. After his death, she sets her sights on taking as much of the woodlands around Hinton, including using a legal loophole to take Giles’ home. She admits to numerous illicit affairs; she is a creature of uncomplicated sensual hunger and shameless predatory tactics designed to take men she sets her sights on.

Key to the depth of her character, however, is her willingness to help Fitzpiers after he humiliates himself in front of his father-in-law. She wanted the affair to be just that, casual playacting at authentic emotions even as the two of them recklessly ruined others’ lives. But it is not. In the talk with Grace, Mrs. Charmond confesses her dilemma, “I thought I could give him up without pain or deprivation, that he was only my pastime…but I cannot.” She admits, sobbing, that she has found love with the one man shallow enough to render that love ironic.

Her violent death, however, salvages Fitzpiers’ heart. He sees the waste of carnal pleasure and recommits himself to marriage, love, and respectability. In this, Mrs. Charmond shares with Giles the novel’s tragic center. Both die to save the one they love.

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