Narrative Technique in Tess of the D'Urbervilles
by George Fleischer
"All works of fiction tell a story but what sets them apart is the particular way in which the story is told". Discuss the narrative technique of Hardy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and what this method enables hardy to achieve.
The narrative technique of an author in any novel is crucial to the readers understanding of the narrative. The way in which a novel is written influences the way in which the reader interprets the events which occur throughout the novel and allows the author to convey the feeling of time, place, and people in the society in which the author is attempting to impart to his or her readers. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, author Thomas Hardy uses a variety of narrative techniques in order to convey his own impressions of the society in which both he and his character Tess lived. Hardy's use of a third person omniscient narrator who is all knowing adds to the vulnerability of Tess by the reader's knowledge of what other characters say and do, whilst simultaneously detaching himself from the tragedy of Tess. The use of extensive description of setting by Hardy allows the reader to interpret the action, reactions, and moods of the characters in relation to the specific atmosphere in which they exist at the time and the influence which such a setting has on the character's feelings and emotions. Hardy's use of religious and mythological allusions and metaphysical symbols allow the reader to reflect on the religious and sociocultural environments in which the narrative is set so as to allow the reader to better understand and interpret the actions and emotions of the characters due to the reader's knowledge of their environmental influences. An effective narrative technique used by Hardy is the provision of a more direct means of communication between his characters and the reader. This is achieved through the use of dialogue, letter writing, and songs and poetry. Dialogue between characters allows Hardy to present his characters to his readers in a more direct way. It permits Hardy to allow his readers to interpret the characters in a way which is less influenced by his own narration and by which the readers are able to judge for themselves the characters by how they speak and communicate with others as well as the content of their converse. Letter writing and songs and poetry allow the reader to be directly informed of the actions and their rationale as well as the feelings of a specific character by which the reader is able to interpret these being influenced by the specific character rather than Hardy himself, and also allows the reader an insight into the social and cultural backgrounds of the society as reasoning for the characters behaviour and emotions. The way we read, interpret, and reflect on a novel is greatly influenced by the author and his or her use of narrative techniques in order to appropriately convey the characters and their society.
An omniscient narrator is one who knows all and sees all. It allows the reader and indirect insight into the actions and emotions of specific characters. The omniscience of the narrator allows the reader to not be influenced by the character in the interpretations of the character's behaviour and feelings and also encourages the reader to sympathise with Tess in her tragic and unfortunate predicament. Using such a narrative technique, Hardy allows himself to be somewhat detached from his characters, often appearing as though he himself does not sympathise with the tragedy that is Tess. The effect of the novel not being narrated by Tess is that we as the reader are given a perception of the lives of other characters which Tess herself is unaware of. It allows us to interpret for ourselves the predicament which characters other than Tess are placed in through our own eyes with the influence of Hardy and not through Tess. However, this style of narration prevents the reader from having a direct line into the thoughts and feelings of Tess and other characters, and does not allow for the character to directly communicate with their readers in a way which would inform the readers of the workings of the character's mind, what they do, and why they do it. However Hardy manages to overcome this difficulty through the use of other narrative techniques such as dialogue and letter writing.
Setting in this case refers to the specific surrounding environment and it's atmosphere in which a character exists at a specific point in time. The particular setting in which a character exists reflects the character's moods, actions, reactions, and their rationale for these, whilst the setting also influences how a character behaves. Hardy's comprehensive description of these settings also conveys to the reader the insignificance of individual characters in relation to the social atmosphere in which they live as a whole. Upon the commencement of chapter two, Hardy describes the county of Marlott and the surrounding Vale of Blackmoor in terms of its rural beauty and cultural atmosphere whereby a May Day dance is being held. This description of setting reflects the peaceful atmosphere of the county at that time, much like that of Tess and her family, creating suspense for the events to come. Prior to Alec's violation of Tess, Hardy describes the setting of Chaseborough as "a decayed market town" (Chapter 10) where Alec, Tess, and their companions have chosen to spend their evening drinking. An atmosphere of chaos and disorder has thus been set with Tess's intoxicated and unruly companions turning into "satyrs clasping nymphs" (Chapter 10). This creation of a embroiled and uncomfortable environment for Tess alerts the reader to advancing events. Hardy makes note of the fog in the woods which is regarded as a metaphorical representation of entrapment. It is during this tumult that Alec takes advantage of the sleeping Tess. In the second phase of the novel, Tess is seen making her way back to Marlott at which point she is overtaken by Alec. Tess refuses converse with him and leaves him to go down the "crooked lane" (chapter 12). It is here where we realise that Hardy's created topography of Wessex represents the moral condition of the characters. Two distinct setting placed in stark contrast to each other are Tess's journey to The Slopes where Alec lives and Tess's journey to Talbothay's dairy. Upon departing for The Slopes, Tess is reluctant and indisposed to her impending situation. She does not enjoy the journey in the least, feeling that her excursion will result in unwanted consequences. However travelling to Talbothays Tess's ride is swift and pleasant. Tess feels a sense of purpose in beginning a fresh new chapter of her life, and considers the journey more of a "pilgrimage" (chapter 16). Upon arriving at the dairy, Tess observes that this a place of good spirits where "she appeared to feel that she really had laid a new foundation for her future" (chapter 16). Hardy juxtaposes the residences of both Alec and Angel, contrasting Alec's estate on The Slopes and Angel's elevated dwelling. This contrast in setting reflects Tess's respective relationships between herself and both Alec and Angel. In the midst of the blossoming relationship between Tess and Angel at the dairy, Hardy describes the setting as "oozing fatness and warm ferments... the hiss of fertilisation... The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings". (chapter 23). This description of setting reflects the relationship between Tess and Angel and the atmosphere in which their relationship matures. However this was not to last. Following the demise of Tess and Angel's marriage, Tess arrives at Flincomb Ash. Such a name conveys the impression of a stark and desolate setting which reflects Tess's on misery and suffering. The land in harsh and barren, possibly representing the love of lack thereof between Tess and Angel. The work is onerous and toilsome, contrasting considerably with Tess's joyful labour at Talbothay's. Tess's depression reaches it's climax here in the barren wasteland and "the joyless monotony of things" (chapter 46). it is amidst this desolate and destitute environment where Alec surfaces again to declare his love for Tess. Tess refuses his pleas, still hoping for the return of her beloved Angel. When Angel finally does return, it is amidst the luxurious seaside resort at Sandbourne whereby Tess is described as being expensively dressed and living in affluence. This setting conveys the impression of both an inappropriate environment for Tess, representing her union with Alec, but also a prosperous environment representing her reunion with Angel. Hardy's effective use of dynamic setting is used in order to allow Hardy to convey the moods and feelings of his characters which are reflected by the setting in which the specific characters exist at that time.
Hardy's characters are greatly influenced by the religious and social environments in which they live. Religious and mythological allusions enable Hardy to convey these aspects of his society to his readers. In the opening of the novel, the first character the readers are introduced to is Parson Tringham. No physical description is given and his dialogue is limited, creating an alluding and mysterious figure. The parson represents the religiosity of Hardy's society and communicates to the readers that this is a religious society, whilst also setting the scene for Tess's introduction to the readers and for the events to come. At the commencement of the second phase of the novel "maiden no more", Tess is seen burdened with a heavy basket and a large bundle. This can be regarded as the metaphysical symbol of oppression and hardship. Some time later as Tess and Angel depart from the dairy after their wedding ceremony, a cock is heard crowing. Such is an omen of bad luck, and according to biblical references, the cock crowing three times as it had done intensifies the omen even more. This religious allusion represents the religious implications and consequences for Tess's decision not to inform Angel of her past, whilst also creating suspense for the reader as to the events to come.
An effective narrative technique used by Hardy is dialogue between characters. How a character speaks and what they say allow a greater insight into the nature of their individuality. It permits the reader to judge the characters on the basis of their own communication with other characters rather than on Hardy's own interpretation of their converse. Dialogue also informs the reader of a specific character's thoughts and feelings as well as their intentions and rationale for previous actions. Upon the commencement of the novel, the reader is introduced to John Durbeyfield. His dialogue with the unknown parson indicates to the reader that this is an uneducated man who is a member of the lower classes. His dialect may give an indication of his county of origin but also conveys to the readers that he is possibly intoxicated, which we later find out he is, and also slightly pompous without reason. Thus Hardy's use of dialogue here sets the scene for Tess's introduction to the reader. Also used by Hardy in order to create a more intimate relationship between the characters and his readers is the use of letter writing and songs. Having set their wedding date for New Years Eve, Tess and Angel relish their time together, however upon trying on her wedding dress, Tess cannot help but remember one of her mother's songs:
"That would never become a wife
That had once done amiss" (chapter 32)
This song allows Tess to return to her childhood in her adulthood, and also allows her to convey a typical value of the society in which she lived, a women who had committed an indiscretion in her early years shall never be married. This song also imparts to the reader Tess's fears and doubts, and the extent to which her guilty conscience is imploring her to inform Angel of her past. During the climax of Tess's depression whereby she is in a state of "utter stagnation" (chapter 41), Tess receives a letter from her former dairymaid friend Marian, asking Tess to join her at Flincomb Ash.
Once having arrived at Flincomb Ash, and Tess having subjected Alec to an "insulting slap" (chapter 48), Tess resolves to write to Angel, imploring him to "save me from what threatens me!" (chapter 48).
Having returned home to her ill mother, only to be informed of her father's death, Tess now resolves to write to Angel yet again, this time in a bitter letter abusing Angel for his mistreatment of her.
Having received no reply from Angel, Marian and Izz write to Angel beseeching him to return to Tess.
The use of letter writing enables Hardy to create a more intimate relationship between his characters and the readers, allowing the readers to understand the character's behaviour and their rationale.
Hardy's use of an omniscient narrator, descriptive setting, allusion and metaphysical symbols, and letter writing and songs in Tess of the D'Urbervilles enables Hardy to influence the way his readers understand an interpret the events of the novel. These narrative techniques are highly effective in establishing a relationship between the characters and the reader and also in conveying to the readers the various aspects of Hardy's society. An understanding of these religious, social, and cultural aspects allows the reader to rationalise the actions and emotions of the characters in relation to the society in which these character's live. It is crucial for the readers to comprehend the background and aspects of Hardy's society in order that they be able to realistically explicate the plot of the novel in relation to the environment in which the characters exist.