Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Setting Essay

Choose a novel or short story in which the choice of setting is central to your appreciation of the text.

Briefly explain how the writer effectively creates setting and, with reference to appropriate techniques, discuss how the writer’s presentation of the setting is central to your appreciation of the text as a whole.


A major presence, almost an extra character, setting plays a crucial part in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1891). Indeed, such is the power of Hardy’s Wessex, that he re-used it for most of his novels, and there now springs from it a thriving Hardy-related tourist industry in England’s south-west. The rural, Victorian towns and villages provide a model within which Hardy is able to toy with his characters, using period attitudes to class and gender, and the beauty and severity of the land, to elicit sympathy or condemnation from the reader. In “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, Hardy’s Wessex is central to the fortunes and fate of his tragic protagonist.

  • Hardy had used Wessex in nine previous novels (two more followed Tess)
  • By imposing fictional names on real places, verisimilitude (realness) is bestowed on the fiction – it becomes more believable.


Setting 1 – The Chase

  • This setting is in-keeping with Hardy’s general beliefs that nature has no care or concern for human affairs
  • It is the perfect setting for the rape
  • He creates a sense of mystery in the setting
  • This allows the audience to question whether what takes places is a rape or a seduction
  • Tess’s exhaustion is reflected in the sleepy setting – pathetic fallacy
  • The Chase is wild, uncultivated but serene – clashes with the brutality of what happens
  • The animals ignore Tess’s rape


Setting 2 – Talbothays

  • After the death and suffering of Tess after her rape, she gains a second wind
  • This is reflected in the landscape around Talbothay’s dairy
  • The land is rich and green; fecund and ripe.
  • This reflects Tess’s recovery and blooming sexuality.
  • Talbothay’s is also associated with sunshine and happiness – now clichés
  • The height of this growth of Tess’s sexuality is shown in the overgrown garden, where Hardy uses highly suggestive language to convey the wild, untamed, rural sexuality of his protagonist


Setting 3 – Flintcombe Ash

  • Contrasting with the happiness and rich fertility of Talbothay’s, Flintcombe Ash reflects Tes’s barren, isolated condition.
  • Her misery is heightened because she is in such poor surroundings.
  • The work is hard and unforgiving.
  • It is here that she travels unsuccessfully to see Angel’s parents, and must kill the wounded pheasants. The rural setting is central to this scene. (Innocent birds, mortally wounded by an aristocratic hunting party.)
  • Her heart is being broken by Angel’s unresponsiveness.
  • Her poverty here reaches such extremes that she gives in and returns to Alec in order to save her family from destitution.

The land itself is described as being bleak, unwelcoming. More pathetic fallacy.


Setting 4 – Stone Henge

  • A pagan temple, this is apt for a protagonist who struggled to accept the Christian god.
  • Here, Tess accepts her fate (a rural, pagan idea) and lies down on an ancient altar to die.
  • She gives herself up as a sacrifice.
  • This is the setting where Tess is most at ease. There are no extremes of emotion.
  • In this place, Tess has more control than Angel. She has ended her struggle.
  • This phase of the novel is entitled “Fulfilment” – ironic. Connotations of fate being fulfilled, but also of Tess being fulfilled (achieving happiness).
  • The plain is wide-open, as though all the civilisation which had made her life difficult have been removed.
  • It is an apt place for Tess to die.


Hardy’s Wessex provides two key devices which he employs throughout this novel. The first is a rigid class system, which Tess struggles to exist within. She is too clever for her own (working) class, but is rejected by the middle class snobbery of Angel and his family. She is seen as fair sexual game by the predatory nouveau-rich Alec d’Urberville. The setting in time is essential for creating these tensions between characters. However, the more visual sense of setting comes in Hardy’s portrayal of the physical world. He manoeuvres his author’s eye to create settings which emotionally manipulate both the protagonist and the reader. Tess’s happiness at Talbothay’s is also the readers; her misery at Flincombe Ash is also shared. Wessex is as important to the novel as Tess herself.