Unless Hardy gives the reader specific clues such as "before the nineteenth century had run one-third of its span" at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge, the reader should presume that the chronological setting is roughly contemporaneous with the year of publication. But Hardy is not always direct in his presentation of chronological setting; for example, only by certain internal references and a conspicuous lack of railway travel is one to deduce that The Return of the Native, published serially in 1878, is set thirty years earlier. Life in rural Dorset and the surrounding counties that make up Thomas Hardy's "Wessex of the novels and poems" moved more slowly than in metropolis of London or the industrial north, so that a novel such as Under The Greenwood Tree may seem to be set much earlier than it actually is. To a certain extent, the world of Hardy's peasantry is timeless, their lives determined by the natural rhythms of planting and harvest rather than by clocks and railway timetables, so that the movement of most Hardy narratives is through seasons rather than through months. Hardy's Wessex is generally pre-industrial and agricultural, its society close-knit and traditional.
Figures such as Donald Farfrae in The Mayor of Casterbridge and the Baron in The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid who are associated with technological progress (the seed drill and the steam yacht, respectively)and "the ache of modernity" are outsiders, marked by their clothing and speech as contrary to the traditional usages of the Wessex folk. It is not difficult, therefore, to spot these interlopers, whose arrival often bodes trouble for the story's principals--Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and William Dare in A Laodicean pose a threat to the security of the society, the stability of industrial employment and the traditional servant-master relationship; hence, their symbols and past-times are sordid, violent, and disruptive. What activities and symbolic objects represent Dare and mark him out as "modern"? How is Troy's sword indicative of his role as a womanizer and seducer? How are Alec D'Urberville's smoking, dressing fashionably, and racing about in a dog-cart intended to comment upon his "outlandish" (and morally out-of-bounds) nature?
Content last updated 14 December 2001