Quoyle’s life in ‘Bedraggled Mockingburg’ is one reflected by his squalid house, with its ‘grey sheets’ and ‘cribs jammed close like bird cages’. It is indeed a caged, oppressed existence, superficial and unsatisfying. He feels out of place with his surroundings, alienated, isolated and uncomfortable. He has a sense that the triviality that surrounds him is ‘the stuff of others’ lives.’ He is ‘waiting for his to begin’, longing for a more resolute, gratifying life. After the death of his parents and his cruel, carnal wife, he returns with an old aunt to the land of his fathers, Newfoundland, to ‘start a new life in a fresh place’, a place of rugged, perilous beauty:
‘Miles of coast blind wrapped in fog. Sunkers under wrinkled water, boats threading tickles between ice-scabbed cliffs… The alchemist sea changed fishermen into wet bones’ Here he takes refuge in a house that is severe, bare, and empty. This house is a crucial metaphor in the novel, the mysterious house of his ancestors, ‘pumiced by stony lives of dead generations’, full of myth. Dragged to the headland across the ice, bolted and chained unnaturally to the rocky headland, Quoyle feels as if the house is ‘A bound prisoner straining to get free.’
In this place he is ‘swallowed by the shouting past’. In the end the house is torn from its shackles by the wind, blown away, freed from its bondage. It is here we see a unity of person and place that is so evident in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’; Quoyle is the house’s equivalent in human form, he has been dragged a great distance, bolted to his ancestry and emotions, unable to break free from the past. When the house is set free by a great storm, Quoyle is also released, able to understand himself as an individual, not merely a member of a corrupt family.
Dwellings are used in some corresponding ways in the two novels. Tess has connections with various dwellings that are similar to Quoyle’s. She is haunted by the ancient D’Urberville family, on the night of her wedding. The portraits of D’Urberville ladies mock and sneer at her from the walls, smirking in ‘merciless treachery’, adding to her sense of guilt and impending doom in the run up to her disastrous confession to Angel. Ironically, it is the treachery of her family that has given her something to confess in the first place. Tess also feels the oppression and desperation felt by Quoyle in Mockingburg when she is forced to live with Alec in the grand but seedy Sandbourne.
She feels a brief flutter of happiness when she spends a few days with Angel in the empty, fairytale Bramshurst Court; momentarily swept into an oblivious state of euphoria. This place is a brief refuge for the lovers, so exhausted and battered by fate. Here, in secluded and peaceful surroundings, they spend the only time together as husband and wife with no dark secrets, acting out a poignantly innocent charade, half-pretending that their lives will continue in peace, clinging to a fantasy. This short period is the calm before the storm, a moment of tranquillity which is destroyed soon after, when Tess is caught and executed.
‘The Shipping News’ charts the struggle of people to live with an immense elemental power, the sea, at whose mercy they are. It is one of the most powerful images in the novel, and is described by Proulx as almost a deity, a primitive demi-god, an ambivalent force, terrible and generous, giving and ending life, paying no heed to human hopes, struggles and morality. The people of Newfoundland treat this force as such an entity, with hushed respect and fear.
When Quoyle arrives in Newfoundland, he is not familiar with its way of life, or the might of nature. He cannot swim, is afraid and overwhelmed by this water, ‘haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Bawling into salt broth.’ His near drowning in chapter 26 can be seen as a wild baptism, a symbolic acceptance and immersion into the Newfoundland culture and society. The old Quoyle sinks with the useless boat which embodies his ignorance, and a new Quoyle is born, one who recognises his need to learn and to adjust to a new place and existence.
The overwhelming force in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is fate, a power that controls events and actions. In this novel, nature and weather are relatively benign; manifestations of fate, used to accentuate the character’s experiences and occasionally to foreshadow events. The force of fate is portrayed as much more negative than the sea in ‘The Shipping News’; it is generally cruel and arbitrary, especially in relation to poor Tess. Fate is responsible for her encounter with Alec Stoke-D’Urberville, her subsequent violation, the death of her child, and ultimately, her death. Although often hauntingly beautiful, nature is at times sinister, threatening, an omen: ‘The occasional heave of the wind became the sigh of some immense sad soul, conterminous with the universe in space, and with the history in time’
This fatalism, seen in many of Hardy’s other novels, reflects his view of life. Tess’s personal fatalism is a typical characteristic of her upbringing in rural poverty; she was ‘reared in the lonely country nooks where fatalism is a strong sentiment.’ Proulx’s literary style is unusual, in comparison with Hardy’s, but in a world where authors strive to find original structural devices, ‘The Shipping News’ is not so remarkable. Proulx often writes ungrammatically, disjointedly, in fragmented sentences. The protagonist, a newspaper reporter, presents his thoughts and feelings as headlines, so it seems fitting that, although at times Proulx’s narrative is disruptive to the reader, it is reminiscent of newspaper shorthand.
The most extraordinary device she uses is the knot definitions that introduce each chapter. Knots are of literal importance in the novel; fishermen, sailors and upholsterers use knots as part of their livelihoods. However, in this novel, they are more a metaphor for the versatility of human beings, specifically a metaphor for the lives of the Quoyles, who must undo the binds of the past in order to have a future. Knots tie Quoyle to his ancestors; the gruesome knotted hair brooch and the knots of Nolan’s sorcery. As the last chapter definition says, ‘there will always be new knots to discover’. Quoyle must release himself from the old knots and tie new ones.
Both authors use setting as an essential component to their stories, instead of merely using it as a backdrop. In essence, Hardy uses the landscape in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ not only to magnify her experiences but literally to be her experiences in an alternative form. In Hardy’s own words, “My art is to intensify the expression of things as is done by Crivelli, Bellini, etc., so that the heart and inner meaning is made visibly visible.”(An extract from one of Hardy’s notebooks). Proulx uses the setting in her novel to mark each stage of her protagonist’s life, and like Hardy, to symbolise his struggles and the influences upon him. In my opinion, the power in both novels is derived, to a large extent, from the atmosphere created by the surroundings, whether the raw coast and fierce elements of Newfoundland or the idyllic warmth and beauty of Hardy’s Wessex.