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The story takes place in a small woodland village called Little Hintock, and concerns the efforts of an honest woodsman, Giles Winterborne, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury.
The Woodlanders is a masterpiece and absolute joy to read for two reasons. Not the characters, who rarely rise above their stock roles - the decent, honourable heroine impossibly torn between passion and propriety; the manly, back-to-nature hero, who could come straight from Cold Comfort Farm; the impoverished aristocratic cad; his wealthy lover, the promiscuous bored ex-actress gold digger; the bumbling middle-class trader of lowly origins. What astonishes first is Hardy's plot, related by a weirdly troubling narrator, awesomely intricate in itself, but full of an almost Nabokovian sadism. Situations, desires, hopes are set up and cruelly dashed as the beautiful narrative machinations begin cranking - the man-trap scene had me literally sweating. This irony, however, also has an emotional effect, as it reveals characters trapped by the social, gender and psychological limits the plot symbolises, and forces them into a humanity beyond their stereotype. Mostly, though, this is a novel written by a poet, and in its animation of the sexually charged woods, the lanes, glades, fields, sunsets, dawns, storms, drizzles, winds, breezes, nature is the book's true hero, full of almost supernatural agency. Hardy's gifts of description, his unearthing the unearthly, the uncanny, the inexplicable beneath the surface, are unsurpassed in Victorian fiction; while his non-didactic anger at social injustice is so much more compelling than the more literal Dickens'. One significant point to be noted after reading this novel is that it largely deviates from Tess of the d'Ubervilles, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge,and even Far From the Madding Crowd. I say Grace stands in poor comparison with Tess, Thomasin, Elizabeth and Bath Sheba. Hardy doesn't bestow upon Grace the bucolic elegance and glory typical of the Old Hintock. One must remember Clym Yeobright of The Return of the Native mightily amazed by the rustic grace as personified by Thomasin. Bath Sheba recaptures it through her union with Gabriel Oak. Tess, a mere vessel of emotions untinctured by experience, is always the daughter of the Hardy soil. With her departure from the Old Hintock as Mrs Fitzpiers Grace takes away the very status expected of a rural child. Luckily, Marty comes as a great consolation who retains the glory that the Old Hintock be as evidenced by her devoted act of showering flowers at the grave of her long lost love Giles Winterborne, another son of the soil.--Submitted by RJ SUNDAR
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