Usually, we can look at the setting of a novel as a small portion of a work. With Tess, however, nature is a close second only to the main characters. Therefore, the reader is obligated to examine Hardy's use of setting and environment in Tess. Tess of the d'Urbervilles takes place in Wessex, a region encompassing the southern English county of Dorset and neighboring counties Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, and Devon. The setting consists of more than the location, however, particularly in this novel. Nature, as a part of the setting, is an essential element in understanding the novel. In addition, the countryside and the folk who inhabit the area provide more than a mere backdrop upon which Hardy tells his tale. They are, in fact, unnamed characters in the novel.
In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, the characters and setting mirror each other. Tess moves from a world that begins in the beautiful regions around Marlott. She goes to The Slopes to "claim kin" and the environment is lovely and formal, but also contrived (consider the new house where she expected to find an old one). The setting at Talbothays, where Tess experiences her greatest happiness, is lush, green, and fertile. Flintcomb-Ash, on the other hand, is a barren region, reflecting the harshness of the work and the desolation of Tess' life. The story ends in the equally mysterious Stonehenge region.
With his Wessex novels (Tess, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Maddening Crowd, and Jude the Obscure), Hardy documented a way of life, a pattern of speech, and a pattern of thought that serves as a historical account of life in southern England at the end of the 1800s. As Simon Gatrell notes in Kramer's The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, "He had begun to understand that he was the historian of a Wessex now passed, the recorder of a series of unique micro-environments, ways of life and speech, which together had formed a cultural whole." This element makes Hardy's notation about Wessex life timeless. Also, we see a type of existence that dated back several hundred years, possibly back to ancient times. Thus, Tess, even though it is set within a specific timeframe, has an ethereal quality that seems to transcend time.
The two main farms, Talbothays and Flintcomb-Ash, represent the best and worst of farm life. The farm is the only world that Tess knows. She never travels more than 50 miles from her place of birth. The whole of the work is rurally set, and with the level of detail, we can see Hardy's intimate knowledge of the inner workings of a nineteenth-century farm.
Little evidence of machinery invades the novel and the main form of transportation is either the horse or the horse cart. Draft animals are necessary for survival and prosperity; we see evidence of Prince's death and the effect his passing has on the Durbeyfields. A new horse is very important to the existence of the family. The entire series of chapters that follow Prince's death, with Tess going to The Slopes, is based on the economic need for a horse. Only twice do we see "modern" machines in the novel, the train delivering the Talbothays milk to London and the threshing machine used at Flintcomb-Ash. Otherwise, modern farming equipment is not a key component of farming techniques practiced in Wessex.
However, the machine at Flintcomb-Ash is like a monster that must be fed and maintained. We see evidence of this in Chapter 47; "the engine which was to act as the primum mobile of this world" and "it was the engine-man." Thus, the machine is an omnipotent presence, demanding to be tended to at all times. The workers have lost their identity and their ability to communicate when the machine is working at full tilt. Contrast this machine, which seems difficult to control, with the pastoral workings of the dairy at Talbothays. This is not to say that the dairy is without modern machinery; it has modern butter churns, powered by hand and horsepower, but nothing like the steam threshing machine.
A further comparison is the setting of the two farms. Talbothays is portrayed as a beautiful place, in a rich agricultural region of southern England — "the valley in which milk and butter grew to rankness, and were produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at her home — the verdant plain so well watered by the river Var or Froom." We cannot help but be charmed by the life of the dairy, with milking, churning butter, and making cheeses. Furthermore, only positive things happen to Tess while she is there. Flintcomb-Ash, on the other hand, with part of the name being "ash," is mired in mud, rocks, poor conditions, and near starvation. Marian, formerly of Talbothays, has come to Flintcomb for work and calls the new farm "a starve-acre place. Corn and swedes [rutabagas] are all they grow." Alec reappears at the farm to begin his renewed "courtship" of Tess. Farmer Groby's treatment of his hired hands is not as sympathetic as Dairyman Crick's as he tells Tess, "But we'll see which is master here."
Taken as a whole, the villages of Marlott, Emminster, and Trantridge are small towns easily managed by visitors and townsfolk alike. The vast countryside of the novel, the rich farmland or the poorer farm areas, outline an important part of nineteenth-century English agriculture, one where the newly founded Industrial Revolution has yet to take hold. It is upon this framework that Hardy writes one of his best novels.