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Under the Greenwood Tree – Summary and Review

Under the Greenwood Tree Plot

An Illustration of Thomas Hardy‘s pastoral novel.

Under the Greenwood Tree, a pastoral romantic novel by Thomas Hardy, is the story of romantic entanglement of a church musician, Dick Dewey and Fancy Day, a school teacher. Published in 1872, it was a two-volume novel.

The title of the book is derived from a song from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. It anticipates a pastoral depiction of rural life in Victorian England. Hardy showed his expertise in creating rural settings. As Valerie Barnish remarks, the novel’s setting “is the most vital aspect of the book.”

The novel is set in Mellstock, with the two central characters – the Mellstock church choir member and musician Dick Dewey and the pretty new schoolmistress Fancy Day, the daughter of Geoffrey Day, a gamekeeper. Like most heroines of Hardy’s novels, Fancy has two other suitors, Frederic Shiner, a handsome, rich farmer and the local vicar Maybold.

Meanwhile, seeing fancy at the school’s band performance, young Dick falls in love with her at first sight. Smitten by love, he becomes desperate to involve himself in her life and gain her affection. Dick throws his annual party on the afternoon and evening of Christmas day and hopes to win her confidence.

However, when Fancy dances with Shiner, the rich farmer, Dick is heartbroken. Later, when Shiner escorts Fancy to her house after the party ends, the day loses all its charm for Dick. Using a handkerchief that Fancy left at his party, he finds the courage to call Fancy on one of the schooldays. Being a nervous and inexperienced lover, he simple mutters, “good day” and leaves.

It is not until spring that Dick can make any real progress in his affair with Fancy. By that time, he has become a hopeless shadowy figure. He does not talk to anyone of his love. but it is apparent to Fancy and everyone else that Dick has changed.

Before he can do anything, however, Maybold tells the choir that he wants Fancy, an accomplished organist, to replace their old and traditional gallery singing and accompaniment for Sunday services. The band tries to negotiate but eventually gives in to the vicar’s wishes.

Dick’ opportunity comes when he is allowed to help Fancy carry some of her things from her father’s home. Fancy lets him touch her hand and his spirits rise. Although he is aware that he might face threat from Shiner and Maybold, Dick, now desperate, writes a letter to Fancy asking her whether he really means anything to her.

When he receives no answer, Dick decides to visit her next Sunday. Incidentally, he meets Fancy before Sunday and while travelling home with her, he gathers the courage to propose. Fancy accepts his proposal and Dick is overjoyed.

The two get secretly engaged but cannot reveal it to everyone because Fancy’s father is opposed to the marriage. He expected Fancy to accept Shiner for a husband. Since the betrothal is a well-kept secret, some months later, Maybold ends up proposing Fancy. He promises her a life of affluence. Fancy too, though filled with guilt, accepts the proposal.

Next day, however, on a meeting with Dick by chance, he learns that Fancy is already engaged to him. Maybold writes Fancy a letter requesting her to be honest with Dick and withdrawing her commitment from him if she indeed liked Maybold.

On reconsideration and overcome with a conscience, Fancy withdraws her consent to marry Maybold. She also asks him to keep her initial acceptance a secret to everyone forever. Maybold, once again urges her to be honest with Dick.

Meanwhile, Fancy’s father also accepts her marriage with Dick, on discovering that she had stopped eating and was losing her health.

The final chapter of the book celebrates Dick and Fancy’s wedding with all the characters from Mellstock. The ending becomes a joyful comedy when, Dick, as an assurance of their love tell Fancy that they shall forever have strong confidence of each other and never bear any secret. “None at all.”

Fancy replies to him, “None from to-day” and changing the subject, wonders of a secret “she should never tell.”

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy

What is the central idea of Under the Greenwood Tree?

Although Under the Greenwood Tree is essentially a romantic novel, the rural setting and portrayal of social life also plays an important role. The portrayal of the church choir is also significant and Hardy carefully weaves the struggles of these band musicians in the plot, along with romantic upheavals of Dick and Fancy.

These musicians and sings of the parish choir are small tradesmen and workers. Hence, a beautiful picture of rustic social life presented. The musicians are threatened by vicar Maybold’s idea of introducing the harmonium in the band.

It is because the band members were used to accompaniments involving the co-operation of a group of people, and harmonium is played by a single musician only. Socially cohesive practices are what they identify themselves with. The threatening of these practices threatens their identity.

Hardy, therefore, makes a point against machine – age devices and instruments; things that replaced community practices, and in turn, replaced workers and artisans with cheap labour. It was thus, a subtle cry against industrialization.

Novel Analysis

Hardy always presented the rural and traditional practices of his time, and how they were swept away by the arrival of new forms of production, ownership and transportation. His novels create a record of these pastoral traditions and their effects on the rural economy.

He was also extremely conscious of the class struggle of the poor workers and peasants and the oppression they faced at the hands of feudal lords. Hardy skillfully blends two parallel themes in his novel – a romantic tale of two young lovers and the struggle of the band members for their dignity.

Class difference plays a role in the romantic plot of the novel too. Geoffrey Day, Fancy’s father is opposed to her marriage with Dick because of his class expectation and education. Fancy is the daughter of Geoffrey’s first marriage to a wealthy and well-educated woman. She had also been sent to the best school – which is why she is qualified enough to be a school teacher.

He was, therefore, hoping to get a well – educated middle-class husband for his daughter. The expectation of dowry also prevailed silently through this attitude. Dick Dewey, on the contrary, is only a simple man with a horse and a cart haulage business.

Under the Greenwood Tree also introduces Hardy’s famous Wessex district as the fictional location where he would set all his major works in. The characters of the novel are naive, friendly and innocent people, variations of whom appear in Hardy’s later works.

Under the Greenwood Tree review

Although it is not considered among his best works, Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is an all-time favourite for Hardy lovers. One of the reasons for this might be that the overall tone of the novel is optimistic. The scenes of the novels are cheerful and the colourful, friendly characters of the book are endearing.

One of the difficult slots that Hardy inserts in this book is his usage of rural vernacular. At times it becomes impenetrable for the readers to understand what the characters speak. It might, therefore, take some time for the reader to pick up the pace while reading the book.

Hardy’s uses of metaphors in his novels are always subtle yet clearly demonstrated. Under the Greenwood Tree is no exception. The metaphor of the harmonium, as well as Fancy Day alone replacing the string accompaniment, signifies the new age where individuals replace group activity.

Like the song from As You Like It, the novel also invites the readers to retreat to the pastoral life and live a happy and carefree life, like those of the Duke and his men. Except, Hardy carefully construes the message with irony because the people in the village and the woods are not really devoid of care or tension and Hardy tells us what these tensions are, without damaging the romantic tone.

A poster from the film adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree
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