Under the Greenwood Tree: Essay Questions
1. Give an explanation of the title and outline the main narrative.
Under the Greenwood Tree is the main title of the novel and that of the final chapter too. It is taken from a line of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and belongs to a song of a rural, bucolic idyll in which the following lines are included: ‘Who doth ambition shun // And loves to live i’ th’ sun’. This work similarly looks to a time in the past with nostalgia at the passing of this time and the reference to a Shakespeare play entails that this becomes entwined with the myth of bygone, pastoral period.
To be more specific, the main narrative looks to the courtship between Dick and Fancy and the passing of the Mellstock choir and reiterates gently but persistently that the customs of this area are being overtaken gradually by new technology, independent women and the steady embrace of modernity. The displacement of the choir by Fancy and the organ epitomize this change in customs.
2. Consider the characterization of Fancy and describe and analyze how women are portrayed here.
In keeping with the relatively good-humored tone of this work, relative that is in comparison with other later Hardy novels, Fancy is depicted as coquettish but essentially manageable and independent while dependent on the compliments of others. She is often seen to be overly concerned with her appearance, and therefore the insinuation is that she is vain, and at the same time this is drawn as a typical trait of her sex. Because of the teasing quality of her characterization, though, it is possible to see this portrayal as comic and ironic while simultaneously offering a criticism of her desire for material comfort.
Her marriage to Dick is the happy ending of the narrative and for this to happen, and to be dramatic, they first overcome the obstacles of romantic love. The proposal by the vicar is one of these said obstacles and Fancy’s final resistance to him reminds the readers of her weakness – possibly as a representative of Eve – and of her conclusive preference for Dick.
3. Examine the differentiation in classes and how these are depicted in the novel.
Fancy and Dick may be understood as representing two different positions in the class system, as their education and professions testify. As her father argues when Dick first asks for his permission to marry her, he is below her in the class hierarchy and is surprised that he thinks he is worthy of her. Money, education and privilege have been allotted to Fancy and for this reason she is understood to be of greater value than her intended. This class difference is, however, one of the obstacles in the path of their romantic love and must be overcome for them to be able to come together.
Fancy has been tutored in an education that has afforded her more status than Dick’s work has afforded him, but united they are seen to be emblems of the capitalist modern future as Dick hopes to expand his business and has cards printed to help advertise his availability.
4. Discuss the role of marriage.
Marriage is central to this novel and not simply because of the growing relationship between Dick and Fancy. The relationship between Dick’s parents, for example, is drawn as both close but less passionate than the unmarried Dick is capable of understanding. Through Dick’s youthful and inexperienced vision, the reader is led to see marriage as a changing state that shifts from passionate to comfortable as time passes. Whichever state it takes, it is typical and unquestioned and is an inevitable stage of life in this pastoral world.
By not examining marriage too closely, the novel avoids being more than light-hearted on the relationships between the sexes. Nevertheless, there is an element of antagonism, between men and women, which is touched upon regularly. This is most notable when the girls from Fancy’s school unite and drown out the choir, which leads the men to feel threatened by the unity of women.
5. Give an analysis of the concept of progress and consider how this subject is broached here.
Nostalgia for time passed is inherent here as a bygone mythical period is mourned. This occurs when the notion of progress is seen to take precedent gradually. When Fancy agrees to play the organ in church and thus replace the choir, the past is once more relegated while the future is allowed to flourish. It is significant to note that the loss depicted is the loss of a pastoral idyll that has no claims to being realistic or representative of truth.
Saying that, the replacement of tradition with technology and the shift towards a more capitalist driven society is marked here and for this the novel is timely in its criticism of the idea of a progress without ethics.