#26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

By dancingintheraine

December 25, 2011

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, also known as Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman, Tess of the d’Urbervilles or just Tess, is a novel by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1891. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, like the other major works by Thomas Hardy, although technically a nineteenth century work, anticipates the twentieth century in regard to the nature and treatment of its subject matter. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was the twelfth novel published by Thomas Hardy.  Although Hardy only added the novel’s subtitle, ‘A Pure Woman‘ at the last minute in one of the later editions, various changes in the text suggest he had been changing his emphasis to bring out Tess’s purity.  Early critics attacked Hardy for the novel’s subtitle, “A Pure Woman,” arguing that Tess could not possibly be considered pure. It is Hardy’s penultimate novel, followed by Jude the Obscure.

He began the novel in 1889, but, in spite of his reputation, Hardy had difficulty finding a periodical willing to publish the book when he offered it for serialization to London’s leading reviews. The subject matter—a milkmaid who is seduced by the son of her employer and who thus is not considered a pure and chaste woman by the rest of society, then married and rejected by another, and who eventually murders the first one—was considered unfit for publications which young people might read.  The novel questions society’s sexual mores through this compassionate portrayed heroine.  It was rejected by several periodicals from July to December.  To appease potential publishers, Hardy took the novel apart, rewrote some scenes and added others. In due course, a publisher was secured.  It initially appeared in a censored and serialized version, published by the British illustrated newspaper, The Graphic, in December.  When it came time to publish the novel in book form, Hardy reassembled it as it was originally conceived.  Though now considered an important work of English literature, the book received mixed reviews when it first appeared, in part because it challenged the sexual mores of Hardy’s day.  They denounced his frank—for the time—depiction of sex, criticism of organized religion, and dark pessimism.   Although it is now considered a major work of fiction, the poor reception of Tess and Jude the Obscure precipitated Thomas Hardy’s transition from writing fiction to poetry. Nevertheless, the novel was commercially successful and assured Hardy’s financial security.  Today, the novel is praised as a courageous call for righting many of the ills Hardy found in Victorian society and as a link between the late-Victorian literature of the end of the nineteenth century and that of the modern era.  The original manuscript is on display at the British Library, showing that it was originally titled “Daughter of the d’Urbervilles.”

When Tess of the d’Urbervilles appeared in 1891, Thomas Hardy was one of England’s leading men of letters. He had already authored several well-known novels, including The Return of the Native, and numerous short stories. Tess brought him notoriety—it was considered quite scandalous—and fortune. Despite this success, the novel was one of Hardy’s last. He was deeply wounded by some of the particularly personal attacks he received from reviewers of the book. In 1892, he wrote in one of his notebooks, quoted in The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928, compiled by Florence Emily Hardy, “Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.” 

Tess of the d’Urbervilles deals with several significant contemporary subjects for Hardy, including the struggles of religious belief that occurred during Hardy’s lifetime. Hardy was largely influenced by the Oxford movement, a spiritual movement involving extremely devout thinking and actions. Hardy’s family members were primarily orthodox Christians and Hardy himself considered entering the clergy, as did many of his relatives. Yet Hardy eventually abandoned his devout faith in God based on the scientific advances of his contemporaries, including most prominently Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Hardy’s own religious experiences can thus be seen in the character of Angel Clare, who resists the conservative religious beliefs of his parents to take a more religious and secular view of philosophy.

The novel also reflects Hardy’s preoccupation with social class that continues through his novels. Hardy had connections to both the working and the upper class, but felt that he belonged to neither. This is reflected in the pessimism contained in Tess of the d’Urbervilles toward the chances for Tess to ascend in society and Angel’s precarious position as neither a member of the upper class nor a working person equivalent to his fellow milkers at Talbothays. Again, like Angel Clare, Thomas Hardy found himself torn between different social spheres with which he could not fully align himself. Tess of the d’Urbervilles reflects that divide.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents complex pictures of both the importance of social class in nineteenth-century England and the difficulty of defining class in any simple way. Certainly the Durbeyfields are a powerful emblem of the way in which class is no longer evaluated in Victorian times as it would have been in the Middle Ages—that is, by blood alone, with no attention paid to fortune or worldly success. Indubitably the Durbeyfields have purity of blood, yet for the parson and nearly everyone else in the novel, this fact amounts to nothing more than a piece of genealogical trivia. In the Victorian context, cash matters more than lineage, which explains how Simon Stokes, Alec’s father, was smoothly able to use his large fortune to purchase a lustrous family name and transform his clan into the Stoke-d’Urbervilles. The d’Urbervilles pass for what the Durbeyfields truly are—authentic nobility—simply because definitions of class have changed. The issue of class confusion even affects the Clare clan, whose most promising son, Angel, is intent on becoming a farmer and marrying a milkmaid, thus bypassing the traditional privileges of a Cambridge education and a parsonage. His willingness to work side by side with the farm laborers helps endear him to Tess, and their acquaintance would not have been possible if he were a more traditional and elitist aristocrat. Thus, the three main characters in the Angel-Tess-Alec triangle are all strongly marked by confusion regarding their respective social classes, an issue that is one of the main concerns of the novel.

Hardy’s writing often illustrates the “ache of modernism”, and this theme is notable in Tess, which, as one critic noted, portrays “the energy of traditional ways and the strength of the forces that are destroying them”. Hardy describes modern farm machinery with infernal imagery; also, at the dairy, he notes that the milk sent to the city must be watered down because the townspeople cannot stomach whole milk. Angel’s middle-class fastidiousness makes him reject Tess, a woman whom Hardy often portrays as a sort of Wessex Eve, in harmony with the natural world. When he parts from her and goes to Brazil, the handsome young man gets so sick that he is reduced to a “mere yellow skeleton.” All these instances are typically interpreted as indications of the negative consequences of man’s separation from nature, both in the creation of destructive machinery and in the inability to rejoice in pure nature.

The society of Tess of the d’Urbervilles is basically focused on the rural workers in farm and village. Within the novel, towns exist only very peripherally, while the middle-class and gentry hardly impinge, except for the male protagonists who are themselves uprooted from their normal community.  This rural community is the one in which Hardy grew up, and with which he continued to associate himself, though his portrayal of the rural workers is much less optimistic than in earlier novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd. Echoing the real economic constraints of the 1890s, Hardy depicts agricultural laborers primarily in a grave position of loss:  losing power and control over their own lives, losing stability and security, and losing community and common land.  Traditionally, in the days before the Enclosure Acts (the majority enacted by Parliament between 1750 and 1830), those living on the land had had access to common land, from which they could support themselves. They may have owed labor to landlords etc., but there was some degree of permanence and independence in many of their lives (see Agricultural and social conditions).

With drastic changes in farming methods and because of the rural depression at the beginning of the nineteenth century, much of this common land was lost. Dorset was one of the worst hit of the English counties. Workers usually owned little beyond a yard and a site on an allotment on which to grow food (Ch 50). They were employed by farmers, and their contracts were often only for a year or even quarter year.  ‘Hiring fairs’, where laborers would present themselves for employment, became very significant, but such workers were very much at the mercy of the farmers and the economic conditions.  There was little social welfare, only a harshly administered Poor Law (enacted 1834) that often broke families up.  All this Hardy shows us, especially in the latter half of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The workers at Flintcombe-Ash present themselves at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas (Ch 46), in readiness for Old Lady Day, from which is when new contracts were dated (Ch 51, 52).  The growth of the tied cottage system, when accommodation went with a job, also made life for rural workers less secure. Once the job was lost, then the cottage was too, causing further impermanence and loss of control (Ch 38).

Unfairness dominates the lives of Tess and her family to such an extent that it begins to seem like a general aspect of human existence in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Tess does not mean to kill Prince, but she is punished anyway, just as she is unfairly punished for her own rape by Alec. Nor is there justice waiting in heaven. Christianity teaches that there is compensation in the afterlife for unhappiness suffered in this life, but the only devout Christian encountered in the novel may be the reverend, Mr. Clare, who seems more or less content in his life anyway. For others in their misery, Christianity offers little solace of heavenly justice. Mrs. Durbeyfield never mentions otherworldly rewards. The converted Alec preaches heavenly justice for earthly sinners, but his faith seems shallow and insincere. Generally, the moral atmosphere of the novel is not Christian justice at all, but pagan injustice. The forces that rule human life are absolutely unpredictable and not necessarily well-disposed to us. The pre-Christian rituals practiced by the farm workers at the opening of the novel, and Tess’s final rest at Stonehenge at the end, remind us of a world where the gods are not just and fair, but whimsical and uncaring. When the narrator concludes the novel with the statement that “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,” we are reminded that justice must be put in ironic quotation marks, since it is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game.

One of the recurrent themes of the novel is the way in which men can dominate women, exerting a power over them linked primarily to their maleness. Sometimes this command is purposeful, in the man’s full knowledge of his exploitation, as when Alec acknowledges how bad he is for seducing Tess for his own momentary pleasure. Alec’s act of abuse, the most life-altering event that Tess experiences in the novel, is clearly the most serious instance of male domination over a female. But there are other, less blatant examples of women’s passivity toward dominant men. When, after Angel reveals that he prefers Tess, Tess’s friend Retty attempts suicide and her friend Marian becomes an alcoholic, which makes their earlier schoolgirl-type crushes on Angel seem disturbing. This devotion is not merely fanciful love, but unhealthy obsession. These girls appear utterly dominated by a desire for a man who, we are told explicitly, does not even realize that they are interested in him. This sort of unconscious male domination of women is perhaps even more unsettling than Alec’s outward and self-conscious cruelty.

Even Angel’s love for Tess, as pure and gentle as it seems, dominates her in an unhealthy way. Angel substitutes an idealized picture of Tess’s country purity for the real-life woman that he continually refuses to get to know. When Angel calls Tess names like “Daughter of Nature” and “Artemis,” we feel that he may be denying her true self in favor of a mental image that he prefers. Thus, her identity and experiences are suppressed, albeit unknowingly. This pattern of male domination is finally reversed with Tess’s murder of Alec, in which, for the first time in the novel, a woman takes active steps against a man. Of course, this act only leads to even greater suppression of a woman by men, when the crowd of male police officers arrest Tess at Stonehenge. Nevertheless, for just a moment, the accepted pattern of submissive women bowing to dominant men is interrupted, and Tess’s act seems heroic.

Another important theme of the novel is the sexual double standard to which Tess falls victim; despite being, in Hardy’s view, a truly good woman, she is despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage. Hardy plays the role of Tess’s only true friend and advocate, pointedly subtitling the book “a pure woman faithfully presented” and prefacing it with Shakespeare’s words from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed/ Shall lodge thee.” However, although Hardy clearly means to criticize Victorian notions of female purity, the double standard also makes the heroine’s tragedy possible, and thus serves as a mechanism of Tess’s broader fate. Hardy variously hints that Tess must suffer either to atone for the misdeeds of her ancestors, or to provide temporary amusement for the gods, or because she possesses some small but lethal character flaw inherited from the ancient clan.

From numerous pagan and neo-Biblical references made about her, Tess has been viewed variously as an Earth goddess or as a sacrificial victim.  Early in the novel, she participates in a festival for Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, and when she performs a baptism she chooses a passage from Genesis, the book of creation, over more traditional New Testament verses. At the end, when Tess and Angel come to Stonehenge, commonly believed in Hardy’s time to be a pagan temple, she willingly lies down on an altar, thus fulfilling her destiny as a human sacrifice.

This symbolism may help explain Tess as a personification of nature — lovely, fecund, and exploitable — while animal imagery throughout the novel strengthens the association. Examples are numerous: Tess’s misfortunes begin when she falls asleep while driving Prince to market, thus causing the horse’s death; at Trantridge, she becomes a poultry-keeper; she and Angel fall in love amid cows in the fertile Froom valley; and on the road to Flintcombe-Ashe, she kills some wounded pheasants to end their suffering. In any event, Tess emerges as a character not because of this symbolism but because “Hardy’s feelings for Tess were strong, perhaps stronger than for any of his other invented personages.”

Images of birds recur throughout the novel, evoking or contradicting their traditional spiritual association with a higher realm of transcendence. Both the Christian dove of peace and the Romantic songbirds of Keats and Shelley, which symbolize sublime heights, lead us to expect that birds will have positive meaning in this novel. Tess occasionally hears birdcalls on her frequent hikes across the countryside; their free expressiveness stands in stark contrast to Tess’s silent and constrained existence as a wronged and disgraced girl. When Tess goes to work for Mrs. d’Urberville, she is surprised to find that the old woman’s pet finches are frequently released to fly free throughout the room. These birds offer images of hope and liberation. Yet there is irony attached to birds as well, making us doubt whether these images of hope and freedom are illusory. Mrs. d’Urberville’s birds leave little white spots on the upholstery, which presumably some servant—perhaps Tess herself—will have to clean. It may be that freedom for one creature entails hardship for another, just as Alec’s free enjoyment of Tess’s body leads her to a lifetime of suffering. In the end, when Tess encounters the pheasants maimed by hunters and lying in agony, birds no longer seem free, but rather oppressed and submissive. These pheasants are no Romantic songbirds hovering far above the Earth—they are victims of earthly violence, condemned to suffer down below and never fly again.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is evoked repeatedly throughout Tess of the d’Urbervilles, giving the novel a broader metaphysical and philosophical dimension. The roles of Eve and the serpent in paradise are clearly delineated: Angel is the noble Adam newly born, while Tess is the indecisive and troubled Eve. When Tess gazes upon Angel in chapter 27, “she regarded him as Eve at her second waking might have regarded Adam.”Alec, with his open avowal that he is bad to the bone, is the conniving Satan. He seduces Tess under a tree, giving her sexual knowledge in return for her lost innocence. The very name of the forest where this seduction occurs, the Chase, suggests how Eve will be chased from Eden for her sins. This guilt, which will never be erased, is known in Christian theology as the original sin that all humans have inherited. Just as John Durbeyfield is told in Chapter I that “you don’t live anywhere,”and his family is evicted after his death at the end of the novel, their homelessness evokes the human exile from Eden. Original sin suggests that humans have fallen from their once great status to a lower station in life, just as the d’Urbervilles have devolved into the modern Durbeyfields. This Story of the Fall—or of the “Pure Drop,”to recall the name of a pub in Tess’s home village—is much more than a social fall. It is an explanation of how all of us humans—not only Tess—never quite seem to live up to our expectations, and are never able to inhabit the places of grandeur we feel we deserve.

The transformation of the d’Urbervilles into the Durbeyfields is one example of the common phenomenon of renaming, or variant naming, in the novel. Names matter in this novel. Tess knows and accepts that she is a lowly Durbeyfield, but part of her still believes, as her parents also believe, that her aristocratic original name should be restored. John Durbeyfield goes a step further than Tess, and actually renames himself Sir John, as his tombstone epitaph shows. Another character who renames himself is Simon Stokes, Angel’s father, who purchased a family tree and made himself Simon Stoke-d’Urberville. The question raised by all these cases of name changing, whether successful or merely imagined, is the extent to which an altered name brings with it an altered identity. Alec acts notoriously ungentlemanly throughout the novel, but by the end, when he appears at the d’Urberville family vault, his lordly and commanding bearing make him seem almost deserving of the name his father has bought, like a spoiled medieval nobleman. Hardy’s interest in name changes makes reality itself seem changeable according to whims of human perspective. The village of Blakemore, as we are reminded twice in chapters 1 and 2, is also known as Blackmoor, and indeed Hardy famously renames the southern English countryside as “Wessex.” He imposes a fictional map on a real place, with names altered correspondingly. Reality may not be as solid as the names people confer upon it.

When Tess dozes off in the wagon and loses control, the resulting death of the Durbeyfield horse, Prince, spurs Tess to seek aid from the d’Urbervilles, setting the events of the novel in motion. The horse’s demise is thus a powerful plot motivator, and its name a potent symbol of Tess’s own claims to aristocracy. Like the horse, Tess herself bears a high-class name, but is doomed to a lowly life of physical labor. Interestingly, Prince’s death occurs right after Tess dreams of ancient knights, having just heard the news that her family is aristocratic. Moreover, the horse is pierced by the forward-jutting piece of metal on a mail coach, which is reminiscent of a wound one might receive in a medieval joust. In an odd way, Tess’s dream of medieval glory comes true, and her horse dies a heroic death. Yet her dream of meeting a prince while she kills her own Prince, and with him her family’s only means of financial sustenance, is a tragic foreshadowing of her own story. The death of the horse symbolizes the sacrifice of real-world goods, such as a useful animal or even her own honor, through excessive fantasizing about a better world.

A double-edged symbol of both the majestic grandeur and the lifeless hollowness of the aristocratic family name that the Durbeyfields learn they possess, the d’Urberville family vault represents both the glory of life and the end of life. Since Tess herself moves from passivity to active murder by the end of the novel, attaining a kind of personal grandeur even as she brings death to others and to herself, the double symbolism of the vault makes it a powerful site for the culminating meeting between Alec and Tess. Alec brings Tess both his lofty name and, indirectly, her own death later; it is natural that he meets her in the vault in d’Urberville Aisle, where she reads her own name inscribed in stone and feels the presence of death. Yet the vault that sounds so glamorous when rhapsodized over by John Durbeyfield in chapter 1 seems, by the end, strangely hollow and meaningless. When Alec stomps on the floor of the vault, it produces only a hollow echo, as if its basic emptiness is a complement to its visual grandeur. When Tess is executed, her ancestors are said to snooze on in their crypts, as if uncaring even about the fate of a member of their own majestic family. Perhaps the secret of the family crypt is that its grandiosity is ultimately meaningless.

Rather surprising for a novel that seems set so solidly in rural England, the narration shifts very briefly to Brazil when Angel takes leave of Tess and heads off to establish a career in farming. Even more exotic for a Victorian English reader than America or Australia, Brazil is the country in which Robinson Crusoe made his fortune and it seems to promise a better life far from the humdrum familiar world. Brazil is thus more than a geographical entity on the map in this novel: it symbolizes a fantasyland, a place where dreams come true. As Angel’s name suggests, he is a lofty visionary who lacks some experience with the real world, despite all his mechanical know-how in farm management. He may be able to milk cows, but he does not yet know how to tell the difference between an exotic dream and an everyday reality, so inevitably his experience in the imagined dream world of Brazil is a disaster that he barely survives. His fiasco teaches him that ideals do not exist in life, and this lesson helps him reevaluate his disappointment with Tess’s imperfections, her failure to incarnate the ideal he expected her to be. For Angel, Brazil symbolizes the impossibility of ideals, but also forgiveness and acceptance of life in spite of those disappointed ideals.

When Tess of the d’Urbervilles was first published in 1891, there was a huge debate about whether Hardy should have described Tess as pure. According to conventional Victorian morality (based on the teachings of the church) no one who had engaged in pre-marital sex could be described as ‘pure’. Rather they were to be seen as ‘fallen’ into sexual sin – mistresses and prostitutes were commonly described as ‘fallen women’ and shunned by polite society (although their male partners were not!).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, readers are more likely to be troubled by Tess’s murder of Alec, rather than her sexual experiences. It would seem an act of gratuitous violence. Why could she not just walk out on him?  Only by reading the novel in Hardy’s terms, rather than their own, can one appreciate that there is a deeper level on which to discuss the issue, involving intentions, desires and human endurance. This is where the universality of the novel lies. This contextual awareness is also necessary in order to understand Hardy’s masculine construction of femininity in general and female sexuality in particular.  He sets the stage early when Angel tells her if Alec were to die…

Hardy establishes Tess’s purity in a number of ways.  The first was through omission.  Hardy does not actually provide the details of the worst things that happened to Tess.  In fact, her violation by Alec in Ch. 11 was not quite understood by me to be an actual rape until doing research into metaphorical analysis.  Hardy does not quite go into much detail regarding the period of living with Alec immediately afterwards in Ch. 12.  Quite vague is the letter holding Tess’s confession to Angel before they marry in Ch. 33.  Nor does he quite go into much detail during her confession to Angel face to face on their wedding night in Ch. 34.  Again, vagueness prevails during her arguments against Christianity that help cause Alec to lose his faith and how she was persuaded to live with Alec again, and, ultimately, the act of murdering Alec.  It might seem that Hardy was bound by convention not to be explicit, but it is much more probable he used these limitations to exploit ambiguity. This is a much more modern way of writing, forcing the reader to reconstruct events and then challenging this reconstruction. It also spares us the grisly details, so that a more idealized vision of Tess may be maintained.

In revising the text, Hardy makes the men seem worse by bringing out the flaws of Alec and Angel.  An element of force is added to Alec’s seduction to make it seem as though it could have been rape (in the initial serialization, Alec involved her in a bogus marriage).  His conversion was made to seem more superficial by not only his willingness to drop it so rapidly, but by the foreshadowing of Angel of his opinion of Alec upon the mention of his father’s interaction with the before mentioned character.  I must admit that I became very disenchanted with Angel after he rejected Tess after she forgave his indiscretions when his hypocrisy is so emphasized.  It is my opinion, however, that the potential difficulty of making the men more evil is to make Tess seem more a victim rather than establishing her purity.  Hardy does not deny Tess has weaknesses, but when Tess blames herself excessively, the reader tends to defend her against herself, as she shoulders the blame for not only Prince’s death in Ch.4, but also for feeling condemned by the sign-writer in Ch. 12.  Hardy places further emphasis on her self-condemnation as he brings increased attention to her feelings of guilt in Ch. 13. 

Hardy creates a number of dramatic situations which symbolically reinforce Tess’s innocence over her victimhood.  The length to which she sought the baptism for her dying baby in Ch. 14, her endurance of Angel’s sleepwalking and her own burial in Ch. 37, her acceptance of her purgatorial sufferings at Flintcombe-Ash in chapters 42 and 43, the reveling in her idyllic stay with Angel in the New Forest in Ch. 57, and her ultimate final self-sacrifice at Stonehenge in Ch. 58 are but a few of the more memorable displays of her innocence, her purity.  In terms of symbolic color imagery, Hardy associates Tess with images and descriptions of white in particular, though the presence of red increasingly haunts her.

Direct comments about Tess’s virtue are made either by Hardy as narrator or other characters.  For example, chapter 36 contains Angel’s assertions to his mother supported with Hardy’s comments, and chapter 40 voiced Izz’s confession of Tess’s love for Angel during their carriage ride to the station.  So often, Tess’s virtues are emphasized throughout the book, with multiple chapters harboring Tess’s sense of responsibility for her hapless family.  In chapter 22, as the reader witnesses her attempts to evade a union with Clare, she attempts to commend the other girls to Angel.  Several times we witness her patient acceptance of Angel’s judgment linked to her loyalty, resignation and renunciation, all of which are regarded as female virtues by the Victorians.  Even her refusal to pity herself in chapter 41 can be viewed as a virtue.  

Hardy does not deny Tess has weaknesses, but when Tess blames herself excessively, the reader tends to defend her against herself, as she shoulders the blame for not only Prince’s death in Ch.4, but also for feeling condemned by the sign-writer in Ch. 12.  Hardy places further emphasis on her self-condemnation as he brings increased attention to her feelings of guilt in Ch. 13. 

Some religions operate around the system of sacrificing either an animal or human victim, either to appease the gods worshipped or to gain some benefit. Such sacrifices usually have to be physically or morally spotless, and on them are laid the wrongdoing or sin of the whole community which they then ‘pay for’ with their lives.  People who have died, though guiltless of any crime and usually against their will are often referred to as ‘innocent victims’.  However, in the Christian faith, Jesus Christ is seen as the ultimate, willing sacrifice, choosing death rather than being forced into it. (For an account of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection, see Luke 22:47-71, Luke 23:1-56 and Luke 24:1-12).  How Hardy means Tess to be regarded is somewhat conflicting.  There are contrasting views.  On one hand, he expresses that Tess is merely a tragic victim. Tess passively accepts her fate in chapters 7 and 8 when she allows her needs to be sacrificed for the sake of her family, just like she passively accepts Angel’s judgment of her in chapters 35 and 36 as the “laying on” of sin.  We, as the reader, feel that Tess is the victim of Alec’s ruthless pursuit in Ch. 47.    She is subject to the forces of convention and prejudice in society working against her.  She dies on an altar at Stonehenge, where previously victims of Sun worship may have been sacrificed.  And in the end, Hardy suggests “The President of the Immortals” is also against her.

But on the other hand, Hardy shows that Tess is not merely a tragic victim.  She does make choices.  She chooses to go with Alec, and she delays in confessing to Angel.  It is a possibility that Tess’s fatal flaw is an “acquiescence in chance” for being the reason that she is not “spotless”, as displayed in Ch. 37.  She is not portrayed as a one-dimensional victim, but as a complex individual who undergoes a process of suffering and punishment, which ultimately refines and develops her character. 

Perhaps Tess can be viewed as a representative of a powerless group.  Historicist and Marxist interpretations make Tess a type or example of social groups that were being victimized at the time of writing.  Thus, Tess could be seen as typical of the rural working class which became more and more powerless as they lost the security of employment and housing.

To feminist interpretations, Tess typifies women in Victorian society in that she is the victim of not only Alec’s privileged predatory instincts and made an “object” of desire, but also that of Angel, by failing to uphold his unreal idealism of her.  She has no recourse against either.  It’s also suggested that at some deeper level, she could possibly claim to the victim of Hardy himself, who was determined to pursue her to death.

Hardy was always fascinated by women and seems to have had an intuitive understanding of them, despite his deteriorating relationship with his wife, Emma. His own relationship with his mother was very close. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, he demonstrates an awareness of female society and of how it functions.  Although men’s and women’s worlds are much the same among the working rural communities Tess inhabits, there are significant differences and inequalities to which Hardy draws our attention.  The club-walking (Ch 2) at the beginning of the novel, which forms our first introduction to Tess, is basically just for women, though its very existence is under threat and, elsewhere, it appears, women’s clubs have disappeared. The event seems a mixture of female ritual and social event, the wearing of white symbolizing innocence, virginity and purity. Men are allowed in at a later stage and then it could be seen as a courtship dance. Tess is certainly upset at not having Angel to dance with.

Tess works in the poultry house for Mrs d’Urberville (Ch 9). Working with poultry was typically woman’s work, but the idea of the cockerel and hens symbolically re-enacts Alec’s lordship over the women who surround him or who work on his estate. That said, the Trantridge community seems mixed in every other regard (Ch 10).  The harvesting of Ch 14 appears a communal event, yet the men and women have a degree of separation in approach, dress and specific jobs. This is reinforced in Ch 47, 48. Alec has a sense of Farmer Groby getting Tess to do ‘men’s work’ on the machine and protests about this. Groby, of course, is revenging himself on Tess and Tess is helpless to prevent it.  At Talbothays, the dairy work is equally divided between men and women and thus seems the perfectly balanced rural community (Ch 17). What Hardy fails to mention is that the men and the women would have been paid at different rates.  Hardy only briefly mentions middle-class women such as Mrs Clare and Mercy Chant. They would not have had access to many work opportunities. Grace Melbury in The Woodlanders is another example: she has little to do except wait for a husband, even though her father owns an agricultural business.

Tess has received a typical village school education, which was available equally to boys and girls up to the age of ten (raised to eleven in 1893) (Ch 3). Girls were offered their one escape from rural work and class, since the best students could continue their schooling, then train to be teachers, as Hardy’s two sisters did, one becoming a headmistress. Such an opportunity is there for Tess, but for her family’s inability to grasp the right opportunities. However, education has modified Tess’s rural dialect, and she would have had the opportunity to become a domestic servant because of this (Ch 41). This would have been worse paid than agricultural labor but was slightly more permanent and generally lighter work.  By contrast, the only education denied Angel is a university one. Both he and Alec would have had a male middle-class education, which would have fitted them for their status as gentlemen.

Hardy makes other significant comments about women, especially their psychology, in terms of powers of recuperation (Ch 16). Women have traditionally formed friendships in the face of suffering. Tess is part of a quartet of lovelorn dairymaids.  Their hopeless infatuation might seem melodramatic but it did a few things that must be mentioned.  It helps define the quality of Tess’s love, gives a context to her inner conflict, brings out her natural superiority to the other girls, and provides Tess with an opportunity for renunciation and demonstration of loyalty.  The four girls remain loyal to each other, even as they become individualized.  By contrast, the village girls of Marlott form no real support system for Tess and she soon becomes isolated from them (Ch 13).

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy establishes a theme of marginality in Tess through expression of the differences in her character and through her potential.  He shows that Tess differs not only from her family in terms of responsibility and guilt, but also from the villagers in terms of her ancestry, especially in her pride, even though she has friends there.  He shows that Tess is intelligent and has enough education to become a teacher.  She marries an educated member of the gentry, potentially a gentleman farmer.   She eventually slides into the position of the mistress of a wealthy man.  But despite that all these potentials are enough to set her apart from her companions, she is hindered from translating potential into reality.  She fails to enter a new social class.

I am drawn to the concepts of coincidence, fate and destiny in Hardy’s novels because they seem central to the way in which he makes his plots work. However, Hardy was not a systematic philosopher, so it is not helpful to try to extract a coherent ‘worldview’ from his use of these ideas.  Any novel has to use coincidence to some extent, whether it be to tie up a plot, resolve mysteries or secrets, to bring characters together, or even to create ironies and surprises.  Coincidences, of themselves, are neutral. It is how they affect the characters that matters. In fiction, any coincidence has to be made to work and to turn the plot in one direction or another.  Hardy’s coincidences may appear to be happy at the outset, but ironically they often turn out badly.  There is a necessity of coincidences with a limited cast.  Hardy has very few characters in Tess, dispersed over a period of five years and an area of some fifty miles by thirty miles. Realistically, the chances of three people meeting and re-meeting in such circumstances are very low, yet such a coincidence is never impossible. Given these parameters, it could be said that Hardy uses coincidence to the minimum in Tess. Only a few times do we find the coincidences a little far-fetched, for example the Darch girls turning up on the farm at Flintcombe-Ash. The one big coincidence is re-meeting Alec, as in Ch. 44 had it occur. But within the narrative arc, he is a past that has to be faced and resolved.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy says that ‘character is destiny’. George Eliot said a similar thing in Mill on the Floss, except she used the word ‘fate’- as does Alec in Ch 8. He claims that it was ‘my fate’ to have a vicious horse; it is clearly in his character to possess such an animal.  It could be said that it is Tess’s characteristic lack of resolve which makes ‘coincidences’ affect her so greatly, such as how easily she is discouraged from reaching Angel’s parents and is turned back by the coincidence of overhearing his brothers and Mercy (Ch 44).  The same argument could be applied to when she pushes the letter to Angel under the carpet. Could it be that, at some subconscious level, she did not want Angel to get the letter? She perhaps wanted it ‘brushed under the carpet’.  An ironic novelist such as Hardy exploits such alternative explanations but refuses to guide his readers. Thus, a tension between writer and reader is set up.    

‘Fate’ has a more impersonal connotation than ‘destiny’, and is usually perceived as a more hostile force. That is why, as the coincidences stack up against Tess, the reader perhaps feels there is some malevolent force against her. Hardy emphasizes this idea with his comment on Tess’s execution, that ‘the President of the Immortals … had ended his sport with Tess.’  Hardy uses various prefiguring devices, such as omens, to prepare us for such patterns of malevolence working through apparent coincidences (though this denies that there is a role for chance and coincidence!). At times, the character of Time itself seems to act as fate. Hardy writes:  ‘thus Time destroys its own Romances’ (Ch 49).


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