Last year Sarah of A Rat in the Book Pile joined with me in a two-person discussion of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. A fine time was had by both us. Now we are beginning a similar dialog about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Here is the first of our planned posts.
The novel is divided into phases, with reference to which, for our purposes, it is roughly divisible into four convenient parts.
Phase I and Phase II
Phase I introduces Tess, a country lass and, in the technical sense of the word, maiden. In the course of this fast-moving first phase Tess is shipped out to the D’Urbevilles by her parents who see a chance to advance the causes of their family by prostituting their daughter. (This is my interpretation of Hardy’s meaning, and it may be a point with which to take issue.) Machinations abound on both sides, but while the Durbeyfields (senior) seek to play their cards to advantage Alec D’Urberville is not playing by the rules, and Tess will come to grief in a manner which her parents, with a more realistic assessment of their daughter’s character, might have predicted.
It’s fascinating, through the end notes, to contrast this, the 1912 version of Tess, with the original serialisation which was published in Victorian times. In the original Hardy was obliged to have Tess take part in a fake marriage ceremony in which she was genuinely deceived, and by this means he might ‘legitimately’ refer obliquely to a pregnancy. The updated account of the congress between Tess and Alec, and Tess’ subsequent reflections on the matter are somewhat ambivalent. I wondered, Nancy, how you read this section, both in terms of what Hardy intends to convey, and with reference to his thematic concerns?
My edition is Penguin 2001, with several prefaces by Hardy. The last of these is dated 1912 and uses the expression”the present edition”. Nowhere do I see anything about a fake marriage ceremony. This makes a big difference in my assessment of Tess’ willingness to have the relations with Alec which lead to her pregnancy. As I read the situation, Tess was conflicted about her feelings for Alex, but it was not a rape. When she returns home she says to him:
If I had gone for love o’ you, if I had ever sincerely loved you, if I loved you still, I should not so loathe and hate myself for my weakness as I do now! … My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.
Tess’ criticism of herself is not for having had relations outside of marriage, but for doing it without true love, as a temporary weakness.
The parents of Tess did not consider it prostituting their daughter when they followed the standard practice at the time to seek an “establishment” for an unmarried daughter, especially if she is attractive. It was a practical solution when the family had not much money and because so little satisfactory employment was available. Actually, the middle and upper classes did it too, seeking family security and advancement (see Trollope). It is hard to criticize the humble folk for having the same aspirations.
I was impressed by Hardy’s ambition. In the times he was writing for it would have been much harder to get people on side with a ‘fallen woman’ as opposed to the exploited victim (which he was pretty much forced to do initially.) He treads a very fine line. Tess is not devolved of all responsibility and Alec has redeeming features.
I still struggle to have much sympathy with the behaviour of Tess’ mother. She hints that Tess can manoeuvre Alec if she uses sex as a tool, although I admit that she is not judgemental when this backfires. I agree with you that comely daughters were certainly commodities, I will be interested to see if Hardy takes a stand on this point.
In this first section Hardy exhibits all the traits which make him one of my favourite authors. Compassion and empathy and description. His retelling of the “woman’s club-walking,” which is a pretext for May Day dancing works on a variety of levels, not least the most obvious one; Hardy’s ability to recreate in gorgeous detail the bucolic, as applied to both the locale and the people.
I love this description of the women’s attire:
Their first exhibition of themselves was in a processional march of two and two round the parish. Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a blueish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style.
It underscores one of Hardy’s themes in this novel. Subtitled A Pure Woman, the novel strips Tess of ‘purity,’ almost from the outset, so we may infer that Hardy means to redefine ‘purity’ beyond the narrow Victorian purview. Another, not unrelated, concern of Hardy’s is with societal structure and convention and authority. Is it pertinent that the novel begins not with Tess but with her father and the parson?
I love the scene with the parson and old Durbeyfield’s discovery that he is the true descendant of an ancient and honorable family. Later, when we meet the current D’Urbervilles we meet a family which is neither ancient nor honorable and has the use of the name under false pretenses. Alex performs a double deception, not letting his mother know that Tess is a D’Urberville and not letting Tess know that he is not. Without that opening scene these later discoveries would not have had such impact. Also, the parson’s address of “Good night, Sir John” is ironic, but is taken entirely seriously by old Durbeyfield. The theme of truth and falsity, the genuine and the fake is strong in my reading up to this point.
The contrast between the true D’Urberville and the fake is quite complex, though. When Alec lies with Tess there is a passage about the D’Urbervilles of old doing the same, and less gently, as they return from valiant acts of courage. Hardy seems to hint at a cruel poetic justice.
I suspect that Hardy will turn out to have a problem with the parson and religion. The association of the parson with a social construct of no practical application may not be trivial.
Phase II is entitled Maiden no More and in this shorter and less dramatic episode, an almost soft focus account of Tess’ subsequent travails details her ignominious return, her pregnancy, motherhood, the loss of her child and an assault on her Christian faith.
A surprising aspect of this section is the almost casual acceptance by all of Tess’ plight. Do you think Hardy deliberately ratchets down the tension here? If so, how is he progressing his moral argument in this section?
I also noted a change in tone in this section. The ultimate disgrace has taken place, but everyone is moderately calm about it. As her mother says, “‘Tis nater, after all; and what do please God.” Tess’ father is a little more severe, but then he is the last of the D’Urbervilles. Most of the grief is felt by Tess, and this must be Hardy’s intention. I compare this with a standard Victorian plot where the pure but naive young woman is betrayed by her true love for a false man. Tess did not have a true love for the false man. Perhaps the drop in tension is to let the reader see that Tess judges herself more harshly than others do. Tess believes that she betrayed herself and was not a victim or her finer feelings but of weakness.
Thank you Nancy. Your final paragraph is a fine summary of the plot so far.