Phase the Third: The Rally
Nancy: When I was a child my maternal grandparents still had a farm in western Pennsylvania. We went there every summer, and my brothers and I helped with the cows and the milking. There was nothing mechanical about it; my grandmother sat on a stool by the cow, pressed her head into its flank, and pulled the teats with very strong hands.
With this background I became absorbed in the routines of the Wessex dairy at which Tess works as a milkmaid, hoping to distance herself from those who knew of her seduction and illegitimate child. It all seems so familiar. At dawn the cows are milked in the barton (barnyard) and then amble out to the mead (pasture or meadow). In the afternoon they are driven back (kids love to do this) and milked again. Meanwhile the milkmaids are skimming — lifting the cream which rises to the stop of the milk after it has been permitted to stand — and making cheese and butter.
Whether or not you were present at milking as a child, pay attention. We are in an agricultural world, in which people use the powers of nature to form their lives. The rhythm of the work day is dictated by the needs of the cows. Mutual accommodation between the animals and the people who tend them produces a comfortable living within a social structure where each knows his place. After her terrible experiences, Tess enters this world with hope.
Let the truth be told — women do as a rule live through such humiliations, and regain their spirits, and again look about them with an interested eye. While there’s life there’s hope is a conviction not so entirely unknown to the ‘betrayed’ as some amiable theorists would have us believe.
I find Tess’ optimism to be compatible with the environment Hardy so warmly portrays. Still, I find his statement tricky to interpret. Is it only women who regain their spirits? Why would “amiable theorists” believe that betrayed women can have no hope?
Sarah: I too enjoyed Hardy’s depiction of the dairy, although for me the magic is a new thing created, rather than a memory evoked. (Your childhood memories are wonderful, Nancy.) The earthy and detailed descriptions of animal husbandry suggest to me that Hardy is covertly emphasising the relation between his characters and biological functions, with reference to the “nature” with which humanity found itself reunited in the aftermath of Darwin. It felt as if he were trying to expose some kind of hypocrisy in this section.
I rather felt that it wasn’t so much only women who regain their spirits as only women that “endure such humiliations,” but if it is only women who regain their spirits then…
And probably the half-unconscious rhapsody was a Fetichistic utterance in a Monotheistic setting: women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systemised religion taught their race at later date.
…I think Hardy is suggesting that pagan religions (which are perhaps essentially embedded in this rural existence) resonate with women in a way that phallocentric Christianity does not. Clearly, by my choice of words, I have some sympathy with this point of view. Who are Hardy’s “amiable theorists?” (The narrator/author is hardly neutral at this point!) Perhaps they are the same ones who self-righteously cite childbirth as women’s punishment for Eve’s transgression.
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence
Nancy: Working temporarily at the dairy is Angel Clare, the youngest son of a clergyman. He is learning the business of dairying by participating in the work. Angel has rejected the family connections of church and university in favor of training to be a farmer. He finds Tess very attractive, and their relationship begins promisingly enough. Although he is of the gentry and she is not, unlike Alex D’Urberville he respects her.
Despite his heterodoxy, faults, and weaknesses, Clare was a man with a conscience. Tess was no insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life — a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself.
I wonder if this is what Angel Clare really thinks, or what Hardy thinks.
Sarah: We are also told that Angel Clare is precipitate with a “tinge of recklessness.” I find it credible that Clare perceives Tess in this commendable manner (certainly he is a man who reasons) but will his ideals hold up under pressure? I’d be inclined to give Hardy the benefit of the doubt at this moment. I don’t feel that he is compromising character to drive either theme or plot.
Nancy: All through this phase of the novel we follow the growing attraction between Angel and Tess. Angel is concerned about their their differing levels of social status and education. On the other hand, Tess would make an exemplary farmer’s wife. His concept of her includes terms like “virginal” and “chaste.” He also feels that he can educate her to a higher social status; learning that she is a D’Urberville strengthens him in this belief.
Tess, on the other hand is terrified that he may learn of her past. She almost hopes someone else will tell him. At least three times she tries to tell him herself. Once time the message goes astray through chance; the other times Angel trivializes anything she may have to say. Still, she could have persisted.
She had not told. At the last moment her courage failed her, she feared his blame for not telling him sooner; and her instinct of self-preservation was stronger than her candour.
Hardy implies that the difference in their social backgrounds contributes to their mutual misunderstanding. Clare cannot imagine that any girl as lovely as Tess could have had any past of which he would disapprove. Tess cannot imagine that Angel — who repeatedly promises to cherish and care for her — would not be able to continue to do so.
Chekhov has pointed out that if you introduce a gun in the first act, you had better fire it before the play is over. We are about the enter the next phase and its title is “The Woman Pays.”
Sarah: After the earthiness of Phase III, Phase IV seems to be underpinned by pure romance. Both phases are relatively light-hearted, but as you suggest Nancy, the past is merely in abeyance for these charmed pages of Tess’ life.
My edition refers frequently to the initial serialisation of the novel, which apparently caused the story to be chopped into parts more or less arbitrarily, lacking the serial driven structure that you would find in a novel by, for instance, Dickens. I hope, at least, that the end of Phase IV was used to good dramatic effect. Despite previous encounters with the story in many guises, and hence a clear recall of plot development, reaching the end of Phase IV and having to stop was a tremendously effective cliff-hanger!
Nancy: Yes! It was so bad that, after writing my comments above, I leafed ahead a few pages to find out what happened next.