Sarah and I continue to read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles together.
In The Woman Pays, Angel, now fully and ingloriously acquainted with Tess’ past, effectively casts her off. In the intricate manoeuvring which follows the disclosure, social convention, religious dogma and financial considerations all have their place, at the expense of former romantic reasoning. Angel’s ability to look beyond the prescribed is sorely tested. It fails.
The complex responses of the pair are hard to sift through. Tess appears infinitely malleable to Angel’s proclamations, but there is a suggestion that had she employed “wiles” she might have achieved an outcome conceivably more advantageous to both parties. While Angel appears intransigent and blinkered in his responses, his sleepwalking episode allows a glimpse of his subconscious which insists that his response is built not on a logical response to received wisdom but a genuinely instinctive reaction derived from belief. Under these circumstances we would have to question the value of artificially circumventing Angel’s convictions. Is it wisdom on Tess’ part to accept without argument what Angel lays down, and are there any (readerly) grounds for a sympathetic response to Angel’s stand?
I could not find any sympathy for Angel, who not only makes Tess miserable but also destroys his own hopes for any happiness. Angel’s reactions were not based on such analysis of outcomes; his first and spontaneous remarks reflect his deepest sense of reality. She asks for his forgiveness.
‘O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case. You were one person; now you are another. My God — how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque prestidigitation as that!”
Now you are another — Tess is not who he thought she was, and he is unable to consider having anything to do with a different Tess. He may not be able to control his initial response, but he certainly could have controlled how he handled it after the first blow. Then his shallowness and deference to convention become very clear.
And yet…. If Tess had used wiles — and maybe a little healthy defiance — it might have delayed their separation until he could have begun to see it differently. This is like Greek tragedy. Their respective character flaws make it impossible for them to understand each other and where their actions will lead.
Through a variety of mishaps which lead, almost inevitably, one from the other, Tess is finally driven to seek employment at a god-forsaken stony arable farm:
“The swede-field in which she and her companion were set hacking was a stretch of a hundred odd acres, in one patch, on the highest ground of the farm, rising above stony lanchets or lynchets – the outcrop of siliceous veins in the chalk formation, composed of myriads of loose white flints in bulbous, cusped, and phallic shapes.”
It sounds like a Dantean description of hell, a circle reserved for ‘impure’ women. Disaster has struck Tess twice now and, if memory serves, each disaster has been preceded by a descent (or fall) into a pleasant vale, and each catastrophe is succeeded by a climb back up to the heights. On this latter occasion the heights are markedly unpleasant, and the subtext is that Tess is being punished. But by whom?
The contrast between the lush world of dairying and romance and the hard world of field work under a harsh master is almost heavy handed. At times I felt like saying, yes, I get the point.
I suppose Tess is being punished, but if we round up the usual suspects there are too many of them. First, she is punished by her own acceptance that she is damaged goods. Then she suffers from Angel learning that she is not the woman he thought she was (true, but he thought wrong). Alec uses the situation for his own benefit. The chorus of neighbors and field workers give us conventional opinions. I sense a deeper bitterness in Hardy. The world is unfair and the rain falls on the just and on the unjust, but most especially on the powerless.
The Convert is a phase of flux. Alec D’Urberville makes a reappearance in a variety of guises, notably this last, pantomime villain-like:
“The unexpectedness of his presence, the grotesqueness of his appearance in a gathered smockfrock, such as was now worn only by the most old-fashioned of the labourers, had a ghastly comicality that chilled her as to its bearing. D’Urberville emitted a low long laugh.”
The changeability of Alec and Angel has been amply demonstrated, but it is only with her remonstrative letter to Angel that we finally begin to see a waver in the previously steadfast Tess…
As you say, “a phase of flux.” They are both shifting, as Alec becomes a preacher, but then loses his faith, and Angel off in Brazil reconsiders his attitudes. Even Tess weakens in her love for and faithfulness to Angel. Alec’s is essentially a false nature. He was false when he first wooed Tess; he deceives himself and others when he becomes a preacher; then at the first excuse he abandons holiness. Truth and falsity are a recurrent theme in this book, going back to the old, true D’Urbervilles and the new D’Urberville imposters. Hardy seems to mock them both.
The characterization is brilliant. Alec is sure of himself, but that is because he takes nothing very seriously.
If there’s nobody to say, “Do this, and it will be a good thing for you after you are dead; do that, and it will be a bad thing for you,” I can’t warm up. Hang it, I am not going to feel responsible for my deeds and passions if there’s nobody to be responsible to; and if I were you, my dear, I wouldn’t either.
Angel is sure of himself, but has so little self understanding that he fails the first real test of his beliefs. Tess is pushed this way and that but she at least has a core sense of responsibility that the others lack. The most attractive characters are solid right through. Tess’ mother is permissive, live and let live — that’s what she is. Angel’s father has uncompromising religious tenets, but he really means them, and lives them.
Thank you, Nancy. I still can’t justify my unwonted sympathy for Angel, but your Greek tragedy analogy is helpful. But perhaps we will both feel differently come the end…