Sarah and I complete our discussion of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
In our last post, we commented on Phases Five (The Woman Pays) and Six (The Convert). That leaves Phase Seven, Fulfillment, which is short but merits a post of its own. It’s like the finale of a symphony Here Hardy completes the life of Tess and sounds again all the themes we have heard before.
If life is a journey, then Hardy’s characters are traveling all the time. They use whatever transportation is available, but mostly they walk. Angel first sees Tess when he is on a walking trip. Tess walks to her new job at the Dairy and, later, to the upland farm. She makes a long walk to try to visit Angel’s parents and, on the weary return re-encounters Alec. They move, these characters; they experience the landscape and its inhabitants close up and on foot.
Phase Seven completes the journey. Angel returns to Tess from Brazil — and from farther than that in his understanding. When she turns him away, he leaves on foot, too impatient to wait for a train. She follows him. They make a last long walk until their journey ends at Stonehenge in the middle of a very dark night. It strikes me that, for the first time in their experience of each other, Angel and Tess are united. They know the worst of each other, but now he insists that they travel on together.
There is a pronounced correlation between the topology of the terrain, their travels, with their travails. It is probably a superficial parallel, but at the very end, as Angel and ‘Liza-Lu walk up the slope away from the city, I was tempted to make a connection with A Pilgrim’s Progress. If there is such a connection then it doesn’t seem as if it were a happy one. There are still hills to climb and the Celestial City is nowhere to be seen. This was another point in the novel where I suspected a kind of malevolent authorial presence. As Tess is ground down by an inevitable fate which derives from societal values and her personal reaction to social restraints I can almost feel Hardy’s own despair over her fate, and an exasperation with the society which has forced his hand ”Look what you made me do!” It is, as you previously observed, Nancy, a very bitter novel. Bitterest of all is the ending which conforms to a stiff kind of moral code in which the chaste are rewarded. That it does so without conviction seems to convey authorial contempt for those values and perhaps for his Victorian reader.
Stonehenge. It is unexpected, those great stone pillars.
The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway… and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.
“It is Stonehenge!” said Clare.
“The heathen temple, you mean?”
“Yes. Older than the centuries; older than the d’Urbervilles!”
Angel rejected his father’s unquestioning religious faith. When trouble came, he learned that he had not cast off a concept of purity which derived from his father’s faith. Tess had adopted Angel’s attitudes toward religion, not because she understood them but because they were his. Meanwhile, Alec adopted and then dropped whatever beliefs suited his needs at that time. Now we are in the final place of truth, and that truth is “older than the d’Urbervilles.” Do the men who surround the couple that dark night and take Tess into custody represent the new standards adopted since pagan times? Or do they represent the older truth that we cannot escape the consequences of what we do?
Yes and yes. I think your question is a fine illustration of the complexity and ambiguity of Hardy. This is a novel which protests against societal mores and against religious dogma but does not, I think, purport to have all the answers. Perhaps what is advocated here is the freedom to assess and determine, each according to his own lights. But this comes with an implicit warning. This is not a licence to play the system. Angel appears to make real progress, to reassess and reformulate his values, whereas Alec lacks sincerity and Tess adopts the values of another, a mistake that leads her into grievous error. These last two suffer the ultimate penalty for their lack of moral rigour, but Angel’s projected future has something of the incongruous about it. Too pat, too perfect; at heart we cannot believe in contentment for Angel. At best a puling facsimile of happiness awaits him.
As I finished Tess I was taken back to the earlier book we read together, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. The settings are very different but the time period is about the same and there are some parallels in the women’s situations. Both are “fallen women” by their community standards. Carrie is much more pragmatic about what she requires out of life, while Tess feels shame, especially because she allowed herself to be deceived without love. Both are willing to accept support from a man — under the right circumstances — but both want to work on their own behalf when they have that option. Carrie leaves an unsatisfactory husband without looking back and takes satisfaction if her freedom. Tess, on the other hand, feels “owned” by the man who has possession of her.
He [Alec] has come between us and ruined us…. You didn’t come back to me, and I was obliged to go back to him.
Tess has a very deep belief that she belongs to somebody, whether Alec or Angel, and this governs what would otherwise be a rather independent spirit, as shown by her determination to support herself, even by hard labor, when she can. Not married to Alec, she could have left him at any time, which makes nonsense of “Too late, too late!” when Angel comes to reclaim her. Only after Alec’s death did she feel free of him. There is also a primitive implication that his violation of her also dishonored her husband: “his wrong to you through me.”
Hardy’s subtitle for Tess of the D’Urbervilles is “A Pure Woman,” and so we need to think about the meaning of purity. Is it primarily the absence of any illicit sexual experience? Hardy does not explain and rarely uses the words “pure” or “impure” in his text. One of the few times he does is near the end. Tess seeks Angel on the road. and he is still her ideal man.
To her he was, as of old, all that was perfection, personally and mentally. He was still her Antinous, her Apollo even; his sickly face was beautiful as the morning to her affectionate regard on this day no less than when she first beheld him; for was it not the face of the one man on earth who had loved her purely, and who had believed in her as pure.
Angel did believe once in her purity, but what happened after that belief was shattered makes it difficult to understand this passage. Has Tess become quite mad and returned in her own mind to a past in which Angel did love her purely? Or is the fact that Angel once believed her to be pure more important than anything else that has happened? Is Hardy mocking “purity” or does he want us to accept the meaning Tess gives to it?
Strange that we have chosen two books with similar themes. On a more simplistic level than your comparison I was aware that Tess was easier for me to engage with. US cities of the Sister Carrieperiod were an alien landscape for me, while rural eighteenth century Wessex doesn’t pose many difficulties to my understanding, although I got the impression that you were equally at home in this locale, Nancy.
The definition of purity is at the very center of Tess. I think the answer, at least to Hardy’s take on purity and Angel’s epiphany, comes earlier, in Angel’s self-reproaches.
“He had undergone some strange experiences in his absence; he had seen the virtual Faustina in the literal Cordelia, a spiritual Lucretia in a corporeal Phryne; he had thought of the woman taken and set in the midst as one deserving to be stoned, and the wife of Uriah being made a queen; and he had asked himself why he had not judged Tess constructively rather than biographically, by the will rather than the deed?”
Purity is intention rather than deed, but this doesn’t really help us, as Tess is not the innocent victim of Alec. By her own admission she erred, not so much in deed as in thought.
One might argue a Platonistic interpretation, in which the archetypal Tess is pure of spirit. This is the Tess that may be perceived by an effort of will, and it is this effort which Tess values in Angel Finally, I am somewhat confused. My instinctive feeling is that Hardy is redefining ‘purity’ in less Puritan terms, but I am not convinced that the evidence bears this out.
Thanks for doing this, Nancy. I don’t reread as much as I would like, and Tess was well worth a revisit. I didn’t actually like it that much on the first occasion and have suspected for a long while that I didn’t do it justice. Your company and insight along the way have made the read doubly enjoyable and rewarding.
Thank you. I have enjoyed it. The distance between us is geographical, not psychological.