Tess of the d’Urbervilles


Note: (The contents of this post is to be traversed only by those that have read the book, lest something of the plot may be given away)

I have just finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and so all you who have read it will know what I must be suffering.

The tragedy of the ending is made worse because there is no heaven to believe in. The book was written around the time when Darwin’s theory of Evolution had begun to make people pry deeper into the idea of God, and Thomas Hardy did this by writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the conclusion seems to be in favor of Darwin. The whole story of the book is the tragic life of the heroine, Teresa Durbeyfield, and suggests strongly that God does not really watch lovingly over the lives of all human beings – for Tess is driven by the unfairness of life to commit the crimes most terrible to the Victorian public – she was twice lured into sexual relations with one she was not married to, and is even, in the end (I hope those who have not read the book are following my a advice not to read this post) a murderess. Yet, she is still, after all this, ‘a pure woman’. Were providence a real thing, these misfortunes could not have happened – Christianity suggests that be your soul pure, life will favor you and you will never have to do wrong, and Hardy suggests this idea is incorrect. In other great novels of the Victorian age providence looks after the heroines. In Jane Eyre, for instance, everything is fair and even – Mr Rochester pays for his byronic sins by being blinded, and Jane finds her way to happiness be being always pure and true, always preserving her self-respect, and above all, believing in that great power which ought to lift all worthy heroines out of difficulty. But Tess has no such good fortune – pureness does her no good – there is no God to punish her for her wrong and reward her for her wrights. One paragraph from the book describes this point – when Alec d’Urberville finds the vulnerable Tess asleep under the trees:

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

The end of the paragraph brings up the idea that Tess might be being punished by having the same done to her that her ancestors had done before her to others, but, ‘it does not mend the matter’, for it is unfair for her to be punished for her ancestors’ sins. This theme is touched on again later in the book, showing at the same time the cruelty of established Christianity, when the church will not give a Christian burial to the little baby that Tess gave birth to illegitimately by d’Urberville. Why should the baby suffer for its mother’s, sins, (if sins they were)?

Ashamed to live any more at home, where all know what befell her, Tess goes to work at Tabothay’s Dairy, where she falls passionately and tragically in love with Mr. Angel Clare, a middle-class gentleman who has decided to be a farmer, instead of taking orders as his father and brothers have done (as is later revealed this is because he once had an affair and does not think it right to preach against what he had done himself). He falls in love with her, and asks her to marry him. She refuses at first, having decided never to marry, for she thinks herself in a certain way married to Alec d’Urberville, the destroyer of her maidenhood. She relents at last, however, and they become engaged to be married, but Tess is troubled in her conscience for she feels she ought to tell him about her affair with Alec d’Urberville. She writes him a letter about it and tries to post it under his door, for she has not the courage to tell him in person, but it slips under the rug.

Here is an example of the sort of frustrating sadness that occurs so often in Thomas Hardy – for later, after they are married she tells him about it, having discovered he did not receive her letter, and because, even after deciding to leave the respectable middle class of his birth, he is still without the courage to defy common custom for the sake of right, he decides it is improper for them to live together, and he goes to make his fortune as a farmer in Brazil, leaving Tess behind, enveloped in agonized misery. But while about to leave for Brazil, he says to himself, ‘Had you only told me sooner, Tess, I should have forgiven you!’ So damn and curse the stupid carpet ten million times!

After making the point about how frustrating the incident of the carpet and letter is, I will now go over the previously talked about part of the book in a little more detail.

I believe it is not completely because of a false sense of delicacy that Clare left Tess – it is also because he had formed a picture of her as a blooming, unsoiled country maiden – a sort of untried, innocent little doll or turtle-dove for him to teach and love, as a romantic book might put it ‘the picture of innocence’. He wished her to be pure as a child, to never have had any experience of the wicked world around her. Such complete innocence is impossible for any human-being – we all have our faults and blemishes, we have all gone through some experience or other of the world, and Tess was, no doubt, as near to what he wanted as he would ever have found on this earth. He wanted her as the ‘beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer’ that she had been before she was ‘soiled’ by d’Urberville. Yet even then, she had been only ‘practically blank as snow’. To be completely blank is impossible, and Clare threw away from him the nearest thing to his dream that he would ever find.

Also, she had told him about something that her family had found out – it was speculated that they were of the ancient family of the d’Urbervilles (hence the name, Tess of the d’Urbervilles). It was because of this she had met Alec d’Urberville. She had been sent by her family to tell him and his old mother that she was related to them, but it turned out he was not really of the same ancient d’Urberville family. Anyhow, Clare got an idea that the d’Urbervilles had committed many crimes of the same sort as Tess, and that her being from that ancient family was also a blight on her innocence.

Clare had told Tess she could get money from his father, but she was to proud to do so, and she became very poor and had to work at Flintcombe Ash. But no more of the plot, for I have already asked those who do not already know it not to read this. A few more thoughts on the later parts of the book, and I will close this entry.

It is an odd thing that after murdering Alec, she seemed to see nothing at all wrong with it. She seemed almost to have been driven mad with sorrow.

The most traumatizing part of the book for me, sadder even than when she dies, is when Clare comes home to her and finds her with Alec d’Urberville, and she stands at the door and talks to him so coolly. It might be, perhaps that she is too sad to be sad – she had stopped even existing in her own head, her existence was so terrible. This may explain another interesting thing, which is that the book leaves Tess’s point of view as she is talking with d’Urberville in the church, and never really ever returns to it. It is lucky – it would be too dreadful indeed if you were looking at the events of the end with Tess’s eyes. It is interesting though, and seems to again suggest the idea that she is not even thinking to herself anymore – that it would be too bad for her to be herself, just as it would be too bad for the reader to be her.

And now, my last thought. The book seems to explore the strange pathos of life – something that is quite beyond science – a mystery far greater than the scientific mysteries of how the world began, and other such things. The book confronts and diminishes one great mystery – that of religion – and introduces another – that of life.