Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Anthony Domestico

The 1891 publication of Thomas Hardy’s penultimate novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman, was met with a great deal of controversy. Having previously appeared in a censored, serialized form in The Graphic, early readers and critics were not ready for the full novel’s portrayal of female sexuality, religious skepticism, and scandalous violence. It is a work filled with beautiful evocations of landscape and horrific descriptions of deaths, with acute psychological insight as well as the sense that individual psychology matters little when confronted with an impervious universe. The contemporary readers were right on one count: reading Tess for the first time is truly a disturbing experience.

The novel tells the story of Tess Durbyfield, the passionate daughter of a tippling peddler and his simple, forgiving wife. After the family discovers their connection to the previously noble, now decrepit D’Urberville family, Tess is sent off to the D’Urberville mansion, a house owned by a nouveau riche family who has legally changed its name to D’Urberville but has no real connection to the ancient clan. While Tess’s ostensible purpose is to tend to the blind Mrs. D’Urberville’s collection of birds, her family really hopes that she can ensnare Alec D’Urberville, Mrs. D’Urberville’s lascivious son, as her husband and thus remove her family from rural poverty. After repeatedly rebuffing Alec’s advances, Tess is raped and conceives a child. Leaving the mansion and returning to her family, Tess has a son who she names Sorrow; he dies shortly after birth but not before Tess herself baptizes him. She eventually falls passionately in love with and marries Angel Clare, the fastidious, unbelieving son of an evangelical preacher. When Tess reveals her previous sexual history on their wedding night, Angel abandons his wife, moving to Brazil to try his hand at farming and leaving Tess to make her own way by working on various farms in the area as a milkmaid and as a field hand.

Despite her intensely difficult manual labor, Tess stoutly rejects D’Urberville’s numerous attempts to win her back, only to eventually succumb and move in as his mistress in exchange for his support of her family. When Angel returns to England having forgiven Tess, he finds her living at a seaside resort with D’Urberville. When D’Urberville mocks her husband, Tess murders him, embarking on a paradisal week of seclusion with her husband before they are caught and she is hanged.

As is so often the case in Hardy’s fiction, theodicy is at the center of the novel. How is it, Hardy asks, that a person like Tess, so innocent and even noble, could suffer so horribly? How could a just and merciful God allow such a tragedy to occur? After Tess’s rape, Hardy writes, “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.”[1] This, fundamentally, is the situation of the novel: God, whether He exists or not, has evacuated Himself from this world. We are left to fend for ourselves in a world that is dominated by Nature rather than divinity, by passion and impulse rather than reason or piety. When Tess asks Angel if he believes that they will meet in the afterlife, he refuses to reply: “Like a greater than himself, to the critical question at the critical time he did not answer; and they were silent” (486). In this pointed allusion to Jesus’ refusal to answer his accusers, we see the defining trait of divinity in Tess’s world: abysmal silence.

If God is not present, then what can serve as the foundation of our lives? To what can we look for meaning and purpose? Discussing spiritual matters with Alec D’Urberville, Tess expresses her hope that “you can have the religion of loving-kindness and purity at least, if you can’t have—what do you call it—dogma” (410). Even if institutionalized religion is questioned, even if divine revelation is not believed in, Tess implies, a separate sphere for ethics and morality can still be maintained. And to a certain extent, we are able to construct a moral schema for the novel: Tess remains good, even pure according to the novel’s subtitle, despite her physical ravishment; Alec is fundamentally evil—at one point he emerges out of the smoke with a pitchfork, recalling Tess’s vision of the devil “tossing [an unbaptised baby] with his three-pronged fork” (143)—and we are meant to question whether his late conversion to Christianity, if it were sincere, would really have accomplished anything for his soul; and Angel is perhaps even more troubling than his devilish counterpart, an intelligent, essentially decent man unwilling in his prudery to parse a complicated moral situation.

Another foundation posited to explain action is nature. After Tess returns to her family, sullied and unmarried, Tess’s mother says, “Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose. ‘Tis nater, after all, and what do please God!” (131). We are, of course, meant to reject this rather facile appeal to nature as an explanation for Tess’s intense suffering; it is surely a despicable God that would be pleased by the blighting of a young girl by a lustful parvenu. Still, Hardy throughout appeals to the absolute naturalness of human sexuality, how it is a mere freak of social convention and religious asceticism that passion is condemned as lust. In this vein, Hardy continually conflates Tess’s sexual vitality with the vitality of nature, linking her burgeoning physicality with the teeming life of the rural spring. As Tess listens to Angel’s playing of the harp before their courtship, for instance, Hardy writes, “She undulated upon the thin notes of the second-hand harp, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her … The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility” (179). The growth of sexual attraction blends into the growth of natural life. When Tess and Angel go to milk the cows in the early morning dew, “Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls” (188). Light and solid, world and person, are dissolved in a Turner-like misty dew.

“The ‘appetite for joy’ which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose” (255), is common to both the vegetative and human worlds. We can see why, as Sam Alexander reminds us here, D.H. Lawrence was so attracted to Hardy. For both, feminine sexuality is as natural and inevitable as the flourishing of seedlings; for both, one’s experience is most passionately felt and most authentically real when there is an organic relation between self and nature, when vitality flows from environment to person to person; and for both, this vital sexuality finds itself hemmed in at all points by social convention. Describing Tess’s alternating happiness and sorrow at being able to gaze upon the valley in which she first found happiness with Angel, Hardy writes, “So the two forces were at work here as everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment” (362). The social impinges upon the natural, and we are left feeling hollow, unfulfilled.

This feeling of listlessness Hardy calls in this novel “the ache of modernism” (180), and it is specifically linked to modern experience. Hardy describes the sense of dissatisfaction and ennui endemic to a world that has lost stable gods and stable villages, that is moving inexorably towards mechanization, urbanization, and dislocation. This conception of the challenges of modernity is perhaps best symbolized in the “engine-man” (404), the worker who travels from farm to farm with his threshing machine, “as if some ancient doom compelled him to wander here against his will in the service of his Plutonic master” (405). He is a man cut off from the community and from the world, his thoughts “turn[ing] inwards upon himself,” his machine “the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.” Gone is the organic relation between man and nature; gone is the flowing of self into other self in passionate love. Hardy describes the gradual abandonment of villages for larger cities and towns, a movement “humorously designated by statisticians as ‘the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns,’ being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery” (436).

Hardy perhaps here opens himself to charges of naïve nostalgia. Does he really think that there ever was an idyllic pastoral England, one without social strife and sexual violence? Of course not. After all, Tess would have found little sympathy in an earlier, more religiously dogmatic world. If things are getting worse, then they were never particularly good to begin with. This is what makes Hardy’s novel so startling: pessimism reigns supreme, essentially unchallenged. The novel ends with Angel and Tess’s sister, ‘Liza Lu, joining hands and walking off together after Tess’s execution. Tess had hoped that, following her death, her husband and her sister could start anew and find love and happiness, but the reader knows better. “The President of the Immortals” (489) may have “ended his sport with Tess,” as the novel concludes, but he has hardly begun it with us.

  1. ↑ Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ed. David Skilton (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 119. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the essay.