Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
A family of farm laborers: the new inhabitants of the cottage where the Durbeyfields once lived
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Mrs. Brooks: a generally uncurious landlady at a fashionable Sandbourne lodging-house
A Sandbourne workman: the first to view D’Urberville’s corpse
The caretaker at Bramshurst Court: a woman who oversees a property for its owners
Sixteen policemen: hunters of a wanted murderess
Angel Clare returns home to Emminster so ravaged by his illness that his parents can scarcely recognize him. When his mother wonders why Angel is so anxious about a “mere child of the soil,” Angel reveals that Tess is a member of the ancient D’Urberville family.
Angel sends a letter to Marlott looking for Tess. A reply comes from Joan, who informs him that Tess is gone from her, but that she will write Angel when she returns. Angel is chastened by his treatment of Tess. He wonders why he did not view his wife “constructively rather than biographically, by the will rather than by the deed.” His father tells him Tess never asked the Clares for any money during his sojourn, and Angel begins to realize how much Tess has suffered.
Angel goes to Flintcomb-Ash in search of Tess and then on to Marlott. He learns Tess has not used her married name in his absence. In Marlott, he discovers Tess and her family are no longer living at their cottage, which is now inhabited by a family concerned only with its own circumstances and completely ignorant of Tess’s history. Angel sees the elaborately carved headstone of John, which details his illustrious ancestry. When he discovers the carver has not been paid, he does a good turn for the Durbeyfields by paying off the bill.
Angel is able to find Joan at Kingsbere. Their meeting is awkward, but Joan tells him Tess is at Sandbourne, a local resort town, at an address unknown to Joan.
Angel Clare arrives in Sandbourne the next day. Asking around for a Mrs. Clare or a Miss Durbeyfield, Angel receives no information. A local postman says there is a Mrs. D’Urberville at a lodging house called The Herons. When Angel announces himself to the landlady, Tess herself descends the stairs.
It is a much-changed Tess: she is dressed in luxurious clothes, evidently given her by D’Urberville. Angel pleads for forgiveness. He now appreciates Tess for what she is. “Too late, too late!” cries Tess in response; D’Urberville has won her back; she no longer cares what happens to her. The unhappy pair stand paralyzed, seeming to “implore something to shelter them from reality.”
The landlady of The Herons, Mrs. Brooks, is a usually incurious woman, but Angel’s visit leads her to eavesdrop at the keyhole of Tess and Alec’s room. She hears Tess remonstrating Alec for causing her to lose Angel a second time, and she hears Alec’s sharp reply. A little while later, she notices what seems to be a bloodstain on the ceiling above her. She flags down a local workman, who goes into the D’Urberville suite and discovers that Alec D’Urberville has been stabbed to death.
Meanwhile, Angel has gone to the train station. Running towards him, he sees, is a woman—Tess, who wishes to tell her husband that she has killed D’Urberville. Though he scarcely believes this news, Angel is at last completely tender toward his wife. He must now be her protector. The pair walk northward on remote footpaths. When they see a mansion called Bramshurst Court, unoccupied because it is for rent, they decide to take refuge there.
By unspoken consent, Angel and Tess do not speak of anything that happened after their marriage. They spend five days of bliss isolated from the world, experiencing “affection, union, error forgiven,” until the caretaker notices their presence. Tess does not want to, but they leave, planning an escape from England out of a northern port town.
That night, they stumble across a series of stone pillars which make an odd humming sound in the wind. Angel realizes the place is Stonehenge, the ancient temple at which heathens made sacrifices to the sun. Tess lays herself down upon an altar stone. Tess asks Angel to marry her younger sister ‘Liza-Lu, who has all the good qualities of Tess and none of the bad, when she herself is
gone. Angel is shocked at the idea.
In the light of dawn, Angel sees a group of men advancing toward the ancient monument. He implores the men to leave Tess alone until she wakes. When Tess rises, she accepts her capture: “It is as it should be…I am ready.” The scene shifts to Wintoncester, once capital of Wessex.
The view of this city is dominated by an ugly, red-brick jail. Standing on a nearby hillside just outside of town, Angel and ‘Liza-Lu hold hands as they see a black flag rise up over the jail. Tess Durbeyfield has been executed. “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.”
The title of the novel’s final Phase, “Fulfillment,” is ironic but accurate. Tess, the ultimate victim, can find peace, happiness, and content only outside this world, not in it. Her victimization—by Fate, by historical conditions, by her family, by social standards, by D’Urberville, by Clare—is so complete that it seems as if Tess is being hounded from this world.
In their temporary hideaway at Bramshurst Court, hidden from the sight of the world, Tess and Angel experience a brief period of contentment. Only away from the moral codes of the world can Angel and Tess experience the happiness they deserve, a state of “affection, union, error forgiven.”
Hardy’s use of Stonehenge as a setting allows him a final echo of several important patterns of reference. The motif of Tess being hunted and pursued is underscored visually by the scene in which Tess awakes at dawn surrounded by a circle of policemen, official guardians of the social morality Tess has continually been punished by. Her connection to Nature and to paganism makes this ancient monument an appropriate setting. Tess herself notes Angel used to call her a heathen. The connection between Tess and places of death reaches a culmination here. Tess finds final rest on an altar, or place of sacrifice. The sense of present action being only part of a vast history—Hardy’s appeal to an ultra-historic imagination—is activated through the use of this ancient historical site.
Tess’s tragic victimization points to a new set of possibilities for human conduct. Her devotion to Clare establishes a new vision of selfless love. She is so forward-looking and selfless that she urges Angel to marry ‘Liza-Lu, whom Tess thinks is a better, and Hardy calls a more spiritualized, version of herself. Tess becomes not the illustration of a thesis (about the decline of the peasantry or the sexual double standard) but, as in the stories of saint’s lives, a person who lived an exceptional life.
In tragic fashion, Tess comes to experience a new orientation to the world, completely different from the everyday way we typically view life. She experiences her pain not as material fact but as a sort of transcendence. Tess welcomes the final punishments of capture and execution. Of what does Tess speak when she greets the policemen who will arrest her with the phrase, “I am ready”? On the Darwinian level, we might say the final rhythm of the life of a species, extinction, has been reached. Tess was born, reproduced, tried to adapt to a cruel world, and now will die. On a tragic level, we might say Tess’s assent to her victimization is a final, ennobling act of forgiveness toward the world.
Hardy underscores the tragic atmosphere by a series of references to famous tragedies of Western literature. Stonehenge, the monument to the sun, recalls the sun-blasted heath upon which Lear, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, experiences his re-evaluation of life. Tess’s “I am ready” echoes Edgar’s death-embracing statement “Readiness is all” from the same play. The last image of the book, Angel and ‘Liza-Lu walking hand-in-hand, recalls the final moment of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, in which Adam and Eve move hand-in-hand into a fallen world in which they must exercise choice and moral responsibility.
Most famously, Hardy refers to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus to describe the malignant plan the universe had in store for Tess Durbeyfield: “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, has ended his sport with Tess.” This bitter statement encapsulates the idea that some higher power has victimized Tess, and has probably done so just for fun. Whatever term we use for the Supreme Being, this figure does not have the best interests of humans at heart. Although this categorical skepticism may not be all that surprising contemporarily, the majority of the novel’s detractors passionately disapproved of these lines’ belief that the universe is not controlled by a beneficent, Christian God.
Our final impression of the novel does not have to do with a philosophical lesson on the existence of God, or an illustration of historic and economic forces. What we are left with is a feeling of profound, humanistic sympathy for Tess Durbeyfield, pure woman and pure victim.