Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2940
The man at the threshing machine: a stranger to the agricultural world who operates a mechanical thresher, dictating an inhuman pace of work
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Tess can scarcely believe this man is Alec. His bold, masculine face is ill-adapted to the looks of a pious preacher. When he sees her, the effect is “electric.” He is dumbstruck, briefly unable to preach. After finishing his sermon, Alec catches up to Tess. She wishes to have nothing to do with him; he claims merely to want to save her soul, on account of how he has “grievously wronged” her in the past. Tess scoffs at his conversion, which she thinks is an easy way for Alec to buy off the consequences of his evil deeds, and at his religious ideas, which she disbelieves because her husband has transmitted his own religious skepticism to her.
When they walk by a stone called “Cross-in-Hand” Alec asks Tess to swear that she will tempt him no longer. Tess reluctantly does so. The stone, she soon discovers, is not a holy relic as Alec said, but a “thing of ill omen” commemorating a murder.
A few days later, Alec finds Tess in the fields at Flintcomb-Ash. He wishes to inquire about her material condition. He offers a marriage license to Tess, who replies that she loves and is married to someone else. Alec realizes she is a deserted wife, and is upset that Tess will not allow him to protect her.
Later in February, Alec knocks at Tess’s door, asking her to pray for him. “How can I pray for you,” Tess asks, “when I am forbidden to believe that the great Power who moves the world would alter his plans on my account?” Tess says she has religion but doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. She echoes to Alec several of the rationalist, anti-religious arguments she has learned from Angel Clare. These logical arguments demolish Alec’s new-found religious convictions.
On a March morning, Tess is working at Flintcomb-Ash, feeding wheat into a mechanical thresher, when Alec, having shed his parson’s outfit, seeks to talk to her. “You have been the cause of my backsliding,” he says, “and you should be willing to share it, and leave that mule you call your husband for ever.” Tess impulsively slaps him across the face, drawing blood. “Whip me, crush me,” she baits him. “Once victim, always victim—that’s the law!” He shakes her by the shoulders and tells her, “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again.”
When Tess finishes the exhausting day’s work, Alec reappears and walks her home. Going straight at Tess’s chief anxiety, he informs Tess he has enough money to keep her family out of need. Tess hesitates before making a full refusal of this offer.
Once at her cottage, Tess writes a long, passionate letter to her husband, pleading for kind treatment. She is devoted to Angel but needs rescuing from an enemy.
Meanwhile, Angel, in Brazil, is reconsidering the entire moral scheme by which he has judged his wife. He realizes “the beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses”—he should not blame Tess for what she did against her will. An Englishman who is his traveling companion advises Angel that he was wrong to leave Tess, that he should have judged her not according to what she had been in the past, but according to what she promised to be to him as a wife in the future. When this stranger dies of fever, Angel takes his words to heart and shifts from being Tess’s critic to her advocate.
One morning, about a week before her term at Flintcomb-Ash is up, Tess’s younger sister, ‘Liza-Lu, arrives with dire family news. Joan is seriously ill and John, still in uncertain health, refuses to do any work. At home, Tess nurses her mother, who gets better, and works on the family garden so the family will have enough to eat.
One night, when she and other villagers are at work in a field burning brushes, Tess is surprised by the sight of Alec D’Urberville alongside her. Alluding both to the fires surrounding them and his persistent attempts to seduce the innocent Tess, Alec compares himself to Satan. Tess rejects the comparison. Alec again implores Tess to accept his help. She puts him off, though she knows how much her brothers and sisters could use D’Urberville’s aid.
Walking home after this encounter, Tess is given startling news: her father has just died. His diseased heart finally gave way. The implications of his death go beyond the personal. The Durbeyfield family held the lease on their cottage only until John died. Thus, the family has to move, since the tenant-farmer wants the house for fieldworkers he wishes to hire. Although the family might be able to stay on as weekly tenants, the shiftlessness of the family, the queerness of the unions made by Tess, and the undesirable social independence of families of this artisanal class, lead to the Durbeyfields being put out. It is doubtful that their ancestors gave such rude treatment to others in the time of their ascendancy.
Joan decides the family will seek lodgings at Kingsbere, the town in which lies the cathedral containing the D’Urberville family vaults. On Old Lady-Day, the day when many country laborers choose or are forced to find new jobs and residences, the Durbeyfields pack up their belongings and leave Marlott. When they get to Kingsbere, they discover their letter asking for rooms has arrived too late. There is no shelter for them. On a whim, Joan unpacks a bed underneath the church wall, directly below a stained-glass window named after the D’Urbervilles.
Alec rides up and tells Tess of the legend of the D’Urberville coach: those of D’Urberville blood are prone to hear the sound of a non-existent coach. The story dates back to an abduction and murder involving a D’Urberville. Alec offers to allow them to live at Trantridge; Joan can have a job tending fowl. Tess is barely able to refuse this necessary help. Seeking solace amid the vaults, or graves, of her ancestors in the Kingsbere cathedral, she is taken aback by the sight of D’Urberville reclining on one of the tombs. He can do more for her than can any of the real D’Urbervilles lying in these vaults, he boasts. Looking at the entrance to the vaults, Tess wonders, “Why am I on the wrong side of this door!”
Meanwhile, Marian and Izz decide they must take action to repair the marriage of their friends. They write a brief, plain letter to Angel at Emminster warning him to look after his wife because she is being set upon by an enemy.
Phase the Sixth is the most eventful of the novel. Material is presented that relates to every theme in the book. All three principal characters, and the changes they undergo, influence the story, while the narrative also incorporates major segments of the lives of secondary characters such as Tess’s family. The issues of religion and morality are presented through the stories of Alec’s religious conversion, his conflict and arguments with Tess, and the changes Angel undergoes in Brazil. The final decline of Tess’s family and the mechanized nature of the farmwork at Flintcomb-Ash provide Hardy an opportunity to introduce the social and economic shifts that influence her downfall.
Tess herself undergoes a major psychological change in this Phase, being so worked over by circumstances that she yields to D’Urberville a second time, again contrary to her moral nature and better judgment. The pattern of her harassment by forces outside herself, including individuals such as D’Urberville and the absent Clare, as well as more impersonal forces, such as a changing economic order, her position at the tail end of the decayed D’Urberville family, and the implacable ironies of life itself, continues like a drumbeat throughout Phase the Sixth. Although Hardy does not announce it in so many words, Tess makes the decision at the end of this Phase to trade her body to D’Urberville for his support of her family. It is a decision that ultimately seals her fate. The ¬psychological stress prior to this decision can be measured by the ¬differences between her two letters to Clare. The first, longer one admits that she deserves punishment but pleads for the husband she loves greatly to treat her kindly. The second letter is an ¬expression of anger and outrage at the injustice she has been dealt by Angel. For the first time, Tess realizes that she is not at fault and that the punishment she has received has been unfair. She has committed sins of inadvertence, not of intention.
The first few chapters expose Tess to an Alec D’Urberville outwardly quite different from the one we remember. These changes allow Hardy to introduce an important and topical debate about religion and morality into his novel. Later, after the religious conversion does not “take,” Hardy emphasizes Alec’s relentless physical pursuit of Tess. Wherever Tess goes, Alec finds her. He even adopts a comic disguise when he wears an old-fashioned rural smockfrock to surprise Tess when she is living at Marlott. However Alec dresses or disguises himself, he is dangerous to Tess.
Further evidence of Tess’s moral purity in the face of continual poverty, stress, and temptation comes, in fact, from an unlikely source, the mouth of Alec D’Urberville. Alec sees Tess as guiltless in their affair and as the only innocent woman he has ever known. He says she is “unsmirched in spite of all.” At some moments, he rather convincingly plays the part of a rejected lover seeking a renewed relationship, as when he forlornly rips up the marriage license Tess has declined.
Alec experiences numerous changes of personality in this Phase. The first one, his conversion to the extreme Calvinism of Reverend Clare, is one for which we have not been prepared. The sight of Alec preaching the word of God is just as strange to us as it is to Tess. Hardy depicts Alec in such a manner that we can easily share Tess’s idea that there is something fraudulent and cynical about his religious conversion. Alec compares the spiritual satisfaction of his religion to the masochistic “pleasure of having a good slap at yourself”; his conversion, he says, came upon him as a “jolly good idea.” Alec’s unseriousness and villainy serve to emphasize the singular goodness of the pure Tess.
The religious arguments between Alec and Tess substantiate a theme of concern to Hardy and other Victorians, which is the relationship of religion to morality. Tess becomes the spokesperson for Hardy’s own sense of religious skepticism. Hardy does not choose to write out fully the anti-religious beliefs shared by Angel and Tess. In this choice, we can measure the distance between Hardy’s novel and the traditional novel of ideas, in which characters give long speeches explaining and defending their opinions and beliefs. We know that Tess is Hardy’s heroine and Alec is the villain, and we perceive that Alec’s Calvinist-flavored dogma is being suggested as the “wrong” alternative to Tess’s correct religion of “loving-kindness,” a version of Christianity stripped of supernaturalism down to its supposed essence in the Sermon on the Mount (Christ’s lesson on the importance of mercy and compassion).
A major issue in Victorian thought concerned the maintenance of ethics in the absence of an agreed-upon religion. If religion were to be discredited, how could people be trusted to act morally and ethically, and if people could not be so trusted, how could society remain cohesive? Religious freethinkers claimed that individual humans could, and would have to be, trusted as the guardians and enforcers of their own moral authenticity. The traditionalist’s counterargument relied upon reasoning similar to Alec’s statement: “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…I am not going to feel responsible for my deeds and passions if there’s nobody to be responsible to.” But Alec, as we see repeatedly, is just the sort of person incapable of resisting the urge to harm others. Lacking the innate “loving-kindness” Tess espouses, Alec needs to imagine a “boss” outside himself who will punish him when he is bad and reward him when he is good. In contrast to Tess, he cannot be responsible for himself.
Hardy develops a further aspect of the question of moral behavior and judgment through the changes undergone by Angel in this Phase. Angel surmounts his own previous doubts about Tess as he learns a new, more charitable, less orthodox definition of morality. “Having long discredited the old systems of mysticism, he now began to discredit the old appraisements of morality. He thought they wanted readjusting. Who was the moral man? Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman? The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not only among things done, but among things willed.” Morality is not a simple, legalistic equation of particular deeds with particular sins. In judging, what must be taken into account is what the person wanted and willed, not just what they did or were influenced, or perhaps forced, to do. In sum, what one does is not equal to what one is. If we judge only by what someone did, we will ignore the quality of their hearts and minds, their truest moral tendencies. Angel learns that anyone who wishes to be a moral judge of others incurs a deep responsibility to perceive correctly.
The steam-driven threshing machine is described so vividly by Hardy that we can imagine it to be another of the characters victimizing Tess. The mechanical thresher, that red tyrant, is a representative of the modern, industrialized world which is destroying the traditional independence and human rhythms of the agricultural community. The thresher, operated by an engineer from the north of England, makes despotic demands upon the endurance of those who must work on it. It produces, in short, alienated labor. In Tess’s case, she is again victimized in being denied control by the thresher over her body. Hardy conjoins the thresher scene, representing economic oppression, with another visit from Alec, representing sexual oppression.
As Phase the Sixth moves towards completion, Hardy puts all the necessary plot machinery in place to drive the novel towards its ultimate conclusion. Different characters are (even if unwittingly) working for and against Tess as if engaged in a battle to claim her. The stranger who befriends Angel in Brazil gives Clare a new philosophy and a new outlook on Tess. Izz Huett and Marian try, through their letter, to reunite Angel with Tess. Alec and the thresher attempt to keep Tess away from Angel, and deprived of any capacity for independence. These forces arrayed for and against Tess take on the aspect of good versus evil. Izz, Marian, and Clare’s friend are positive, moral, sympathetic forces. The thresher and Alec are described as negative, diabolic, and oppressive.
Phase the Sixth contains Hardy’s most important and sustained association of Tess’s downfall with her socioeconomic position. Hardy’s focus is on the individual tragedy of Tess, but he continually returns to the theme of the tragic destruction of the traditional English rural village, most directly in the following passage describing the Durbeyfields being put out: “The village had formerly contained, side by side with the agricultural laborers, an interesting and better-informed class, ranking distinctly above the former—the class to which Tess’s father and mother had belonged…: a set of people who owed a certain stability of aim and conduct to the fact of their being lifeholders like Tess’s father, or copyholders, or, occasionally, small freeholders. But as the long holdings fell in they were seldom let again to similar tenants, and were mostly pulled down, if not absolutely required by the farmer for his hands. Cottagers who were not directly employed on the land were looked down upon with disfavour, and the banishment of some starved the trade of others…These families, who had formed the backbone of village life in the past, who were the depositaries of the village traditions, had to seek refuge in the large centres; the process humorously designated by the statisticians as the tendency of the rural populations toward the large towns, being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery.”
Hardy thus includes the tragedy of Tess and the destruction of her family within the larger socioeconomic contexts of the agricultural unrest and the depopulation of the countryside. From this point of view, Tess’s sufferings seem not arbitrary or unique but rather become part of the decline of her class. The villain of this piece, we see from Hardy’s conclusion here, is machinery. The forces of mechanization make their most significant appearance in the novel in the form of the recently described threshing machine. We can also note that Hardy’s family came from the rural class of the Durbeyfields—slightly above the farm laborers, but never far enough above that class to experience complete economic stability.