Tess of the d'Urbervilles Essays and Criticism
by Thomas Hardy

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Validity of Tess as a Pessimistic work

(Novels for Students)

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was Thomas Hardy's penultimate novel, published in 1891 when he was fifty-one years old (Jude the Obscure, his final novel, appeared four years later). After Jude, Hardy returned to his original love, poetry, producing eight volumes of verse during the last thirty years of his life. In his two-volume autobiography (credited to his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy, but written predominantly by Hardy himself), he claimed to have taken up the writing of novels "under the stress of necessity," and to have "long intended to abandon [it] at some indefinite time." It was the troubles he experienced with the publication of Tess, however, that "well-nigh compelled him, in his own judgement at any rate," to abandon novels. These troubles arose chiefly around his attempts to have the novel published serially (that is, in regular installments in a newspaper or magazine).

The cultural climate in England at the time was one of widespread prudery and intolerance, and "family values" were being promoted as the medicine to combat a perceived spread of sexual decadence, according to Elaine Showalter in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. As periodicals were by and large seen as family organs, some of the "adult" scenes in Tess were deemed inappropriate. Thus the novel was turned down by two periodicals. It was accepted by a third only after Hardy, with what he described in his autobiography as "cynical amusement," agreed to some significant changes. The novel was restored to its original form when it was published as a book later that year. Ironically, it proved to be perhaps the most popular of his novels with readers, while it was widely, though not universally, admired by critics.

Hardy viewed the writing of novels as being closely akin to the writing of poetry. He aimed, he said in his autobiography, "at keeping his narratives...as near to poetry in their subject as the conditions would allow." By "near to poetry" he meant, more or less, "close to natural life," a condition to which he contrasted the production of "stories of modern artificial life and manners showing a certain smartness of treatment." Certainly Hardy is concerned in Tess with portraying the natural world: among the most memorable scenes in the novel are those in which he evokes the fields and woods of his beloved Wessex. Yet some critics have argued that on the whole Tess is hardly "close to natural life." Hardy's contemporary Andrew Lang wrote in a review in Longman's that by his own "personal standard," "Tess is not real or credible," and he characterized it as a "morally squalid fairy tale." Robert Louis Stevenson complained in a letter to fellow writer Henry James that Hardy's novel was "not alive, not true,...not even honest!" In Nineteenth-Century Fiction, modern critic Hugh Kenner dismissed Hardy's "situations" as "melodrama" and his characters as "phases in the sociology of fiction."

A quick look at many of the incidents in Tess, particularly in the second half of the novel, lends at least some weight to these criticisms. The response of Tess' fellow dairymaids to her wedding Angel Clare; the scene in which Angel sleepwalks with Tess in his arms; the fact that Farmer Groby, Tess' employer at Flintcomb-Ash, was a man with whom Angel and she had had a previous run-in; and the fact that Alec d'Urberville's brief conversion to Primitive Methodism (unlikely in itself) is precipitated by a confrontation with Angel's father, as well as other events, all stretch the boundaries of credibility.

Critics have more generally agreed in their assessment of Hardy as a pessimistic writer. There is ample evidence in Tess to support such an assessment. It is clear, for example, that while Hardy honors the practice of truly pious people like Angel Clare's parents, he recognizes little if anything in their creed to support its claims to possessing an exclusive hold on truth. In this Hardy was very much in step with his time: the nineteenth century had witnessed...

(The entire section is 5,335 words.)