Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Validity of Tess as a Pessimistic work

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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 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...

(This entire section contains 1082 words.)

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their assessment of Hardy as a pessimistic writer. There is ample evidence inTess 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 waning of the Christian faith in the face of mid-century discoveries in geology (Charles Lyell) and biology (Charles Darwin), and the rise of comparative linguistics, which had begun treating the Bible "scientifically," as an historical document like any other Hardy does locate a universal principle in nature, yet his Wessex is not the deified nature of poet William Wordsworth and many of the other English Romantics. At times, Hardy challenges Wordsworth directly, as when he says, "Some people would like to know whence the poet (Wordsworth) whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his song is breezy and pure, gets his authority to speaking of 'Nature's holy plan.'" Nature for Hardy is instead an arena of conflict between "the two work...everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment." In such an arena, "the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving;" and we are constantly made to distinguish between the world as we perceive it and the world as it might be said to be in and of itself, and thus to acknowledge finally how relatively insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.

Hardy himself objected to the charge of pessimism. While the bitterness or depression many readers feel after reading Tess may seem to make such an objection indefensible, audiences would do well to remember that there are many moments of joy in the novel. The "circumstantial will against enjoyment" is only half of the equation. And if in the end Tess is the victim of circumstance, the "sport" of the "President of the Immortals," those earlier moments of joy have not been without their value. Indeed, her final fugitive tromp through the countryside with Angel, a sort of extended moment, a suspension of the last turning of the wheels of "Justice," is spiritually recuperative to such a degree that when she is captured, Tess says simply and quietly, "I am ready." Thus perhaps redemption is, in Hardy's view, available to us after all, though not in the places we might have expected (e.g., Christian faith) Rather, it is to be found in these moments—"moments of vision" (the title of his fifth volume of verse), "impressions," to be experienced and valued, in the words of Hardy's contemporary Walter Pater in Hardy: A Biography, "simply for those moments' sake."

Source: Stan Walker, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Accident and Coincidence in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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The plot of Tess of the d'Urbervilles turns on a succession of accidents and coincidences. Again and again Tess's tragic fate depends on some disastrous mischance. One or two of these may seem possible—after all is full of mischance—but heaped on top of each other they produce a final effect of gross improbability. Does this matter? Are we to see them as blemishes on an otherwise fine novel; or are they such a pervasive part of it that they must either condemn it or form part of its success.

At its face value the novel suggests not only that these accidents and misfortunes are included by intention but that it is the author's view that life does give human beings just such a succession of kicks downhill to disaster. The refrain 'where was Tess's guardian angel?' is more than an attack on the conventional Christian idea of a benevolent and protecting Almighty; it implies the exact opposite. Our problem, if we don't share this view, is that we see Tess as not so much the victim of Fate, nor as the victim of her own character and circumstances, but as Hardy's personal victim.

It is he who appears to make her suffer her improbable sequence of accidents. In criticizing this effect I do not imply that probability is a criterion by which we should universally or invariably judge. A novel sets its own standards, and no one, to take an obvious example, expects the same 'realism' from Kafka as from Tolstoy. The problem with Hardy's novels is that in most other ways they set up expectations of a quite conventional realism. It is against this self-established standard that the plot of Tess, as much as that of any of his novels which came before it and which it otherwise excels, at first sight appears equally to offend.

I say at first sight because my purpose is to suggest a way of looking at Tess which sees its many accidents and coincidences neither as blemishes, nor as valid samples of Hardy's neither credible nor particularly interesting view of the part played in life by a persecuting fate; if encouragement were needed to search for such a view it would be provided by Tess's many admirers who seem undismayed by its improbabilities, though these begin on the very first page and feature regularly throughout the book.

Setting the scene, and necessary if there is to be any novel at all, is the coincidence of names:the rich north country manufacturer Stoke who buys his way into the southern landed gentry has arbitrarily chosen from a British Museum list of defunct families the name d'Urberville to add to his own, and this is the original name of the family from which Tess Durbeyfield is distantly descended. The story opens with Parson Tringham telling Tess's father about his aristocratic ancestors, which till now he has not known about. John Durbeyfield puts two and two together and makes five, concluding not only that he is related to the Stoke-d'Urbervilles but that he probably belongs to the senior branch.

Up to this point all could be said to be reasonable enough. If it is an accident it is one which sooner or later seems possible if not probable. In any case, even a realistic novelist may, without offending against his own criterion of probability, precipitate his story with such a single event, then stand back to demonstrate with no further interference the inevitable consequences.

There seems no such inevitability about the next kick downhill which Fate gives Tess. Driving her father's cart to market at night because he is too drunk to go, she is run down by the mail coach, and Prince, the horse on which his livelihood as a haggler depends, is pierced to the heart by the mail coach's shaft. Tess's guilt at what she has done persuades her to agree to her mother's plan that she should visit the nouveaux riches Stoke d'Urbervilles in the hope of making a prosperous marriage.

Here she meets the young and buckish Alec d'Urberville; once again a flavour of managed accident surrounds her seduction by him. Her quarrel, late at night in open country, with the drunken Trantridge village women provides her with just the motive which makes plausible her acceptance of Alec's offer of a pillion ride when he spurs up at a convenient moment. Criticism is only disarmed by the splendid dramatic quality of this scene, set as it is with sinister omen and diabolic detail.

At Talbothays, where Tess goes a few years later and after the death of her child to become a milkmaid, who should she meet but Angel Clare, the young man who, in a more insidious but surer way, is to lead her to her tragic end.

From this moment the plot turns on Angel's plan to marry Tess, and on whether or not Tess can bring herself to confess her sinful past with Alec d'Urberville before their wedding day. Though she can't tell Angel to his face she at last makes herself write to him and late at night pushes the letter under his door. Only on her wedding eve does she discover that Fate has struck again: she has accidently pushed it under the carpet as well as the door and Angel has never received it.

Her confession after her marriage leads to their separation, Angel to go to Brazil, Tess to return to Marlott. He has left her an allowance but a succession of minor misfortunes—in particular the neediness and imprudence of her parents—leaves Tess destitute by the time winter comes. Angel has told her that she should go to his parents if she is ever in need, but Fate, which has already put him personally beyond her reach, closes this escape too. She walks to Emminster and finds Angel's father, the vicar, out. Before she can try his door again Angel's brothers discover her walking boots which she has hidden on the outskirts of the village and Miss Mercy Chant bears them off for charity. Tess's courage fails her and she turns for home. "It was somewhat unfortunate," Hardy writes, "that she had encountered the sons and not the father, who, despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they, and had to the full the gift of Christian charity." Though we may read this as a confession of clumsy plotting, that is far from Hardy's intention. His tone is ironic. The world may consider that Tess here suffered an improbable and untypical stroke of ill luck, but Hardy, better informed about the working of Fate, knows that such accidents are in fact typical and probable.

Meanwhile Tess has taken on the humblest and most oppressive sort of agricultural labour: work on arable land The description of her grubbing up swedes for cattle food, creeping across the icy uplands of Flintcomb Ash in drenching rain, is one of the most memorable in the book. And who should turn out to be her employer but a farmer who knows her past and whom Angel once struck on the jaw when he insultingly hinted at it during the last days before their marriage. Inevitably he takes his revenge on Tess.

Alec d'Urberville's conversion to evangelical Christianity—coincidentally performed by Angel Clare's father—now gives Alec the chance to harass Tess again and, more important, weakens her power to resist him. The scene is set for her final disastrous return to Alec. The various letters Angel ultimately receives from her and from others reach him at moments which time his return exactly too late to save her from the murder of Alec and ultimately the gallows.

Though this is only a brief selection of the blows which Fate stakes Tess, I hope it is sufficient to show that the plot of the novel turns on a succession of disastrous accidents which far exceeds realistic probability But as in all such abstracts, vital elements which seem unrelated to the book's plot have been left out, in particular one to which Hardy persistently returns even though his attention is overtly directed towards Tess and her personal tragedy. This is the equally sure and tragic destruction of the traditional society of the English village

Twice he shows us mechanized agriculture at work; on the first occasion he describes how the reaping machine, with its red arms in the shape of a Maltese cross, gradually reduces the standing corn.

Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of upright wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters

It needs little intuition to see that Hardy is here describing by parallel the fate of the human inhabitants of such a village as Marlott. Humans themselves are the victims on the second occasion. Tess and her fellow workers who feed the monstrous itinerant threshing machine at Flintcombe Ash, with its diabolical master....

Apart from the implications of such incidents, Hardy as author continually comments on the changing and deteriorating condition of rural Wessex. The May Day dance, for example, where we first meet Tess, is "a gay survival from Old Style days when cheerfulness and May were synonyms". The refreshments which the rural labourers of Trantridge drink on Saturday nights are "curious compounds sold to them as beer by the monopolizers of the once independent inns". Still more important, it is the tenant farmers, deprived of their mdependence, who are 'the natural enemies of bush and brake', and to whom Tess falls victim at the lowest point of her decline at Flintcombe Ash.

And it is because Tess's family are victims of another aspect of this destruction of rural independence that she is finally exposed once more to Alec d'Urberville. As soon as her father dies her mother loses her right to their cottage, and the family must join all those other labourers' families which take to the road on Lady Day, their worldly goods loaded on to hired waggons, to hunt for new jobs and homes. Oppressed by responsibility for her family, she no longer feels she has the moral right to resist his advances when they could bring with them the financial help she so badly needs.

Indeed, a good many of Tess's misfortunes turn out, on closer inspection, to have economic causes which seem almost as important as the random vengefulness of Fate to which Hardy attributes them. It is only a short step from realizing this to wondering whether Hardy is not—consciously or unconsciously—concerned throughout the book not so much with Tess's personal fortune as with her fate as a personification of rural Wessex.

Just why Tess should be an appropriate figure to play this part is clearly explained in Chapter II, in a passage which holds the clue to the book's social message....

At once much that appeared arbitrary becomes logical. The destruction of the haggler's daughter no longer seems a cruel mischance, but inevitable. And many more of the accidents she suffers, which on a personal level seem so excessive and gratuitous, become those which her class must suffer.

The mail coach which runs down the haggler's cart and kills his horse is the vehicle which will destroy the livelihood of all hagglers, whether they are drunkards like John Durbeyfield, or sober and hard-working. Deprived of their former independence, the children of this village middle class will be driven downwards into just the sort of menial labouring jobs that Tess is forced to take. Her downward progress from milkmaid to arable worker of the lowest sort is the path ahead for all of them.

Tess is of course many other things as well. She is, for example, the embodiment of "nature" and in particular of natural womanhood. "Women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date." And however much she may stand for a principle or a passing society, she remains a lost and frightened human being in a world which misleads then persecutes her. Scenes such as the splendid but appalling one in which she baptizes her dying child in her bedroom wash basin may indeed seem to establish her tragedy too clearly as a personal one for the interpretation I am suggesting.

But such a view of Tess becomes less and less satisfactory as Hardy inflicts on her a less and less probable sequence of accidental and coincidental misfortune. It is only when she is seen to some extent also to be a daughter of the doomed rural England which Hardy loved, and in particular of that class m the rural community from which Hardy himself came and which was once "the backbone of the village life" that her fate no longer seems arbitrary and author-imposed but inescapable.

Source: Thomas Hinde, "Accident and Coincidence in Tess of the d'Urbervilles," in The Genius of Thomas Hardy, edited by Margaret Drabble, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp 74-79

Repetition as Imminent Design

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The episodes of Tess of the d'Urbervilles take place in a line, each following the last. Ultimately they form a row traced out in time, just as Tess's course is traced across the roads of southern England. Each episode in Tess's life, as it occurs, adds itself to previous ones, and, as they accumulate, behold, they make a pattern. They make a design traced through time and on the landscape of England, like the prehistoric horses carved out on the chalk downs. Suddenly, to the retrospective eye of the narrator, of the reader, and ultimately even of the protagonist herself, the pattern is there. Each event, as it happens, is alienated from itself and swept up into the design. It ceases to be enclosed in itself and through its resonances with other events becomes a sign referring to previous and to later episodes which are signs in their turn. When an event becomes a sign it ceases to be present. It becomes other than itself, a reference to something else. For this reason Tess's violation and the murder must not be described directly. They do not happen as present events because they occur as repetitions of a pattern of violence which exists only in its recurrences and has always already occurred, however far back one goes.

In one way or another most analyses of prose fiction, including most interpretations of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, are based on the presupposition that a novel is a centered structure which may be interpreted if that center can be identified. This center will be outside the play of elements in the work and will explain and organize them into a fixed pattern of meaning deriving from this center. Hardy's insistent asking of the question "Why does Tess suffer so?" has led critics to assume that their main task is to find the explanatory cause. The reader tends to assume that Hardy's world is in one way or another deterministic. Readers have, moreover, tended to assume that this cause will be single. It will be some one force, original and originating. The various causes proposed have been social, psychological, genetic, material, mythical, metaphysical, or coincidental. Each such interpretation describes the text as a process of totalization from the point of departure of some central principle that makes things happen as they happen. Tess has been described as the victim of social changes in nineteenth-century England, or of her own personality, or of her inherited nature, or of physical or biological forces, or of Alec and Angel as different embodiments of man's inhumanity to woman. She has been explained in terms of mythical prototypes, as a Victorian fertility goddess, or as the helpless embodiment of the Immanent Will, or as a victim of unhappy coincidence, sheer hazard, or happenstance, or as the puppet of Hardy's deliberate or unconscious manipulations.

The novel provides evidence to support any or all of these interpretations. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, like Hardy's work in general, is overdetermined. The reader is faced with an embarrassment of riches. The problem is not that there are no explanations proposed in the text, but that there are too many. A large group of incompatible causes or explanations are present in the novel. It would seem that they cannot all be correct My following through of some threads in the intricate web of Hardy's text has converged toward the conclusion that it is wrong in principle to assume that there must be some single accounting cause. For Hardy, the design has no source. It happens. It does not come into existence in any one version of the design which serves as a model for the others. There is no "original version," only an endless sequence of them, rows and rows written down as it were "in some old book," always recorded from some previously existing exemplar.

An emblem in the novel for this generation of meaning from a repetitive sequence is that red sign Tess sees painted by the itinerant preacher THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT. Each episode of the novel, or each element in its chains of recurrent motifs, is like one of these words. Each is a configuration which draws its meaning from its spacing in relation to the others. In the strange notation of the sign-painter, this gap is designated by the comma. The comma is a mark of punctuation which signifies nothing in itself but punctuation, a pause. The comma indicates the spacing in the rhythm of articulation that makes meaning possible. Each episode of the novel is, like one of the words in the sign, separated from the others, but when all are there in a row the meaning emerges. This meaning is not outside the words but within them. Such is the coercive power of pre-established syntactic sequences, that a reader is able to complete an incomplete pattern of words. Tess completes in terror and shame the second sign the painter writes: THOU, SHALT, NOT, COMMIT, and the reader knows that the relation of 'Liza-Lu and Angel will repeat in some new way the universal pattern of suffering, betrayal, and unfulfilled desire which has been established through its previous versions in the book.

Tess wanders through her life like a sleepwalker, unaware of the meaning of what she is doing. She seeks a present satisfaction which always eludes her until her final happiness in the shadow of death. Her damnation, however, slumbereth not. This "damnation" lies in the fact that whatever she does becomes a sign, takes on a meaning alienated from her intention. Hardy affirms his sense of the meaning of Tess's story not by explaining its causes but by objectively tracing out her itinerary so that its pattern ultimately emerges for the reader to see.

Hardy's notion of fatality is the reflex of his notion of chance. Out of the "flux and reflux—the rhythm of change" which "alternate[s] and persists] in everything under the sky" ... emerges as if by miracle the pattern of repetitions in difference forming the design of Tess's life. Such repetitions produce similarity out of difference and are controlled by no center, origin, or end outside the chain of recurrent elements. For Tess of the d'Urbervilles this alternative to the traditional metaphysical concept of repetition emerges as the way the text produces and affirms its meaning.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, like Hardy's other novels, brilliantly explores the implications for an understanding of human life of a form of repetition which is immanent. Such a sequence is without a source outside the series.

On the basis of this definition of immanent repetition, it is possible to identify what Hardy means by the first half of his definition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles as "an attempt to give artistic form to a true sequence of things." The artistic form is the novelist's interpretation of the events. This interpretation does not falsify the events, but it imposes meaning on them by reading them in a certain way, as a sentence may have entirely different meanings depending on how it is articulated. The meaning is there and not there. It is a matter of position, of emphasis, of spacing, of punctuation.

Attention is insistently called to the act of reading, in the broad sense of deciphering, throughout Tess. One way is the many examples of false interpretation which are exposed by the narrator. These include the comic example of the bull who thought it was Christmas Eve because he heard the Nativity Hymn, or the more serious dramatization of Angel's infatuation with Tess and his interpretation of her as like Artemis or like Demeter..., or the description of Tess's "idolatry" of Angel..., or Tess's false reading of nature as reproaching her for her impurity. All interpretation is the imposition of a pattern by a certain way of making cross-connections between one sign and those which come before or after Any interpretation is an artistic form given to the true sequence of things. Meaning in such a process emerges from a reciprocal act in which both the interpreter and what is interpreted contribute to the making or the finding of a pattern....

To add a new interpretation to the interpretation already proposed by the author is to attach another link to the chain of interpretations. The reader takes an impression in his turn. He represents to himself what already exists purely as a representation. To one purity the reader adds a subsequent purity of his own. This is Hardy's version of the notion of multiple valid but incompatible interpretations....

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in any case, the narrator always presents not only the event with its "objective" elements, but also his interpretation of the event. At the same time he shows his awareness that the interpretation is "purely" imposed not inherent, except as it is one possibility among a limited repertoire of others. An example would be the "objective" description of the sun casting its beams on Tess. This is first interpreted as like the act of a god, but that interpretation is then ironically undercut: "His present aspect ... explained the old time heliolatries in a moment."... The narrator's act in not only describing the true sequence of things but also giving it artistic form is shown as what it is by its doubling within the text in the interpretative acts of the characters. The narrator always sees clearly what is "subjective" in Tess's reading of her life, but this insight casts back to undermine his own readings These multiple acts of interpretation are not misinterpretations in relation to some "true" interpretation. Each telling, even the most clear-sighted one, is another reading in its turn. The bare "reality" Angel sees when he falls out of love with Tess is as much an interpretation as the transfiguration of the world he experiences when he sees her as a goddess and the world as irradiated by her presence.

The power of readings to go on multiplying means that Tess's wish to be "forgotten quite" cannot be fulfilled. The chain of interpretations will continue to add new links. Tess can die, but the traces of her life will remain, for example in the book which records the impression she has made on the narrator's imagination. Her life has a power of duplicating itself which cancels the ending her failure to have progeny might have brought. The life of her sister will be, beyond the end of the book, another repetition with a difference of the pattern of Tess's life. Beyond that, the reader comes to see, there will be another, and then another, ad infini-tum. If the novel is the impression made on Hardy's candid mind by Tess's story, the candid reader is invited to receive the impression again in his turn, according to that power of a work of art to repeat itself indefinitely to which the novel calls attention in a curious passage concerning Tess's sensitivity to music. Here is a final bit of evidence that Hardy saw the principle of repetition, in life as in art, as impersonal, immanent, and self-proliferating rather than as controlled by any external power, at least once a given repeatable sequence gets recorded in some form of notation or "trace." The "simplest music" has "a power over" Tess which can "well-nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times."... She reflects on the strange coercive effect church music has on her feelings: "She thought, without exactly wording the thought, how strange and godlike was a composer's power, who from the grave could lead through sequences of emotion, which he alone had felt at first, a girl like her who had never heard of his name, and never would have a clue to his personality."... In the same way, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, as long as a single copy exists, will have its strange and godlike power to lead its readers through some version of the sequences of emotion for which it provides the notation.

Source: J. Hillis Miller, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles- Repetition as Imminent Design," in his Fiction and Repetition' Seven English Novels, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp 116-42.


Critical Overview