Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Critique of Rigid Moral Codes and Oppressive Christianity

Arguably Hardy's greatest work of fictional prose, Tess was written at a time when age and experience had left him cynical and disaffected. In this essay I shall attempt to elucidate some of the methods he employs in order to parody virtually every facet of Victorian culture, from sexuality to social class. A possible motive of his may be that of a desire to reconcile traditional values, such as family life, with the rise of modernism; female empowerment, industrialisation and increasing religious tolerance would all have likely influenced Hardy's work. It would be easy to label Hardy as a rancorous autodidact, but Tess was the culmination of many years of thinking and marks a subtle change of form; the tragic Mayor of Casterbridge is almost simplistic in comparison with the flippant, often ironic narrative and call to primitivism of Tess.

One of the first things readers come to realise is, I think, the two-dimensional superficiality of the novel's characters. The rural folk and the men in Tess' life are almost Dickensian caricatures, stunted by their station or self. Blind Mrs Stoke-d'Urbervilles, with her penchant for poultry and whistling is surreal to the point of satire, the reclusive harridan evoking the eccentric Miss Havisham. Arguably the only two really developed dramatis personae are Tess and the narrator. It is this belief that forms the preliminary to my arguments for Hardy's attack on rigid moral codes. The events of Tess' life, for example, are given seemingly undue stature; the Biblical metaphors used to describe her passions are at odds with the natural propensities of the modest milkmaid. The apotheosis inflicted on Tess by the narrator is self-evident, when for example we learn of her "ache of modernism", her knowledge of which we can justly be sceptical. One need only look as far as her disoriented abandon to the malevolent Alec - the narrator acerbically doubts any divine benevolence, and draws a comparison to "the ironical Tishbite", Elijah.

Such grandiloquent language might lead one to the conclusion that the narrator is not Hardy; rather Tess' third lover. It appears that the 'comic' aggrandizement of Tess is coloured by his depressing cynicism. There are glimpses of omniscience, that suggest to me that it is essentially his voice, intentionally playing up frivolities (such as Angel's failure to dance with Tess, and Alec's quoting of Milton in a "smockfrock" with a pitchfork) to heighten the level of irony, achieved through feigned ignorance in a very deliberate (and diabolical) burlesque. Therefore although the plot appears to be circumstantially ludicrous, and lacks 'realism' (such as Tess' eventual melodramatic capture at Stonehenge), it gives way for an excess of pathos. By this I mean that the very process

of writing 19th Century literature is being subverted; the aesthetic of the Bildungsroman* gives way to the Natural order of sexuality and suffering. Parallels can be drawn to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, another partially semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, published in 1916. Stylistically, Daedalus very clearly develops through the novel to artistic maturity, vacillating between religious austerity and adolescent debauchery, before finding that appreciation of natural beauty need no longer be a source of shame. Tess by contrast remains a 'child', an odd creature of the Earth who knows only beauty, and sensations. At her death she has undoubtedly suffered greatly, but her maturity is debatable; Stephen the artist, one who is by nature an isolated figure has however determined by the end of the novel to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Tess' forbearance is unorthodox, primitive in origin and she becomes essentially a means, through which Hardy attacks Victorian authoritarianism.

Feminist critics such as Mary Jacobus often regard Tess' suffering as caused by Hardy's perverted, omniscient male eye. Masculine supremacy plays an important role in the novel; womankind in general appears to be shamefully subdued by men. For example, Angel's mother is merely a shadow of her pious husband, and Mrs Stoke-d'Urbervilles is utterly dependent on her son. Both women are sexless. It is also interesting to note that Alec, the licentious wastrel has subsequently no male role model, excepting a brief period under the wing of Mr Clare the preacher.

The younger generation of women, including Marian, Izz and Retty are given new birth, as sexual beings, but are fit only for dairy and arable labour; there is not one independently successful woman (that is, one who is contented, self-sufficient and liberated from male dominion) in the entire text. The disparity between gender, and even generations within that gender is an obvious one. Women's only real hope seems to lie in marriage, recognised by a suspicious Tess in her words, "I fancy it is in your mind, mother"* with regard to a potential union with her richer 'cousin' Alec; her mother's command for Tess to put her "best side outward" is far from subtle.

Nevertheless, this is not to say Hardy was an out-and-out women's rights activist, but his words are surely a call for a revision in Victorian attitudes to gender discrimination. Men are, predictably, portrayed as largely insensitive; their orthodoxy (exemplified in the elder Clare's closed outlook) is made out to be, in Hardy's opinion, merely an outlet of stubbornness. Angel, his father and two brothers are part of an elegiac, dying breed, in a small way representative of the snobbish middle-class; they are victims only of themselves, their only crime - and punishment, to an extent - being their birth. Even Angel's clerical upbringing is traitor to his desire to rise above materiality; he is unable perceive Tess, rather only the quintessence of womanhood personified, indeed a "fresh and virginal daughter of Nature". This is illustrated garishly when, upon learning of her sexual history, he can utter only, "You were one person; now you are another."

It is worthy of mention that Hardy's own daughter, Harriet Taylor disdained such attitudes, as an early proponent of the women's rights movement; intriguingly, she developed an intimacy with John Stuart Mill who shared similar views although advocating more for women's equality than their independence.

The problem of the male narrator ties in closely with Hardy's presentation of sexuality, the second of my five arguments. The deliberate insistence of the subtitle, "A Pure Woman" speaks of a chaste, innocent wife. Tess is clearly the subject of the narrator's admiration, but her mental development is marked by the gradual loss of childhood. This is evident with regard to Farmer Groby's unjust admonitions, which she "took with the greatest coolness, that sort of attack being independent of sex." But this speaks of more than inane male chauvinism. That Tess is a sexual thing is itself a stab at Victorian convention. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) whose own heroine "Beauty" of "Saturday Night in Arcady"3 features a far more acceptable woman, who responds to a similar situation as Tess' but whose response to her seducer becomes deferential, and she implores him not to desert her. Indeed, Beauty's fellow workers "observed [that] when he joked jokes of the most excruciating quality, she laughed with a childlike belief in them". Tess then, is almost a pioneer in the world of fictional women. I believe she is not simply a victim of male aggression; if she was, then in the words of Mary Jacobus, "her sexuality and moral position is uninteresting". They are of no relevance, and Tess becomes just a raped girl.

Hardy's unremitting stance on Tess' "[stirring] to confused surrender" led his manuscript to be rejected by Murray's and Macmillan's magazines for being improperly explicit, wishing her seduction to be 'no more' than rape. In fact, the third magazine, "Graphic" would only publish the novel if Angel carried Tess and the other milkmaids over the ford not in his arms, but in a wheelbarrow! The editor apparently considered this course of action "more decorous". This beautifully underlines the fact that sexual relations between men and women were constantly subject to critical evaluation according to society's yardstick of acceptability - it was so deep rooted that one version of the novel includes a fake marriage ceremony between Alec and Tess. Censorship such as that is an indication I believe of the extent to which Hardy attempts to appraise contemporary morality.

The connotations of the word 'victim' then, are misleading when applied to Tess; if she is 'victim' to anything, it is only herself and her natural desires and confusion (unaccounted for by Victorian Christianity). Moreover, her entire predicament is a sort of angry riposte to the deficit, corrupted views of life maintained (in Hardy's opinion) by the Church.

The representations of religion, sexuality and the narrator come together in a scathing denial of God and all that is holy; some even consider it to be an implication of the opposite. Indeed, "...where was Tess' guardian angel now?"❀ The manner in which Hardy accomplishes this task is by the narrator's ambivalence to Tess' sexual responses. On the one hand, the 'male eye' might appear to take a sadistic pleasure at her misfortune, and "shares in part" Alec's and Angel's misguided views of her, as a purely sexual or purely ideal creature. In this way, Tess is in some manner violated by the narrator, one who unlike Hardy, appears to derive enjoyment from observation of her status mentis. On the other hand, it is also true that the narrator withdraws from major scenes, such as the period immediately after Tess' so-called rape, and the time when she baptises her child, which is a misty, almost surreal experience when one doesn't really have a firm grasp of what's going on.

Our heroine's personal turmoil is palpable as "the hour of emancipation for that little prisoner of the flesh" arrives, and Tess' awful visions lead her to prophesy the "child consigned to the nethermost corner of hell". In a brutally derisive tone, an additional detail is thrown in; the picture of the "arch-fiend" was embellished by Tess with "curious details of torment... taught the young in this Christian country."

Such ambiguity, compounded with this melodramatic view of religion tells of an immature naïveté on the part of the narrator; Hardy's position as an atheist is interesting, although the manner in which he sets up Christian ideology as something to knock down seems a little contrived.

The two men that predominantly interact with Tess give way to her feminine beauty in a primal call to nature, subverting obtuse Christianity. I call it obtuse, because it seems useless and ineffective with those such as Alec, and perhaps it is Hardy's intention to question whether there can ever be true reform. Moreover, the devout Mr. and Mrs. Clare Sr. both appear to be out of touch with reality and the backbreaking labour demanded of rural folk; indeed they are described as having "dropped out of contemporary life" .

When considering marriage for his son, Revd. Clare simply says, "a farmer's wife, yes... it would be desirable"...[suggesting] he'd plainly never thought of these points before." The Clares are of course, by no means symbolic of Christianity in its entirety. However, they are the only ostensibly evangelical Christians, aside from Alec mentioned in the book. Neither are paragons of piety and they are made out to appear comical in the face of everything. Mr. Clare had "in his raw youth, made up his mind once and for all on the deeper questions of existence, and admitted no further reasoning on them thenceforward." The pre-moral, natural order - encroaching upon paganism (but not animism) - is not another moral code. It is founded on honour, passion and labour. It is base, yet complex. This is only supposition; Hardy himself regarded Tess merely as an impression; it doesn't seek to offer anything better, but is an expression of a desire for a nation founded on the ideals of Hellenic Greece.

Ironically, Hardy's vilification of Alec is paralleled in the Bible. Eve's acceptance of the Fruit resembles Tess taking the strawberry from the 'Snake', rendering her indecisive and in a submissive state. In Milton's Paradise Lost, the fallen Eve is described as the tempted daughter of Nature , punished for her act of pride. It is unclear whether this is really a sin; Tess is not perfect, but in Hardy's own words, pride is a "necessary and instinctive assertion of self". In this sense, Tess might be regarded as 'pure'. The presentation of Satan in Book IX reveals his grief upon entering Eden, eight days after being banished from there by Gabriel, traversing the bridge his children Sin and Death built from Hell. The grief is born from his appreciation that Earth was more beautiful than Heaven, and from his jealousy of Adam and Eve for their status as rulers over it. Tormented thus, he is compelled to sin once more by corrupting them (as suggested by Beelzebub at Pandemonium) and further "degenerates" himself - he regrets not being able to enjoy Earth's beauty, and burns inside with a wounded sense of pride. Milton's Satan is one possessing free will just like that of Man, whose mind creates a hell out of something resembling heaven. It is interesting then, to consider Alec's penitent, yet determined destruction of Tess (as a symbol of virginal purity). "I'm sorry to wound you," he says laughing, and adds, "[I'm] a damn bad fellow". If Alec in some way, then, is akin to grief-stricken Satan, I'm not convinced Hardy has any strong case against Christianity; perhaps he is just embittered by personal experience of a culture that could not handle it. The serpent appealed to Eve's pride, saying that the apple from the Tree of Knowledge led him to seek her out, and he flatters her for her beauty. Arguably, Tess' pride was inceptive of her suffering, the 'Snake' "coveting" her, marking the moment, "thus, the thing began." With regard to oppressive versions of Christianity, I think the entire strawberry scene is a jocular one, positively dripping with melodrama. The gravity of Tess "doomed to be seen... by the wrong man" wavers and falls, and one begins to consider Alec as simply human, sinless, and as natural as Tess.

There was a time, around 1853 - 54 that Hardy taught at a parish Sunday school. There was a dairymaid four years older than him present there, who could recite at length, extracts from the Bible by rote. Hardy recalls that she was certainly "no model of virtue", and admitted basing the character Marian on her. Her presentation, as an unappealing, good natured but essentially foolish character confirms for me, Hardy's disgust, at the sort of youths that blindly accepted things a fallacious culture fed them. Religion, or rather the existence of God is constantly ridiculed and jeered at. A critic said of the "President of Immortals [who] had finished his sport with Tess" that Hardy "postulates an all-powerful being endowed with baser human passions". A curt response stated that the ludicrous opinions purported there were those alluding to a "primitive, man-shaped tribal god" and were clearly not his; rather, that the personification of forces opposed to a heroine is a commonly employed literary technique, not a reflection of the author's "evil creed".

Lastly, I intend to look at class and education, and Hardy's opinions on them, and finally how he expresses them. There is a great deal of mention about fatalism throughout the novel, and it seems the glib, stock response to any problem is to say, "It was to be." There may be something of Greek Stoicism, the belief that knowledge is the highest virtue, which "governs nature and is indifferent to the vicissitudes"* of pleasure and pain. But certainly, for the god-fearing folk of Tess' class it seems no tragedy that they suffer so; the extent of Tess' hardships indicate that it is almost inevitable, and that which she must suffer anyway. The "immeasurable social chasm" permeates so deeply into Victorian culture it is difficult to imagine how a working woman might ever rise above the prejudices and material squalor of her society. As Dickens' Oliver Twist portrayed the laughable system of public education, Tess makes quiet mention of the village school;

her "Sixth Standard" education only once coming to her aid, in helping her express the feelings of her nature, "the ache of modernism". Ultimately however, Tess' schooling achieved little, and she herself cries that she "never had the chance o'learning...[that] there was danger in men-folk". In her own words, "I was a child when I left this house" .

I have looked at male supremacy, sexuality, religion, class and education as the means (and ends) of what might be considered as Hardy's bathetic satire. Contentious issues, particularly relating to religion seem sketchy in places. Our narrator speaks little (once, in fact) of Tess' "recuperative" faculties, whilst her suffering comes across as excessively protracted. Nevertheless, on balance I don't think these things detract from the novel, since it is unashamedly not a realistic portrayal of life. Tess is, on the whole, a largely successful critique, but I think it probably says more about Hardy than Victorian society.


*Bildungsroman (German) - "A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character." (Webster's Dictionary). Used contextually here with particular reference to contemporaries such as Dickens' Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


'Thomas Hardy: The Tragic Novels' - edited by R. P. Draper

'The Genius of Thomas Hardy' - edited by Margaret Drabble


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