Priya said she cried toward the end for the cruel fate Tess met at the hands of Hardy. That put Joe in mind of a similar complaint against Flaubert for having ill-used Emma Bovary. The sense was that Flaubert did entertain a bad opinion of Emma (if such a thing is possible between an author and the creature of his imagination), but not Tess; she was the darling of Hardy's imagination, most agree.
Thomas Hardy lived from June, 1840 to Jan 1928. A remarkable coincidence is that we are here today to discuss his most popular novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, on his 171st birth anniversary, which is also the 120th anniversary of the publication of Tess.
It is a testament to the appeal of the book that it continues to be read, is prescribed in English lit courses, and has become something of a classic. It is not easy for today’s readers to appreciate the nuances of emotion, and the twists and turns of events as the story progresses.
The two major characters, Tess and Angel Clare, are almost alien to our present consciousness, and so are the values they upheld. Tess was a pitiable victim of her circumstances. Though the author solidly backed her character, yet, Hardy portrays Tess as a very weak person, who remained helpless. And her love for Angel Clare was rather irrational in my opinion, with a tinge of hallucination about it. She could not judge him realistically until it was too late.
I thought Angel Clare, in the guise of a “Good man, and a clever man” did more wrong to Tess than the villainous Alec. On the other hand, all the minor characters (Sir John and Joan Durbeyfield, Angel’s parents, and the three milkmaid friends) are characters, still extant in our time, in some form or the other. Alec d’Urbervilles is a pivotal character of the story. Let me, make a separate category for him: The Villain.
Wherein lies the appeal of this book today, I pondered?
In our younger days, long back, young women read Hardy’s novels but not young men. Such novels appealed to women as love-stories, and stories of ordinary home life, and all Hardy's books came with the hallmark of “Classics.” I wonder if young women today would willingly read Hardy’s novels, unless they are included in their Lit course syllabus. I don't intend to enter into a debate whether Tess may be called a true Classic. Or merely a landmark piece of literary work in its time by an author who acquired great fame.
But, I enjoyed reading the book again. In fact, I enjoyed the book more this time round. It is not the story that appealed to me so much as Hardy’s prose. It is unique. It is very poetic and descriptive. His style is relaxed and precise at the same time. He took time to describe the many moods of nature in his beloved Wessex landscape; and skilfully made a connection between nature and the varying moods within his novel. I could easily compare his pen pictures with the paintings of some of the great Impressionists of the 19th Century.
A few selected passages below will highlight Thomas Hardy’s delight in words.
KumKum felt so carried away by the novel and its enchanting heroine who comes a-cropper at the end (and at several places in between) that she wrote a short poem to express her feelings. More than Angel Clare, she felt it was Hardy who had abandoned Tess. Here is the verse she recited:
Purity's a relative term in dairy farms,
It couldn't save Tess from sundry harms.
Nor could that epigraph defend
The wretched woman from her tragic end.
Sure, Tess was Pure in Hardy's mind,
And imaginings of Angel's kind;
Both these men are guilty, equally so,
They let down Tess, knowing she'd no place to go.
Wow! There was a round of general applause.
The question is: did Hardy condemn her? The simple answer is yes, he condemned Tess to a bad end. But on the other hand we have this from an interviewer of Black and White magazine, dated 27 August 1892, who reported that Hardy told him:
Talitha gave another answer, stemming from the word 'murderess' which occurs at the beginning (in connection with the horse named Prince): "she regarded herself in the light of a murderess.” And at the end she does become a murderess in truth.
b) she is raped
c) she is arrested
She undertakes to repair the damage to their fortunes by going to work at the place of her supposed rich relatives in Trantridge. “Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself.”
Tess's problems are twofold. She is exceedingly lovely; not merely do the men she comes in contact with fall for her – but even the author is patently in love with the character he created: a person of elevation and nobility of thought, and considerable spunk and intelligence, in the garb of a a milkmaid from a humble background. Because she is lovely and men fall for her, she is constantly buzzed by them, and their attention is often unwelcome.
Hardy's explicit notice in the subtitle ('A Pure Woman') should have made it clear that “the estimate left in a candid mind of the heroine's character” must be her essential purity. But the subtitle was disputed more than anything else in the book. In the 1912 edition Hardy wrote in Latin regarding this: melius fierat non scribere or 'It would have been better not to write it.'
Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
Of my day's work as done.
Soma made the important point that with every rape comes a sense of guilt in the woman. She may be the absolute victim, but even so she entertains a vague sense of guilt in the forced union.
Till this moment she had never seen or heard from d'Urberville since her departure from Trantridge.
The lad stood before Durbeyfield, and contemplated his length from crown to toe.
"Ees. I've been there to Greenhill Fair."
"Well, under the church of that city there lie—"
"'Tisn't a city, the place I mean; leastwise 'twaddn' when I was there—'twas a little one-eyed, blinking sort o' place."
"Never you mind the place, boy, that's not the question before us. Under the church of that there parish lie my ancestors—hundreds of 'em—in coats of mail and jewels, in gr't lead coffins weighing tons and tons. There's not a man in the county o' South-Wessex that's got grander and nobler skillentons in his family than I."
"Now take up that basket, and goo on to Marlott, and when you've come to The Pure Drop Inn, tell 'em to send a horse and carriage to me immed'ately, to carry me hwome. And in the bottom o' the carriage they be to put a noggin o' rum in a small bottle, and chalk it up to my account. And when you've done that goo on to my house with the basket, and tell my wife to put away that washing, because she needn't finish it, and wait till I come hwome, as I've news to tell her."
As the lad stood in a dubious attitude, Durbeyfield put his hand in his pocket, and produced a shilling, one of the chronically few that he possessed.
"Here's for your labour, lad."
This made a difference in the young man's estimate of the position.
"Yes, Sir John. Thank 'ee. Anything else I can do for 'ee, Sir John?"
"Tell 'em at hwome that I should like for supper,—well, lamb's fry if they can get it; and if they can't, black-pot; and if they can't get that, well chitterlings will do."
"Yes, Sir John."
The boy took up the basket, and as he set out the notes of a brass band were heard from the direction of the village.
"What's that?" said Durbeyfield. "Not on account o' I?"
"'Tis the women's club-walking, Sir John. Why, your da'ter is one o' the members."
"I am inclined to go and have a fling with them. Why not all of us—just for a minute or two—it will not detain us long?"
"No—no; nonsense!" said the first. "Dancing in public with a troop of country hoydens—suppose we should be seen! Come along, or it will be dark before we get to Stourcastle, and there's no place we can sleep at nearer than that; besides, we must get through another chapter of A Counterblast to Agnosticism before we turn in, now I have taken the trouble to bring the book."
Tess, who mused on the christening a good deal, wondered if it were doctrinally sufficient to secure a Christian burial for the child. Nobody could tell this but the parson of the parish, and he was a new-comer, and did not know her. She went to his house after dusk, and stood by the gate, but could not summon courage to go in. The enterprise would have been abandoned if she had not by accident met him coming homeward as she turned away. In the gloom she did not mind speaking freely.
"I should like to ask you something, sir."
He expressed his willingness to listen, and she told the story of the baby's illness and the extemporized ordinance. "And now, sir," she added earnestly, "can you tell me this—will it be just the same for him as if you had baptized him?"
Having the natural feelings of a tradesman at finding that a job he should have been called in for had been unskilfully botched by his customers among themselves, he was disposed to say no. Yet the dignity of the girl, the strange tenderness in her voice, combined to affect his nobler impulses—or rather those that he had left in him after ten years of endeavour to graft technical belief on actual scepticism. The man and the ecclesiastic fought within him, and the victory fell to the man.
"My dear girl," he said, "it will be just the same."
"Then will you give him a Christian burial?" she asked quickly.
The Vicar felt himself cornered. Hearing of the baby's illness, he had conscientiously gone to the house after nightfall to perform the rite, and, unaware that the refusal to admit him had come from Tess's father and not from Tess, he could not allow the plea of necessity for its irregular administration.
"Ah—that's another matter," he said.
"Another matter—why?" asked Tess, rather warmly.
"Well—I would willingly do so if only we two were concerned. But I must not—for certain reasons."
"Just for once, sir!"
"Really I must not."
"O sir!" She seized his hand as she spoke.
He withdrew it, shaking his head.
"Then I don't like you!" she burst out, "and I'll never come to your church no more!"
"Don't talk so rashly."
"Perhaps it will be just the same to him if you don't? … Will it be just the same? Don't for God's sake speak as saint to sinner, but as you yourself to me myself—poor me!"
How the Vicar reconciled his answer with the strict notions he supposed himself to hold on these subjects it is beyond a layman's power to tell, though not to excuse. Somewhat moved, he said in this case also—
"It will be just the same."
The lantern hanging at her waggon had gone out, but another was shining in her face—much brighter than her own had been. Something terrible had happened. The harness was entangled with an object which blocked the way.
In consternation Tess jumped down, and discovered the dreadful truth. The groan had proceeded from her father's poor horse Prince. The morning mail-cart, with its two noiseless wheels, speeding along these lanes like an arrow, as it always did, had driven into her slow and unlighted equipage. The pointed shaft of the cart had entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword, and from the wound his life's blood was spouting in a stream, and falling with a hiss into the road.
In her despair Tess sprang forward and put her hand upon the hole, with the only result that she became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops. Then she stood helplessly looking on. Prince also stood firm and motionless as long as he could; till he suddenly sank down in a heap.
By this time the mail-cart man had joined her, and began dragging and unharnessing the hot form of Prince. But he was already dead, and, seeing that nothing more could be done immediately, the mail-cart man returned to his own animal, which was uninjured.
"You was on the wrong side," he said. "I am bound to go on with the mail-bags, so that the best thing for you to do is bide here with your load. I'll send somebody to help you as soon as I can. It is getting daylight, and you have nothing to fear."
He mounted and sped on his way; while Tess stood and waited. The atmosphere turned pale, the birds shook themselves in the hedges, arose, and twittered; the lane showed all its white features, and Tess showed hers, still whiter. The huge pool of blood in front of her was already assuming the iridescence of coagulation; and when the sun rose a hundred prismatic hues were reflected from it. Prince lay alongside, still and stark; his eyes half open, the hole in his chest looking scarcely large enough to have let out all that had animated him.
"'Tis all my doing—all mine!" the girl cried, gazing at the spectacle. "No excuse for me—none. What will mother and father live on now? Aby, Aby!" She shook the child, who had slept soundly through the whole disaster. "We can't go on with our load—Prince is killed!"
When Abraham realized all, the furrows of fifty years were extemporized on his young face.
"Why, I danced and laughed only yesterday!" she went on to herself. "To think that I was such a fool!"
"'Tis because we be on a blighted star, and not a sound one, isn't it, Tess?" murmured Abraham through his tears.
In silence they waited through an interval which seemed endless. At length a sound, and an approaching object, proved to them that the driver of the mail-car had been as good as his word. A farmer's man from near Stourcastle came up, leading a strong cob. He was harnessed to the waggon of beehives in the place of Prince, and the load taken on towards Casterbridge.
The evening of the same day saw the empty waggon reach again the spot of the accident. Prince had lain there in the ditch since the morning; but the place of the blood-pool was still visible in the middle of the road, though scratched and scraped over by passing vehicles. All that was left of Prince was now hoisted into the waggon he had formerly hauled, and with his hoofs in the air, and his shoes shining in the setting sunlight, he retraced the eight or nine miles to Marlott.
Tess had gone back earlier. How to break the news was more than she could think. It was a relief to her tongue to find from the faces of her parents that they already knew of their loss, though this did not lessen the self-reproach which she continued to heap upon herself for her negligence.
But the very shiftlessness of the household rendered the misfortune a less terrifying one to them than it would have been to a thriving family, though in the present case it meant ruin, and in the other it would only have meant inconvenience. In the Durbeyfield countenances there was nothing of the red wrath that would have burnt upon the girl from parents more ambitious for her welfare. Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself.
When it was discovered that the knacker and tanner would give only a very few shillings for Prince's carcase because of his decrepitude, Durbeyfield rose to the occasion.
"No," said he stoically, "I won't sell his old body. When we d'Urbervilles was knights in the land, we didn't sell our chargers for cat's meat. Let 'em keep their shillings! He've served me well in his lifetime, and I won't part from him now."
He worked harder the next day in digging a grave for Prince in the garden than he had worked for months to grow a crop for his family. When the hole was ready, Durbeyfield and his wife tied a rope round the horse and dragged him up the path towards it, the children following in funeral train. Abraham and 'Liza-Lu sobbed, Hope and Modesty discharged their griefs in loud blares which echoed from the walls; and when Prince was tumbled in they gathered round the grave. The bread-winner had been taken away from them; what would they do?
"Is he gone to heaven?" asked Abraham, between the sobs.
"The most bewitching milkmaid ever seen."
The parson is the source of the troubles of Tess
“Don't you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d'Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d'Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?"
"Never heard it before, sir!"
May Dancing – first description of Tess with colour red. A young member of the band turned her head at the exclamation. She was a fine and handsome girl—not handsomer than some others, possibly—but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment.
Tess has a strawberry.
Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible; but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him. He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
"Yes," said Tess, "when they come."
"They are already here." D'Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the "British Queen" variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
"No—no!" she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. "I would rather take it in my own hand."
"Nonsense!" he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
Alex lays Tess in the bushes."Tess!" said d'Urberville.
There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D'Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe.
Clare's first thought of Tess"What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!" he said to himself.
Clare chats up Tess. a good line to win a girlWhy," he said with some enthusiasm, "I should be only too glad, my dear Tess, to help you to anything in the way of history, or any line of reading you would like to take up—"
Flirting with a bevy of women"I'll carry you through the pool—every Jill of you." (Clare agreeing to lift Izz, Retty, Tess, and Marian across the flooding river)
Quoting Scripture to flirt"There's a time for everything," continued Izz, unheeding. "A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; the first is now going to be mine."
Another good scriptural line to have a fling with one girl out of many"Three Leahs to get one Rachel," he whispered.
Here's one more:
“You are like an undulating billow warmed by the sun. And all this fluff of muslin about you is the froth."
Tess in the famously erotic passage when she has just awoken on a summer afternoon:
She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth: as if it had been a snake's. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfullness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the presentation. (Ch. 27, p. 231, italics mine)
Joan Durbeyfield's admonition to her daughter, Tess“ … on no account do you say a word of your Bygone Trouble to him.
Another fateful line that summarises the plotStanding there, he for the first time doubted whether his course in this conjecture had been a wise, much less a generous, one. But had he not been cruelly blinded? In the incoherent multitude of his emotions he knelt down at the bedside wet-eyed. "O Tess! If you had only told me sooner, I would have forgiven you!" he mourned.
Alec closes in on Tess“Yet you most unjustly forget one thing, that I would have married you if you had not put it out of my power to do so. Did I not ask you flatly to be my wife—hey? Answer me."
"And you cannot be. But remember one thing!" His voice hardened as his temper got the better of him with the recollection of his sincerity in asking her and her present ingratitude, and he stepped across to her side and held her by the shoulders, so that she shook under his grasp. "Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man's wife you are mine!"
But the complexion even of external things seemed to suffer transmutation as her announcement progressed. The fire in the grate looked impish—demoniacally funny, as if it did not care in the least about her strait. The fender grinned idly, as if it too did not care. The light from the water-bottle was merely engaged in a chromatic problem. All material objects around announced their irresponsibility with terrible iteration. And yet nothing had changed since the moments when he had been kissing her; or rather, nothing in the substance of things. But the essence of things had changed.
When she ceased, the auricular impressions from their previous endearments seemed to hustle away into the corner of their brains, repeating themselves as echoes from a time of supremely purblind foolishness.
Clare performed the irrelevant act of stirring the fire; the intelligence had not even yet got to the bottom of him. After stirring the embers he rose to his feet; all the force of her disclosure had imparted itself now. His face had withered. In the strenuousness of his concentration he treadled fitfully on the floor. He could not, by any contrivance, think closely enough; that was the meaning of his vague movement. When he spoke it was in the most inadequate, commonplace voice of the many varied tones she had heard from him.
"Am I to believe this? From your manner I am to take it as true. O you cannot be out of your mind! You ought to be! Yet you are not… My wife, my Tess—nothing in you warrants such a supposition as that?"
"I am not out of my mind," she said.
"And yet—" He looked vacantly at her, to resume with dazed senses: "Why didn't you tell me before? Ah, yes, you would have told me, in a way—but I hindered you, I remember!"
These and other of his words were nothing but the perfunctory babble of the surface while the depths remained paralyzed. He turned away, and bent over a chair. Tess followed him to the middle of the room, where he was, and stood there staring at him with eyes that did not weep. Presently she slid down upon her knees beside his foot, and from this position she crouched in a heap.
"In the name of our love, forgive me!" she whispered with a dry mouth. "I have forgiven you for the same!"
And, as he did not answer, she said again—
"Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel."
"You—yes, you do."
"But you do not forgive me?"
"O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God—how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque—prestidigitation as that!"
He paused, contemplating this definition; then suddenly broke into horrible laughter—as unnatural and ghastly as a laugh in hell.
"Don't—don't! It kills me quite, that!" she shrieked. "O have mercy upon me—have mercy!"
He did not answer; and, sickly white, she jumped up.
"Angel, Angel! what do you mean by that laugh?" she cried out. "Do you know what this is to me?"
He shook his head.
"I have been hoping, longing, praying, to make you happy! I have thought what joy it will be to do it, what an unworthy wife I shall be if I do not! That's what I have felt, Angel!"
"I know that."
"I thought, Angel, that you loved me—me, my very self! If it is I you do love, O how can it be that you look and speak so? It frightens me! Having begun to love you, I love you for ever—in all changes, in all disgraces, because you are yourself. I ask no more. Then how can you, O my own husband, stop loving me?"
"I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you."
"Until you come to me I must not try to come to you?"
"May I write to you?"
"O yes—if you are ill, or want anything at all. I hope that will not be the case; so that it may happen that I write first to you."
She had no fear of the shadows; her sole idea seemed to be to shun mankind—or rather that cold accretion called the world, which, so terrible in the mass, is so unformidable, even pitiable, in its units.