Art of Characterisation in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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      Unlike Dickens, Hardy was neither a character monger nor was he interested in the personages of his stories for their own sake. He was wholly occupied with the problem of man’s place in the universe in relation to the Power (or powers) which governs it. This did not leave much scope for him to portray individual men and women and so, the revelation of their individualities could not become his primary concern. Not only that the inner life of the character is left unexplored, in view of his concentration on the grand issues of life (man’s struggle against Fate and the tragic possibilities flowing there from, for example), but whatever characterization is actually undertaken, is meant to emphasize those issues in their impact on the human situation. This explains the fact of Hardy’s important characters in his novels sharing “a family likeness” and more or less falling into recognizable categories—the devoted, suffering type and the romantic, possessive ones among the women and the selfless, sacrificing spirits along with the seducers, lady-killing type among the men. But for the few intellectual characters (Angel Clare, Jude, etc.) who are certainly not fully “realized”, he is content to present variations on the patent type, placing them in the familiar surroundings of Wessex which itself is a small, narrow world with well-defined boundaries.

      From the point of view of characterization, Hardy is one of the greatest novelists in English literature. He stands very high among the novelists of his age. His characters are drawn with the subtle art and skill of a painter. He has presented them in relation to their circumstances and has laid great emphasis on the influence of heredity and environment. They are born to suffer and are puppets in the hands of a cruel Fate or Destiny, chance or coincidence. But here too he has his limitations within which he has created wonderful persons whom we can never forget.

      The range of Hardy’s characters is limited on account of his philosophy and attachment to Wessex. It means that his characters are not drawn from all classes of society as we find in the case of other novelists. He cannot present every type of human beings. He fails to present a very clever type of intellectual or an aristocrat. He is satisfied with the rustic life and with the tragedy of the simple and the poor. But within these limitations, he has achieved considerable success. In Hardy’s novel, writes David Cecil, “man is presented to the reader as the helpless creature of impersonal circumstances, the circumstances become as important as the men. He certainly cannot dominate them. Further Hardy is concerned with men rather than individual man. The differences between John and Henry are not so important in his portrait as the qualities they share. Indeed, quite apart from the limitations imposed by his range, Hardy did not have the power to conceive characters very variously. Here his talent is a narrow one compared with that of some writers. His memorable characters all have a family likeness. Most of them indeed can be grouped into a few simple categories. There is the staunch, selfless, tender-hearted hero - Gabriel Oak, Giles Winter Brone, John Loveday, Diggory Venn; there is the dashing, fickle breaker of hearts—Troy, Wildeve, Fitzpiers, d’Urberville; there are the patient, devoted, forgiving women—Tess, Marty, Elizabeth Jane; there is the wilful, capricious, but fundamentally good-hearted girls—Bathsheba, Grace, Fancy, Anne; there are the passion-tormented romantic enchantresses—Eustacia, Mrs. Charmond, Lucetta, Lady Constantine.” Sometimes he modifies one type by mixing in a quality from another. But “when Hardy deliberately attempts to break away into a new type he fails in the end to make it intrinsically different from the old Sue, in Jude is intended to be a portrait of the advanced woman of Hardy’s day—neurotic and intellectual. Painstakingly he makes her talk at length about the marriage problem and the difficulties of religious belief; but her conversation does not ring true - it is not the expression of her personality. The basic structure of her character is conceived on the old lines. Under her Ibsenite skin, she is the sister of Grace and Anne and Bathsheba.”

      Hardy penetrates into human hearts and presents the conflict, the passions and the ideas that exist within the hearts of his character. Each one of his novels is a “Soul’s Tragedy.” His is the “characterization from within” with a touch of the “characterization from without” for he tells us all about their outward appearance as well as their inner ideas and conflicts. But he primarily concerns himself with the working of human heart. He goes below the surface of individual idiosyncrasies and reveals the conflicts or passions that disturb it.

      He deviates from the line set by his predecessors in drawing most of his characters from the lower walks of life. Before him most of the novelists and dramatists had followed the theory of Aristotle that a tragic hero must be a man of high rank. But Hardy believes that the real character of men and women of higher classes is screened by conventions and can be neither seen nor studied easily. The character of the people of the lower class is the real expression of their inner life so he deals with them. Tess is a milk-maid; Jude a stonemason; Oak a shepherd; Sue a school-mistress; and Henchard a hay-trusser. All of them have fine nature. Tess is possessed with all fine qualities and she realizes the problems that come in her way. When she fails to solve them, she meets a tragic end.

      He moves with ease and sureness when he is dealing with simple nature but he shows certain awkwardness and theatricality when he has to deal with the more complex characters of the highly civilized men and women. But he is particularly superb at drawing the character of those people who are sufficiently of a fine nature. He cannot present a superficial character. “He can only draw at full-length people whose! nature is of sufficiently fine quality to make them realize the greatness of the issues with which they are involved. It is no good looking to him for a vivid portrait of a trivial or superficial person. His imagination passes them. For Hardy to bring a character to life, it must be of a temperament to feel passionately and profoundly; it must be aware of itself as a victim of human fate; otherwise, he cannot enter into it. And it must have that magnetism or beauty of nature which makes a poetic presentation appropriate..... We may note also in this connection that Hardy is seldom successful at drawing odious people. Odiousness implies meanness and mean people neither feel deeply nor are aware of any issues larger than those involved in the gratification of their selfish desires. If Hardy does try to draw such persons, it is a dreadful failure. Alec d’Urberville is just the conventional vile seducer of melodrama. Hardy cannot get inside such a person and see how life looked to him.

      Hardy exhibits his characters first by their actions, secondly by their words. But their inner life is left to our imagination. If their speech does not reveal their individuality, we never get to know it. “Hardy’s characters”, remarks David Cecil, are made living to us by their conversation.” We recognize them because we get to know their voices and tricks of speech. The only mode of speech which Hardy can vividly reproduce to us is that of the Wessex Countrymen. Angel and Mrs. Charmond, Knight and Lady Constantine converse in a stilted, impersonal fashion. “Am I to believe this?” cries Angel at the climax of his tragedy. “From your manner, I must take it as true; you cannot be out of your mind my wife, my Tess, nothing in you warrants such a supposition as that” This is as lacking individuality as a conversation translated from a foreign language.”

      Hardy has also excelled in presenting feminine characters. They are head and shoulder above his male characters. “Admirable as many of his male characters are, they yield both in clarity and intensity of interest to his women; and since woman is more elemental than man, swayed far more by the instinctive life, their superiority is another illustration of Hardy’s peculiar skill in dealing with the primal types.”

      Now it is proved that Hardy’s range of characters is limited. “But” as David Cecil puts it, “when he chooses a subject fully within these limitations, when he is drawing a native of the Wessex country with deep feelings and susceptible of finer feelings, he is superbly successful; the peculiar composition of his imaginative faculty turns into an asset. Once more as in his picture of nature, truth and fancy reinforce each other. The figures are made of solid flesh and blood, they are not the least sentimentalized or inflated.”

Elemental Characters

      Hardy’s genuine characters are usually spoken of as “elemental” for two reasons. In the first place, they are like elemental forces, moved by grand passions and producing catastrophic results. Secondly, they are essentially the creation of intense, powerful imagination, conceived in a moment of poetic heat and presented with a spirit of daring of which only a poet-novelist like him is capable. Hardy may not succeed with all his creations but those that he does bring to life are memorable portraits, no matter if falling short of the expectations of strict realism.

The External Characteristics

      Hardy develops his characters in their externals in the manner of Fielding. Even in this, he underlines only those aspects of behavior which are relevant to his purpose, namely, to show man work out his tragic destiny in this harsh and cruel world. Man yearns for happiness and hopes, above all, that he will win it in love. He is never able to overcome this delusion with the result that he pays a heavy price in suffering, whatever postures he may adopt. Henchard, Clym, Eustacia and Tess go through life, hoping for the best but somehow always meeting the worst. But they all compel attention because they exhibit a rare vitality in facing up to the challenges and under-go a strange transformation through their sufferings. We know them intimately because we have been with them in “the crises of their fortunes”, even though we have not known everything about them. We remember them with love and admiration because they have lived “passionately and profoundly” even though stalked by a ruthless fate.

The Portrayal of Tess

      What is of enduring charm in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is, in the words of Irving Howe, “the figure of Tess herself. Tess as she is, a woman made real through the craft of art, and not Tess as she represents an idea. Marvelously high-spirited and resilient, Tess embodies a moral poise beyond the reach of most morality. Tess is that rated creature in literature: goodness made interesting”. It is true that the second title of the novel proclaiming Tess to be a pure woman focuses attention on the moral and social questions dealt within the story. Still, it is the human figure, — the woman, who comes at the top, in any serious appraisal of the book. The two other important characters, Alec and Angel, are presented mainly to keep Tess in the spotlight. It is her sense of justice and capacity for self-sacrifice that immediately lifts her above all other characters. It is her love and loyalty before which all adverse criticism of her acts of omission and commission seems pointless. She is often shown as a hunted animal or a “bird caught in a trap, but she is certainly not defenseless and helpless as that. She has “powers of survival and suffering”, the mental as well as physical energy to manage herself with faith and courage and remain unsubdued and unbroken in spite of her many injuries and defeats. She is Hardy’s greatest triumph of a simple, peasant girl not only going under in the face of continued onslaughts of misfortune but also warding them off with equanimity, till the very end. Note her reactions after her return from Trantridge:

Was once lost always lost really true of chastity? she would ask herself. She might prove it false if she could veil bygones. The recuperative power which pervaded organic nature was surely not denied to maidenhood alone...

      On one point she was resolved: there should be no more d’Urberville air-castles in the dreams and deeds of her new life.

      It was unexpected youth, surging up anew after its temporary check, and bringing with it hope, and the invincible instinct towards self-delight. (Chapter 15)

      And this is how she took her “rejection” at the hands of Angel Clare after their marriage which never found consummation:

“I agree to the conditions, Angel: because you know best what my punishment ought to be; only—only—don’t make it more than I can bear!”

      That was all she said on the matter. If Tess had been artful, had she made a scene, fainted, wept hysterically, in that lonely lane, not with standing the fury of fastidiousness with which he was possessed, he would probably not have withstood her. But her mood of long-suffering made his way easy for him, and she herself was his best advocate.(XXXVII)

      Only once and that too when Alec is bent upon imposing himself on her, exploiting the misery to which she has been so cruelly subjected, does she raise her voice of protest which is so undemanding that it can easily pass for an impassioned plea for justice to be done to her. To Angel, she told after telling him about her past:

“It has been so much my religion ever since we were married to be faithful to you in every thought and look, that even when a man speaks a compliment to me before I am aware, it seems wronging you... I am the same woman, Angel, as you fell in love with; yes, the very same!—not the one you disliked but never saw. What was the past to me as soon as I met you? It was a dead thing altogether. I became another woman, filled full of new life from you” (Chapter 48).

      And then, at the very end, when she had reasons to delude herself that being united with her husband and having tasted the real honeymoon love, Angel would somehow save her from the impending disaster, she quietly gets ready to face the inevitable:

‘What is it, Angel?’ she said, starting up. ‘Have they come for me?’

Yes, dearest, he said. ‘They have come’.

‘It is as it should be’, she murmured. Angel, I am almost glad—yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough...

      To quote Irving Howe again:

“A victim of civilization, she is also a gift of civilization. She comes to seem for us the potential of what life could be, just as what happens to her signifies what life too often becomes.....At least twice in the book Tess seems to Hardy and the surrounding characters larger than life, but in all such instances it is not to make her a goddess or a metaphor, it is to underscore her embattled womanliness.”

      As Tess is the book’s central character there is a greater richness of information about her than any other. From her story are developed the novel’s main themes; from the reader’s identification with her suffering come the strongest emotions. It is therefore difficult to write about her character without recounting virtually everything about the book, though her character is basically a simple one. It consists of:

(1) Her physical attractiveness.

(2) The mixing in her personality of the apparently contradictory qualities of pride and independence of spirit with a passivity and submissiveness towards other people and her fate.

(3) Her instinctive identity with the natural world of feelings and emotions, which is overlaid by a conventional morality.

Hardy’s aim in Presenting a Full-length Study of Tess’s Character

      Besides, Hardy’s chief aim in presenting a full-length study of Tess’s character is not to underline the disastrous consequences of a seduction or even point out a moral against the will and laws of Victorian society. If he must fix responsibility for the tragic happenings in the life of the heroine, it is to demonstrate the untenability of the values that a self-respecting and sensitive human being cherishes in a world which has no special fondness for them. This does not, however, mean that such persons are of no consequence or that their values are useless and hence they had better be abandoned. It simply means this that all such beings must prepare themselves to suffer hard and long if they are not ready to trim their sails to the prevailing winds. Tess chooses to follow her own course in life, being a woman of integrity and independence. She must therefore, accept the consequences of that choice. Only if she had asked Alec to marry her before leaving him or even afterward insisted on being taken back because she was carrying his baby, as her mother so badly wanted her to do! But she contemptuously rejects such a suggestion (Get Alec d’Urberville in the mind to marry her! He marry her!), for he “was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name’s sake she scarcely wished to marry him.” Not only this. Even when she wants to do the right thing, she is frustrated in her attempts, as in her dealings with Angel Clare. She could have, as a last resort, “made a scene, fainted, wept hysterically” to force him to accept her. But her pride and her personal integrity would not permit her to stoop to these tactics, even for the sake of her “love and loyalty.” And thus Hardy would not diminish the power of her personality, nor would Tess herself make a compromise where fundamentals are involved. So there is nothing that can be done for Tess.

The Portrayal of Men

      It has already been said that the two men-characters, although playing a considerable part in the story, are there mainly “to heighten the reality of Tess,” rather than to lay claim as “beings” important in their own selves. Alec d’Urberville is a typical villain in a melodrama, both in his physical appearance and actions. He is unashamedly theatrical, even as he first accosts Tess: ‘Well, my Beauty, what can I do for you?’ In a similar vein, he breaks into a loud laugh, as he goes back to the tent after the meeting: ‘Well, I’m damned! What a funny thing! Ha-ha-ha! And what a crumbly girl!’ He is “sexually attracted” by Tess and his interest in looking after her is as much dictated by his desire to possess her as by his feelings of pity for her and for her family caught in distress. Since he is vain and overbearing, at the same time, he does not mind treating her in a shabby way. He frightens her to death when he takes her for a ride, going at a break-neck speed, and relents only when she lets him “put one little kiss on those holmberry lips.” His “conversion” and his preaching should not be taken too seriously, as signifying any change of heart. It is plainly “the mere freak of a careless man in search of a new sensation.” His religious fervor evaporates the moment he meets Tess again but he has the honesty to say so in a frank way: ‘Because you’ve knocked it out of me; so the evil be upon your sweet head.... Ha-ha, - I’m awfully glad you have made an apostate of me all the same! Tess, I am more taken with you than ever.....’.

      Angel Clare, likewise, is a conventional, good man who is intellectually moved by idealism, all right, but who fails in a concrete situation to realize his lofty ideas. His character brings to surface the worthlessness of theoretical goodness as against practical warm-heartedness and simple piety, exemplified in the person of Tess. His firm impression of Tess is that she is a ‘fresh and virginal daughter of nature,” “an unimpeachable Christian” and “actualized poetry.” But for all his knowledge and experience of the world, he does not have the ordinary sense to understand that she is a grown-up girl, exposed to the clever and cruel world, as he himself had the misfortune of being taken in by the temptations in London. He draws a distinction between religious beliefs and moral principles where there is none, for the simple reason that true religion is not a matter concerning dogma alone but it is something essentially rooted in ethical practices and precepts. Only a pseudo-liberal like him could pontificate after having himself asked forgiveness of her for he too had “plunged into eight-and-forty-hours’ dissipation with a stranger” in London: “O you cannot be out of mind! You ought to be! Yet you are not.... My wife, my Tess—nothing in you warrants such a suspicion as that?” And again: “It isn’t a question of respectability, but one of principle!’ Or this, “the most unkindest cut of all”.

“I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.’ And all this self-righteousness and strict stand on principles when Tess has gone down on her knees to beg to be forgiven for as light or as great an offense as he himself is guilty of”.

“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!”

      Hardy makes use of Angel Clare’s character for giving his comments on many social and moral controversies of his times, but he is also conscious of the fact that a so-called good man and deep in love at that, can as easily succeed in destroying a simple, trusting girl (as Tess, without doubt is) as a scheming villain like Alec actually does. Seen from this angle, these two men are complementary to each other, sharing between them the ignoble distinction of having driven Tess to despair and desperation. “Alec assaults Tess physically. Angel violates her spiritually”, says Irving Howe feeling about the sad lot of Tess.

The portrayal of Tess’s Family

      Tess’s father and mother are of a social class ‘ranking distinctly above’ the agricultural laborer (Chapter 51). But it is clear that Jack Durbeyfield makes little effort to maintain his family in comfort.

      Hardy uses the dialect speech of the Durbeyfield family to fix them very firmly in a specific social class and region. Their function in the book is to serve three main ends:

(1) Through them the theme of the decline of a family is given immediate dramatic life, for not only has the d’Urberville family declined in the centuries before the book begins, but we witness the final stage of their collapse during the course of the novel.

(2) Hardy helps us to understand the character of Tess more fully by presenting the context in which she was brought up, showing us various aspects of her character which she inherited from her parents.

(3) Tess’s sense of responsibility for her family is one of the book’s most important structural elements. At almost every stage of her life, it is her concern for her family which influences her actions, right up to her final decision to return to Alec.

Portrayal of Angel’s Family

      This family is much less richly drawn than Tess’s, but still Hardy distinguishes between the parents, with their rigid Evangelical faith, but fundamental charity to their fellow human beings, and the liberalism of thought, but restricted feeling, of Angel’s brothers.

      The function of the Clare family in the novel has two main strands:

(1) They stand for the limited moral values of the Christian middle-class, by which Tess feels herself condemned.

(2) Their presentation helps us to understand, and to believe, Angel’s relapse into conventional values when faced by Tess’s confession.

Hardy’s Presentation of Rural Characters in Tess.

      Compared with many of Hardy’s other novels, Tess has few minor characters of this sort. They can be divided roughly into three groups:

(1) The least obvious, the narrow-minded moralists. Represented perhaps by the man with the pot of red paint, it is they who force Tess’s family to leave Marlott after the death of Jack, because they are offended by Tess’s past.

(2) The drunken, rough characters who frequent Rolliver’s, and have their counterparts in the villagers of Trantridge. Two of that group, the Queens of Diamonds and Spades, recur at Flintcomb-Ash, where they are unnaturally strong and mannish. There is a moral coarseness about this group, shown by the daughter as Alec carries Tess away (Chapter 10). Oddly, though, Hardy consistently uses striking mythological and spiritual imagery to describe this group, both during the Chaseborough dance (Chapter 10), and as they make their drunken way home. Hardy here seems to be suggesting both the power of drunken illusion, and yet at the same time to be insisting on their kinship with something essential and pagan in human character.

(3) The other characters are the inhabitants of Talbothays, described as living in almost the ideal way (Chapter 20). The dairymaids are generous and fatalistic in accepting that Tess is favored by Angel, but at the same time they suffer under the ‘emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature’s law’ (Chapter 23). There are two main functions to this group: (a) In the early days at Talbothays they are used to build up an idyllic rural picture, (b) Their experiences show that Tess endures only the most extreme consequences of feelings which affect everyone. Their lives are less complicated than hers, but not a lot less painful. This helps us to accept that what Tess goes through is not just a special, individual case.

      If we take them all together, then Hardy seems to be showing that the country folk is indeed not to be classed together as ‘the pitiable dummy known as Hodge’ (Chapter 18), but have their own variety of feelings and attitudes. Through these characters, Hardy is able to introduce naturally the country stories and superstitions which contribute so much to the novel’s individual character.

The Depiction of Alec d’Urberville

      Alec comes from a newly-rich family, which has tried to gain social status by adopting an old name (Chapter 5). His easy access to money colours the way he reacts to things—his only reaction to his sense of the wrong he has done to Tess is to say ‘I will pay to the uttermost farthing’ (Chapter 12)

      His main characteristics may be summed up as: (1) selfishness, (ii) arrogance, and bad temper, and (iii) capriciousness and superficiality of feeling.

      The great problem, however, is his brief conversion to evangelical Christianity. Hardy could, after all, have arranged for Tess to meet Alec again in any number of natural ways. In order to understand why Hardy chose this dramatic device, Alec’s place in the pattern of the book has to be considered:

(1) The ease with which Alec is converted and then retracts are symptomatic of the failure of Christianity to make any real impact on the modem, mercantile world.

(2) Throughout the work Alec is contrasted specifically with Angel—they are the two men who expose Tess to the opposing experiences of lust and love. They are both men of the new world, but their essential difference is exposed by Angel’s rigidly intellectual rejection of the old faith compared with Alec’s facile acceptance. One is a man of reason, the other of emotion.

(3) The conversation, in which Alec adopts the dress of the Methodist, is but one of a series of disguises he lakes on, culminating in his appearance to Tess ‘in a gathered smockfrock, such as was now only worn by the most old-fashioned of the laborers’ (Chapter 50). This disguising links him, as he himself suggests, to Satan, the tempter of Eve and mankind, who, in the Bible, continually assumes different shapes. It also emphasizes the fact that Alec belongs nowhere. His house is new, set in the age-old forest, and he meets his death in the newly-sprouted town of Sandboume. (It is also appropriate, therefore, that he shows his final mastery of Tess by dressing her up in clothes which are unnatural to her.)

The Depiction of Angel Clare

      Angel is the first character to be considered who has any real complexity about him. The reader’s sense of the richness of the character results from two rather different things, which need to be treated separately.

(1) He is a man whose personality is torn by conflicts. He is capable of thinking and feeling differently at different times, for though he places all his faith in his intellect and reason, he falls prey both to his passions and to his irrational, inherited prejudices. The moment which focuses these conflicts for the reader is his rejection of Tess on their wedding night.

(2) At the same time Angel is a person who develops towards maturity throughout the novel. He changes fundamentally (as Alec does not), and in this experience, his rejection of Tess is only a stepping-stone to his fuller understanding of himself and the world.


      From the point of view of characterization, Hardy is one of the greatest novelists in English literature as concern of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. He stands very high among the novelists of his age. His characters are drawn, with the subtle art skill of a painter. He has presented them in relation to their circumstances and has laid great emphasis on the influence of heredity and environment. They are born to suffer and are puppets in the hands of a cruel Fate or Destiny, chance or coincidence. But here too he has his limitations within which he has created wonderful persons whom we can never forget.

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