Tess of the d'Urbervilles: More Sinned Against Than Sinning

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Hardy’s Determinism

      In Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles Tess, a pure woman is made to suffer terribly. From the beginning to the end she suffers innumerable miseries. No doubt she has fallen but she should not be blamed for it. She falls a victim to the evil designs of Alec. It is done against her will. When she falls in love with Angel, she does not want to deceive him and tells him all about her past life in spite of her mother’s serious instruction. When Angel deserts her she would ask, “Was once lost always lost really true of chastity?” She might prove it false if she could veil bygones. She retains the purity of her heart and mind. Angel deserts her because of his weak standards of woman’s morality. But he is wrong. A man should be judged by his aims on the whole.

      The dictum “character is fate or destiny” is pregnant with meaning. It is a very suggestive remark. It admits of more than one interpretation. The word ‘character’ refers to the presence of certain good or bad qualities in a man or woman. If a man has good qualities he should live happily. If a man has some bad qualities, his life becomes unhappy. Now this is one of the various interpretations of the dictum. When we go through the Wessex novels, we do not find it to be true in the case of its characters. In this sense character is one thing and destiny another. It implies the freedom of will on the part of a person.

      If we consider Hardy’s determinism, we can interpret this dictum in another way. According to it character is an agent or instrument of fate. It makes or mars the life of a man. Heredity and environment shape or mold this character. Man has no control on these things. Thus fate works through chance, love, nature or society also. It is in this sense that character is fate or destiny in the case of Tess Durbeyfield also, but she has to suffer and die due to her own character. If fate is responsible for the tragedy, she is also responsible for her doom. It is true that she is more sinned against than sinning, but she dies for whatever sin she commits. Indeed the wage of her sin is death but cruel fate is also responsible for it. The President of the Immortals sports with her life. Like Prometheus, Tess suffers and dies for having brought new light to mankind.

      Fate plays an important part in the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is no exception to it. Fate works through nature, chance society, love and character and kills Tess for sport. It is by chance that John Durbeyfield comes to know of his noble ancestry and Joan Durbeyfield desires to make Tess a lady by marrying her to a gentleman. As ill-luck would have it the family horse Prince dies, so Tess has to go to Trantridge where she loses her physical purity. She gives birth to a child who dies soon. Then Tess goes to the famous dairy at Talbothays and meets Angel Clare. Now fate begins to work against her chance of happiness through love. She witnesses a conflict in her heart. She writes a letter to Angel Clare which slips under a carpet by a chance. This thing makes the oral confession of her reluctant affair with Alec necessary. The result is desertion and estrangement. It is by chance that she is not able to see the parents of Angel Clare and meets Alec d’Urberville when she is disappointed. He holds out temptation to her. Fate leads her to see the death of her father. It compels her to surrender her body to Alec, for she has to save her family from starvation and death. She ruins her life in trying to solve the economic problem of her family. When Angel returns, she stabs Alec to death and is hanged.

Tess: Partly responsible for her own Tragedy

      But there are certain qualities of her own character which play a great part in bringing about her tragedy. She has inherited the luxuriant aspect of her beautiful mother. She has got her hard-working and enduring nature also. She has got a tractable and docile nature. There is something soft and yielding about it. Then there is in ner the will to enjoy. All these things account for the fact why she surrenders to Alec’s advances and onslaught in the Chaseborough forest at night. It seems that she accepts the feelings of Alec for her in a remote and faint way when he helps the members of her family. Perhaps she does not remain cautious deliberately. She is familiar with the wicked ways of the squire of Trantridge. Even then she rides with him at night. There is no sign of resistance when she is actually raped. This is to be so even when she is physically tired and emotionally exhausted. She is blinded by his flash manners. She is stirred to a confused surrender for a while. Her rape is not absolutely sinless, for she submits to him. It seems that she has begun to admit Alec’s love for her. Again she marries Angel without telling him the story of her fall before her wedding. When she marries him she should follow her mother’s advice not to speak to her man of her past moral trouble. She disobeys her, for she is faithful, true and honest in her love. This deliberate disclosure makes her life sad. She suffers at the hands of the squire newly grown-rich and of her own man who is a product of conventional morality. She is an emotional woman, so she works in a dramatic way. It is in this manner that she stabs Alec to death and is hanged. All these things show how the character of Tess is also responsible for her tragic end.

      Tess is a pure woman. She goes to Trantridge only when she is compelled by her mother. She does not like it but she realizes her responsibility and works as farm-keeper. Alec comes to take her from her home to Trantridge. On the way he kisses her against her will. After some days he pitilessly seduces her, After four months she returns home. In due course she gives birth to a baby. This is her only sin. But she cannot be blamed for it. She falls a helpless victim to her circumstances. What can a helpless woman do against the evil designs of a reckless youth. But she has been an unwilling sinner. She hates Alec and rejects his offers again and again. She comes back to him only when she is convinced by him that Angel will not return. But as soon as Angel comes to her, she stabs Alec to death.

      Thus the only fault or sin she does is to accept Alec. But even here she is compelled by her circumstances. Her father has died. Alec has been helping her family and repeating his proposal. She writes to Angel again and again but gets no reply. Had Angel come a little earlier she would not have accepted Alec.

      The cruelest treatment is meted out to her by Angel. She loves him and can sacrifice even her life for him. At first, she tries to control her passion for him but when she fails to do so, she does not want to deceive him. She writes a letter to him clearly stating her affair with Alec but unfortunately, Angel does not get it. When they are married, she tells him about it and begs for mercy. Angel turns a deaf ear to her and deserts her. She thinks it her sacred duty to tell him all about her past life. When her mother reproaches her, she says, “If—if—it were to be done again—I should do the same. I could not — I dare not—so sin—against him.” Her sincerity and devotedness to Angel is clear from what she writes to him, “I would be content and glad, to live with you as your servant, if I may not as your wife; so that I could only be near you, and get glimpses of you, and think of you as mine.”

      But such a pure and noble woman knows no joy in her life. It seems that the cup of her life was filled with misery. Angel does great injustice to her. He deserts her although she is innocent. The punishment she gets is undeserved. She knows it well that Angel has passed a cruel sentence on her but like a faithful wife, she obeys him. If Tess is impure and he is right in his judgment, why he wants to take Izz with him to Brazil. Decidedly he is at fault. Tess remains loyal to him to the last moment. She says, “My husband that was, is gone away and never will love me anymore; but I love him just the same, and hate all other men, and like to make them think scornfully of me!” But she pays. She is made a plaything by Fate. The invisible hands of Fate draw her to her tragic end. When she is hanged, Hardy says, “Justice was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.”

      From the above account, it becomes clear that Tess pays for no fault of hers. First, she is innocent. Angel deserts her because he thinks that if a woman has lost her physical chastity, she is not pure. But as soon as his outlook is broadened, he realizes his mistakes and comes back to her. He blames himself for judging her so hastily and cruelly. Secondly; if at all any fault had been done by her, the punishment would not have been just. She is too sorely tried. She comes out pure. But it is too late. The woman fails to get any consolation in life. No one except Death shows mercy to her. Indeed, “she is more sinned against than sinning.”

In Defence of Tess

      In spite of all these things the fact remains true that Tess is more sinned against than sinning. She winks at the danger of her seduction at the right moment. She goes to sleep twice when she should not have done so at all costs. She should not have yielded to the cruel persuasion of Alec d’Urberville for the second time. Once she has married Angel Clare, she should not go to live with Alec as his mistress. When she does so for the reasons best known to her, she should not have stabbed him to death. She commits a sin twice in the course of her story. The wage of sin is death, so she is tried and hanged to death. But she is more sinned against than sinning. The President of the Immortals sports with her life for no fault of hers, She is driven to death by it. She suffers at the hands of a cruel society. She cries to the world for mercy but in vain. It is death alone that is merciful to her. She suffers for the sake of her devotion to the family. She is ruined by an irresponsible young man representing the modern civilization and embodying measureless grossness. He has nothing noble in his character. He takes advantage of her helplessness and weakness. He works like an instrument of fate and ruins her life. She does something right when she stabs him to death. She suffers and dies for the sake of all other women of the world, the President of the Immortals subjects her to hardship and pain, trouble and torture in ways more than one. She is the right woman who is appropriated by the wrong man. Angel Clare whom she expects to be the angel of her happiness becomes the real poison in her life. She suffers a lot at the hands of this product of conventional morality. Tess is pure in her intentions, in her life and in her whole nature. If we consider the aim and tendency of her life, she seems to be a pure woman. The sin she commits is insignificant. It is nothing when compared to the suffering and painful death to which she is subjected. Her life after the first sixteen winters is all agony, troubles and torture. It is nothing but distress, and disappointment, dejection and desertion, sorrow and cruelty, inhuman suffering and undeserved death. This is partly due to fate and partly due to her own character.

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