Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Moral Fable

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      Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the masterpiece of Thomas Hardy. The writer of the Wessex novels has not left behind a better novel than this. While writing on the contemporary fiction he says that the English novel of his times lacks sincerity or candor. Many people do not express in their words what they feel to be right. Hardy is a different man. He speaks of what he feels to be right. That is why he is against the conventional morality or the social code of his times. The present novel is a record of his first-hand impressions of real life. It is true to life itself. It represents the aspects of life as he sees them. It bears the hallmark of truth on its every page.

      Thus Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a moral fable. It is the expression of a generalized human situation in history. But it is neither a purely personal tragedy nor philosophic comment on life in general and the fate of women in particular. Like “The Woodlanders”, the present novel has for its setting the years of the contemporary agricultural tragedy. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a flamed work of art. Here we get not only the tragedy of heroic girl, but the tragedy of a proud community baffled and defeated by processes beyond its understanding or control. The present novel has got a very fine or superb opening. The whole invention is substantial with social and historical perception and quick with metaphorical life.

The Agents of Destruction

      The coming of three visitors to Marlott during the May dance is ominous. One of them later becomes an agent of destruction. This visit suggests how the dance of vitality is jeopardized by the trust of the sophisticated urban life. This sense of jeopardy is intensified with the entry of Alec d’Urberville. He is the economic intruder who represents the processes at work destroying the bases of agricultural security. He stands with Angel Clare who is the spiritual intruder. Tess herself represents a proud but fallen community. She stands for the agricultural community in its moment of ruin. In this novel, Hardy has dramatized the defeat of a country girl named Tess who is representative of an ancient country life. It ends in Stonehenge passively. This place confirms a sense of doom.

Two Restorations

      Then there are two places of restoration. The first restoration has for its setting the lush of Valley and the second restoration takes place among the sterile expanses of Flintcomb-Ash. The sleep walking scene records the passivity and doom quite poignantly. It shows how Tess is consciously doing nothing at all. She makes no effort to alter the course of events. This strange passivity is welded into her strength. Indeed she is the agricultural predicament in metaphor. Angel Clare is the impassioned instrument of some will; some purpose, stemming forth from the diastrous life of the cities, from the intellectual and spiritual awareness. The mollifying urban life has defeated the country life. Flintcomb-Ash directly reflects the new farming, It stands in a bold contrast with Talbothays. The machine is now the sleepwalker or the impersonal agent of destruction. Tess is powerless and passive in the face of this machine with its great noise and speed.

Symbolism of Moral

      Thus the fate of a pure woman is but the destruction of the English peasantry. This novel is based on a thesis. This thesis refers to a disintegration of the peasantry. The growth of the capitalist farming wiped off the old system of farming. The farmers were no longer independent. The old native culture also began to disappear. Thus the destruction of a proud and deep-rooted class proves to be very painful and tragic. The parents of Tess belong to the class of farm labourers. They have fallen on hard times. Tess tries to solve their economic problem twice and in so doing she is ruined. She works very hard at Flintcomb-Ash. She has to face a sort of cruel persuasion and sinful temptation. It is because of Satan like Alec that she becomes sinful like Eve in the garden of Eden. The wages of sin is death. Alec who incarnates measureless grossness and sensuality is stabbed to death for having spoiled Tess for more than one occasion. When Tess stabs him to death, she is herself hanged to death. All these things go a long way in proving how Tess of the d’Urbervllles is a moral fable with a symbolism of its own.

The Moral Issues in The Story

      Tess Durbeyfield, the daughter of poor and feckless parents and descendant of a proud and ancient family, was forcibly seduced by a blackguard young man of means. A child was born, but died in infancy. Some years later, when she was working as a milkmaid on a large dairy-farm, she became betrothed to a clergyman’s son. Angel Clare, who was learning farming from her employer. On their wedding night, and not before, Tess confessed to him the past episode of Alec d’Urberville; and thereupon Clare, himself no more pure than Tess, left her. After a brave fight against poverty and other evils, she was forced, by the needs of her family, into the protection of Alec d’Urberville. In order to be free to join her husband, Tess murdered her protector. After a brief concealment with Clare in an empty house in the New Forest, she was arrested, tried and hanged. That is the skeleton of the story. The gist of it is the study of a woman with a passion for purity, set amid circumstances which compel the defilement of her body and the starving of her spirit. True, she is weak, in all but her power of loving and enduring: but that very strength in loving is the secret of her weakness. If Angel Clare did not want her, if he would never come back to her, then what did her body matter? d’Urberville might have that, though her resistance was long and brave. Her spirit, her love, remained unalterably Clare’s beyond reach of defilement, and once Clare has returned to her, she must free herself for him by the quickest and most thorough means.

      In the spoiling of such a nature, it is bad to play Alec d’Urberville’s part; but it is worse to play Angel Clare’s. Clare is the most eminent example of that half development, to which we find Hardy over and over again ascribing the sorrow and mischief of human life. Clare was half-baked, and therefore unjust and insincere. He had outgrown the narrow orthodoxy of his family; but he remained conventional enough to regard Tess as hopelessly soiled, and himself as still marriageable. His desertion of his wife is perhaps the cruelest action ever imagined as the result of a false idea of purity; yet it shows no touch of exaggeration. Tess had broken no moral law; she had fulfilled a natural law; but in the eyes of society she was a “fallen woman”. And the rough and ready judgment of society, implanted in her own bosom and acting upon her through other people, wasted her youth, her beauty, her motherhood, her love, her power of enjoying and of spreading joy, and drove her - to misery, crime and a violent death. The folly and the cruelty of it have wrought the author into an indignation so passionate that here and there he deserts the strictly dramatic manner of his preceding novels, and breaks into direct comment-flames which leap suddenly from the furnace of his spirit, so far from breaking or lessening the force of his creation, revel its intense heat. That moreover, is the explanation of a sentence in the last paragraph of the novel—a sentence that has puzzled and pained many of his readers: “Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.”

The Injustice of The Social Justice

      Few will doubt the profound injustice of the social justice which murdered Tess after perverting her: but the President of the Immortals and his “sport” do not seem to belong to Hardy’s conception of the government of the world. Nowhere else do we find him suggesting that the Immanent will takes any pleasure in the sorrows of mankind, or feels any jealousy of their joy. We are to understand that it is death to the frogs without being sport to the boys. But perhaps the cry of Gloucester in King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys so are we to the Gods; They kill us for their sport” chimed in with Hardy’s just anger at the waste and ruin of Tess, and he, so to speak, shook his fist at the unheeding power. The phrase certainly differs in tone from the slow, remorseless quiet with which the story moves on. It “slipped out”. And yet one cannot wish it to stay. If it is not philosophically consonant with the novel as a whole, it gives the reader’s feelings a thrill bf sympathetic relief.

Hardy: Not A Conventional Moralist

      The business of an artist, as Hardy has more than once pieced in self-defense, is to create a world that shall express the world as he sees it. But in the long run, great art helps to make the actual world; and that is the reason for suggesting the practical effect of such a book as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Its august and simple beauties of setting, of character, of movement, are beyond need of discussion: but what of its “moral”? It has been called pessimistic; and now and then he himself seems to slip into an indifference very unlike a counsel to accept. But, quite apart from the enlarging and vivifying influence of a great work of art, one cannot find Tess of the d’Urbervilles anything but an optimistic book. Tess was no towering heroine of huge desires; she was a simple, humble, homely girl who asked only for a quiet happiness. But if homely humanity can be so beautiful as this, can such love endure and trust, may we not feel joy and pride? To go one step further: when we contemplate all this beauty slowly ruined by causes that man himself has, it in his power to remove, what results but a determination, ever more clearly and more widely formed, to remove them as soon as it may be, to let no stupidity or timidity stand in the way of such virtue as human nature may possess—such happiness as human nature may realize? It can never be perfect virtue, it can never be perfect happiness; but here is from what he may here and now achieve because it can never be perfect, or because, if he shrinks up from imperfect life now, he will someday enjoy perfect life; but that which proclaims to him his own strength and beauty, and shows him how, though limited in scope and always under the shadow of a destiny that cares not whether he be happy, or unhappy, he may strip away artificial causes of misery and waste. These are the inferences that some minds cannot avoid drawing from Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


      In this book, Hardy showed a lovely nature tortured by the action of circumstance-circumstance working through the timidity and stupidity of man himself. And this timidity and stupidity he squarely arraigned. Although she was, in the common phrase, “ruined” when a very young girl, Tess might have lived a happy and beneficent life, had it not been for the sense of sin created in her by the collective timidly of society, and for the conventions that proclaimed her on outcast. Those conventions bore hard upon her in many ways; they crushed her when concentrated in her husband, Angel Clare. Hardy brings definite charges against the collective judgment of society which, in the belief that it can so protect itself, destroys some of its finest and most sensitive material. On the beauty of Tess’s character, there is no need to dwell. Her fineness and clarity of spirit, her faith and devotion, her strength and tenacity in love, her essential sweetness make Tess more morally superior than any stricture imposed by conventional social codes or Victorian morality. Her moral fineness compels the reader to share the author’s anguish of pity for her sorrows, his passionate indignation at the stupid waste of her lovely qualities.

      As a critic says: “Her story is a plea for charity, for a larger tolerance, for a repudiation of social hypocrisy. Its intense moving power led William Sharp to declare that no man or woman could read Tess of the d’Urbervilles sympathetically and not thereafter be of broader mind and more charitable spirit. From this point of view, it is to be regarded not merely as Hardy’s greatest novel but as one of the greatest works in English literature.

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