How do I explain Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy and number 12 on the BBC book list? It is one of those awful (in a lovely way) novels that I see myself in. I think any woman can relate. And unfortunately, the #YesAllWomen campaign on Twitter a few weeks ago attests to that. Tess is pursued relentlessly by the womanizer Alec.
Alec D’Urberville is deceitful and responsible for others’ unhappiness. Alec’s first major contrivance occurs when Tess is compelled to work for his mother because of an accident in which the Durbeyfield family horse was killed. Tess goes to live at Tantridge, Alec’s home, and eventually falls into his clutches at the tender age of sixteen. The episode is mildly described as a seduction, but it is implied in the text as rape. Tess loses her innocence at the hands of Alec. After this trauma, she learned “that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson” (80). This is only one of several instances in which Hardy refers to Alec as a serpent, that familiar symbol for the devil in the Garden of Eden.
Alec’s actions reminds me of a sermon I heard from a local member of my church a few years ago. He spoke of the snakes that are just waiting to attack and eat girls during their teenage years. These snakes have no respect for the female sex, and many teenage girls become close to these snakes, because they hiss the words the girls want to hear, the words they may not hear at home. These snakes bite without regret or hesitation. I was a teenage girl once, and I, like Tess, thought that certain boyfriends actually cared. Luckily, I never got myself into serious trouble, but I was certainly hurt and I certainly have regrets. (And not all men are snakes.)
The result of Alec’s deception leads Tess into a pattern of deception. She recovers from two tragedies, her rape and the death of her baby, and finds work at a dairy farm, where she meets her true love, Angel Clare. All of the dairymaids have crushes on Angel, but he only loves Tess. He eventually proposes to her, only to have her refuse. Tess realizes that she is not what she seems, a deception in her very persona, and therefore cannot marry Angel and break his heart. She struggles with this decision, as she loves Angel and wants to marry him. After months of persuasion, Tess finally agrees to marry him. She also abides by her mother’s advice and does not tell him about her past involving Alec and the deceased baby. She knows that Angel will not accept her if he knows the truth and she knows that she is not worthy of him. However, her heart wins over her head and she marries him anyway, a deception that may not lead to happiness. A foreshadow of this comes immediately following the wedding, when a cock crows three times in a row. This is an allusion to Peter in the Bible, who denies Christ three times. This denial is a type of deception, just as Tess has been in denial of the weight of her past and in deceiving her new husband.
On the wedding night, Angel confesses his own sin with another woman, making Tess feel as though she can be free with her past as well. She forgives Angel readily and believes that he will do so for her as well. But, “he looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (246). Her deception causes Angel the utmost anguish, and he cannot believe in her goodness. Although Tess is actually a good character with pure intentions and did not deliberately contrive to deceive Angel, the result is that he cannot trust her any longer. He believes that she is purposefully deceitful, even wicked at heart. At one point, Tess had even tried writing Angel a letter and confessing her sins before the marriage, but it was accidentally pushed under the carpet and Angel never received it. Such a turn of events, despite good intentions, show that the consequences for innocent characters are sometimes as drastic as they are for Hardy’s truly evil characters, making this novel’s comments on deception more believable and relatable. Although one may not be purely evil in small deceptions, the results can be that one’s reputation becomes such despite the falseness of it. Tess suffers this lowering of esteem in her husband’s eyes, the worst punishment possible for her.
Although Tess and Alec have completely different motives and purity of heart, they both suffer in the end because of deception. Tess returns to Alec and is again deceived by him. He tells her that Angel will never come back to claim her, a story she begins to believe when circumstances become dire. She lets herself believe Alec’s lie because it is easy and worth it in the short term. Her mother and siblings will be cared for and she will also live in luxury. Although Alec is not the most desirable companion to her in this luxury, she accepts it because she feels she must. In more Biblical allusion, Alec is the deceiver who tells us all that we cannot change or repent. I often beat myself up over mistakes, instead of having hope in the atonement and in being able to do better next time.
Alec, in this final deceit, seems to believe that he has finally achieved it all. However, it backfires on him when Angel returns to make things right with Tess. He’s too late, however, as Tess breaks at this moment, stabbing Alec through the heart in revenge and to regain her freedom, something lost at the beginning of the novel. She flees with Angel in a blissful second honeymoon, but is eventually caught and hanged for her crime.
The grisly end for these characters, Tess and Alec, both deceitful but with different intentions, follows Hardy’s pattern of showing a downfall of those who are not pure in their intentions. According to Bernard J. Paris, a professor of English at Michigan State University, “Tess is pure because she never meant to do wrong, and, Hardy argues, we should judge a person by his intentions rather than by his acts. . . .Tess’s intentions are good and . . . she is a victim rather than a villain” (60).
Although Tess suffered because of things she did and did not do, she was a victim. In the most symbolic moment, Tess lies on a rock at Stonehenge, and Angel comments: “I think you are lying on an altar” (427). She is a lamb who is sacrificed, an unfair fate but a necessary one. Richard C. Carpenter, of Bowling Green State University, said: “We hear no more references to Tess as a goddess, but she becomes ever more clearly the victim of the world’s inexorable vengeance, the archetypal scapegoat. . . . She is made to suffer for the mistakes and misdeeds of her world” (135). Deceits do not always lead to the downfall of only those responsible, but also for their victims. Tess has the strongest message against deceit and contrivance because of the way we see the consequences stretch to the innocent.
Carpenter, Richard C. Thomas Hardy. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. New York: Washington Square Press, 1973.
Paris, Bernard J. “‘A Confusion of Many Standards’: Conflicting Value Systems in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24 (June 1969) 57-79.