Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Modernist “ache”

Upon reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one feels distinctly manipulated. The text is so melancholy, the characters so pitiable, society so repressive and unjust. One wonders “what essay is Thomas Hardy writing through his novel about his world”? Why does he wish to make his readers so miserable?

The story is set in the 1870s in county Wessex. Tess Durbeyfield is a saintly rural maiden, misunderstood by her poor parents. Her uneducated father believes they have connections to aristocracy through the name “D’Urberville”.  She is sent to “claim kin” and  finds work to help support her family and  watched over by the rather abrasive landowners son Alec Stoke.

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Alec, on pretense of helping her one day, leads her into the woods where he rapes her. She returns home and  cannot talk of the crime or of the sickly child she bears and buries in an unmarked grave. Several years pass and she finds herself working as a milkmaid for a local farmer, and is courted by the parsons son, Angel Clare. Fearful to tell Angel the truth, she conceals it until the day of their marriage. On the night of their wedding,  he confesses to her a previous relationship with an older woman and so she in turn she tells him of the misdemeanour. He promptly disowns her and sails for Brazil, but not without propositioning Tess’ milkmaid friend to accompany him as his mistress. She declines.

Hard on her luck, Tess is forced to become the mistress  to wealthy Alec. In Brazil,  Angel suffers failures with his farming ventures and repents of his angry impulses. Sickly with yellow fever, he returns to England and confesses his love for Tess, She cannot have him and turns him away. As he leaves however, Tess murders Alec and pursues Angel. The novel closes with the couple at Stonehenge, where Tess rests upon an ancient altar. As the police descend to take Tess to prison and certain and death, she states she is glad, for Angel loves her and she him.

Hardy was an educated Victorian man concerned with the injustices of his day. Tess is almost an image of Hardy’s beautiful pastoral England, raped by the landed gentry, abused and managed by those using the name of the church. When she lies upon the pagan altar, she is at her happiest. The narrator concludes the novel with the statement:

“‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,”

Justice, however,  is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game.  The fates are frivolous. This is the ache of the modern view – there is no dream. Just reality, bare and stark.

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Not only is society in transition between an ancient pastoral land, to industrial urbanisation, but also from the enlightenment certainty to modern melancholy. Unlike classic tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tale does not allude to a “norm” against which the tragedy occurs. Romeo and Juliet’s families acknowledge that their warring houses could have prevented the deaths. The court of Macbeth acknowledge that powerlust and hubris brought about the decline of the kingdom and so forth.

One feels with Hardy, that with the decline of enlightenment certainty, comes a decline in confidence in redemption of any kind. The modernist ache is to contemplate society and its evils without affirming an alternative ending. Other than to aspire to compassionate humanism, we cannot ultimately hope but to avoid the sport of the gods.