Although there is a tendency in 20th century writers, and literary critics, to approach tragedy as a high and daunting ideal, to attempt a tragedy in the 19th century was a frequent undertaking, and it is not surprising that, given Hardy’s brooding and unflinching intellect, the genre has a powerful presence in his stories.
If his success is finest and most subtle n tragedy, he had attempted and succeeded before, and his experiments continued after “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”.
Hardy came to the writing of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” with a full head of steam after deciding about six years earlier that Wessex was his subject and tragedy his genre, and in the midst of a reading and thinking program that made him aware of the latest developments in late-Victorian intellectual cogitation.
Some of the events associated with the cogitations of that age are social and monetary exploitation of down-and-out peasantry by “nouveau riche gentry”, terrorism by arrogance, intellectual adventures without a clear sense of purpose or of social obligation; larger social, industrial and agricultural movements that proceed without concern for those persons most materially and physically viscerally affected (threshers, Swede diggers); the vacuity and haplessness of social agencies such as the Church presumably set up to help those in need, but which instead work doctrinally and careeristically, and neo-complexity of all, relativism and subjectivity.
An interesting speculation might be whether these concepts – in humanistic terms so admirable and desirable – might not be ultimately responsible for the suffering of such people as Tess, who are not able to incorporate such complexities into the mundane ness of their conceptions and ambitions.
First of all, the course events Tess undergoes may be considered. Tess is the eldest daughter of John Durbyfield. But later on it is discovered that they are actually descendents of the once famous knight D’Urbervilles.
Poor parents of Tess send her to the D’Urbervilles – who are actually stokes and member of the “nouveau riche gentry” – to claim kin with them and thus, if possible, to improve their lot. But there she is seduced by Alec D’Urberville and after she returns, she gives birth to a child, who dies within a few days. Then for the second time, she goes out for employment to Tallothays dairy where she is in love with Angel Clare and subsequently married to her. But on her wedding night she is deserted by Clare, and again has to go to Flintcomb Ash for work. There again she comes across Alec, who is relentlessly pursuing for her body. In the meantime Angel leave for Brazil.
Tess gives her consent to live with Alec as her mistress, the reason being her family’s hard up situation. Angel at last realizes his fault and returns from Brazil. Tess murders Alec, is united with Angel and within a few days is captured by the police and towards the end she is sentenced to death. As has already been pointed out that there are several aspects of the tragedy of Tess: social, individual, historical and intellectual. Arnold Kettle, the veteran Marxist critic, figure among those who are interested in the social aspect of Tess’s tragedy. According to him, Tess’s story, though a poignant individual case history, would not have become so famous if it were no more than that.
The history and geographical background of southern England are not just a necessary background to Tess’s story, they are integral to it, entering at every turn and level into the essence of the situation that Hardy describes. It is evident in the course of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” that industrial invasion from the northern England is posing a serious threat to southern England, the place where Tess and people of her likes live. Industrialization is destroying the social fabric of the organic community of the south. The traditional land owning class is at stake by the newly rich tradesmen, who are at least partly represented by Angel. Sifting of people from country owing to lack of employment is also happening. Tess and girls of her like are vulnerable. They are seduced by people like Alec.
Arnold Kettle concludes, saying that if David Copperfield is every father’s child abused by an unkind stepfather, Tess is every innocent but ruined woman. The author himself – Hardy – seems to be interested in the historical perspective of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Tess is a daughter of the once influential D’Urbervilles. Violence was a part of the life of the D’Urbervilles and when they were extremely powerful they used to abuse young women. But history repeats itself, and there is also a bitter irony of it. Today, Tess, the descendent of the ancient D’Urbervilles is abused by others. History is repeating itself but only the role has been reversed.
How eloquent the irony of history is! In chapter – 59, it is mentioned that “he d’Urbervilles knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing”. This famous statement, added in revision, underscores the centrality to the novel of the ancient D’Urbervilles. Hardy has a serious use for the ancient family – a reminder both of time and of cyclic occurrence – but also f the irrelevance of the D’Urbervilles in the modern world. The individual and intellectual aspects interpenetrate and overlap with each other. Tess’s tragedy has both its individual and intellectual aspects. The foundation of Hardy’s idea of tragedy of the individual pervades the novel. Although now Tess is simply a maiden and perhaps his D’Urberville background is also of little importance.
But yet she is an individual whose distinction from other country girls can be marked in many events. Tess’s skin is “as sumple as a duchess’s”. It indicates that her complexion is one of her significant aspect. Hardy, the narrator, has mentioned that Tess uses “two dialects” – one at home to converse with her mother and another, which is more standard and modified top converse with outsiders. This is clearly a distinction from other country girls. In this respect it is also significant that she has read up to the sixth standard at a school and she nurtured the hope of becoming a school teacher. Tess’s sense of dignity demarcates her from the rest of the country girls. When the country folk make fun of her father she retorts.
There is another aspect in her character which is probably uncommon in a male dominated society. She is always ready to take the responsibility of anything related to the fortune of her family – whether it be the death of their horse, Prince – or the responsibility to ensure financial sufficiency for the family. Her mother has a special liking for music and she can memorize any tune after listening to it only once. This has influenced Tess. The most significant trait in her character is that she is able to make such reflections as to amuse even Angel. He tells her that she reflects on such issues which are in keeping with “the ache of modernism. ”
An American critic, Dale Kramer, while commenting on Tess’s character, has said that there is a contradiction in her character; she is “a combination of mundane ness and extraordinariness”. We might wish to follow a different track. Tess, on the superficial level, may appear mundane, but in reality, compared to others and given so many traits of her character, she is obviously extraordinary. In this respect what D. H. Lawrence says is unforgettable, “Tess is passive out of self-acceptance, a true aristocratic quality, amounting almost to self-indifference. She knows she is herself …This is a rare quality, even in a woman. And in a civilization so unequal, it is almost a weakness”. This is the essence of Tess’s tragedy.
She is so aristocratic that she can only help, she can never be helped. Both Alec and Angel do her harm. To Alec she made a “confused surrender”. She discovers that she does not love him, she returns home. The chief problem of Tess if that she is looking for an identity which will fit her. It is in Angel that she finds it. But, unfortunately enough, Angle cannot detect this. He, who is “a student of something and everything”, has, at the beginning, loved only an image in Tess, not her real self. As soon as the image disappeared, he deserted her. It is only after a long course of sojourn in Brazil that he comes to realize his fault. But it is too late.
In the seventh phase, Tess got her identity and that is her union with Angel and now she is ready to die, since she has achieved her “fulfillment” – the peak of her prosperity. In her relationship with Angel, love is the main stimulus. But Angel cannot realize it. He cannot discover the depth of Tess’ love, nor its honesty. So he also suffers. She kills Alec because he was an obstacle – a man between Angel and herself – in the way to achieving her identity. This killing is a heroic deed, no doubt, if we consider the reason behind it. Tess assumes a heroic grandeur when she utters in Chapter – 58, “What must come will come”. Upon awakening at Stonehenge to find police there, she echoes Aeschylus in saying, “It is as it should be” (Chapter – 59) and also in her last words in the novel, “I am ready” (Chapter – 59).
Towards the end Hardy provides a context for Tess’s climactic suffering and tragedy obviously, directly associating his rural, quotidian sufferer with the mythological Ixion being punished in “hell” by being tied to a revolving wheel. (It is interesting that the Ixonean wheel is one of Schopenhauer’s favorite classical images. ) Society has contributed much to Tess’s tragedy. It is always hostile to “aristocrats” of Tess’s like. Hardy, Tess’s creator, and perhaps only a few sensitive readers will realize the degree of cruelty and harshness committed against Tess, who is held with high esteem in their hearts, “Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed shall lodge thee”.