Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) was Hardy’s attempt to take a closer look upon the ideals of his era, and through Tess and her story, criticize it. Hardy himself said of tragedy; “It may be put thus in brief: a tragedy exhibits a state of things in the life on an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire of his to end in a catastrophe when carried out.
There are many ways to perceive a text as a tragedy, beginning from Aristotle who was the first to define the term and concept of tragedy as “the imitation of an action which is serious, complete and substantial” and “by evoking pity and terror it brings about the purgation of those emotions”. During the Renaissance, however, the concept of tragedy experienced a reformation and was fitted to express the qualities admired by the society, and later, England during the Victorian era also reformed Aristotle’s ideas to accommodate their religious as well as largely accepted social norms and views.Order now
This essay will take a closer look of those ideas at tragedy raised by Aristotle, some of the times when tragedy went through reformation, and Hardy himself, all in connection to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the questions, and ideas, raised within the novel that makes Tess’ torments a tragedy. Tragedy of Tess
Tess can be perceived as a tragedy merely due to the obvious reasons such as how she is being taken advantage by her parents who in their greed and false pride upon a newly learned ancestors play Tess’s guilt to get their foot in to a better life, and the consequent manipulation and abuse of Tess by he “cus” Alec D’Urberville, and the various tragic events that take place thereafter.
Hardy used his novels to get more attention drawn towards the hypocrisy of English society as well as deal with the transition of the beginning of England’s shift from old-fashioned, socially condemning, agricultural nation towards to a more modern and industrial one. The ordeals faced by the Durbeyfield family can be seen as an allegory to the fading in importance of aristocracy and “old money” as well as the importance of a name when industries started to blossom, shortening the gap between classes into obscurity.
The tragic events and plot can be divided into four major parts, or rather, point of views; that of Tess herself, and the tragic lives and experiences of Alec D’Urberville, Angel Clare and then John and Joan Durbeyfield’s create their own tragic story lines besides Tess’s. John and Joan Durbeyfield’s tragedies are self-imposed, as after learning of their noble ancestry, their pride rules over their better judgment and even over their love for daughter, whom they are ready and willing to sacrifice to be acknowledged.
John Durbeyfield’s pride that brings about his own destruction (as he becomes too “noble” to work hard and rather sits and thinks of his great birth right) is symbolized through his love for the dead horse; “I won’t sell his old body. When we D’Urbervilles was knights in the land, we didn’t sell our chargers for cat’s meat. Let ’em keep their shillings! ” Such is their pride that even when Tess returns from Alec D’Urbervilles house and gives birth to a son, they refuse to get the baby proper care, and leave Tess more or less on her own with her descending sorrows.
Tess, though, is stronger than she might first appear to be. Whilst nursing her child by the crop during a break from fieldwork, she thinks to herself; “ the past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if hey had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten”. Tess’s tragedies are obvious as all her tragic events derive from her being forcibly seduced by Alec, and this leads to the tragedy of Angel Clare as well, as he in his desperation and learned impression cannot accept Tess’s sin.
At first Tess was leaned to accept the sin was hers and hers alone, till the realization hits her that she is being wrongly punished, claiming; “Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? ”
Tess’s confession brings about the tragedy of Angel Clare, who cannot see beyond the crime committed, without realizing that Tess has been the victim, and thus Clare’s tragedy comes from the contrast he has between belief and practise, as; ” so gentle and affectionate as he was in general, there lay hidden a hard and logical deposit, like a vein of metal in a soft loam, which turned the edge of everything that attempted to traverse it”.
Clare does not realize his own unfairness till it’s too late, until he sees Tess again and; “[… his original Tess had spiritually ceased to recognize the body before him as hers – allowing it to drift, like a corpse upon the current, in a direction disassociated from its living will”. This perception of Tess is far from his original ideas of a “creature not to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life”. Alec D’Urbervilles tragedy comes from his own doings, his inability to consider others, and from his insincere and shallow conversion to faith when he had nothing else left.
Again, Tess brings about a downfall, although in reverse as it was Alec who started the chain of tragic events, as Alec upon seeing Tess again after all the years, turns his back to religion. Tess takes a blow at Alec about his hypocrisy; “You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted! Alec becomes obsessed with Tess and this time it is more than just a rich boys fancy; he stalks her and pressures her into becoming his lover and live in sin, even though Tess bravely tries to resist and stay faithful to her wayward husband.
Alec’s temper gets the better of him more than once, and he goes even as far as acknowledging his own crime upon Tess in a scream; “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man’s wife you are mine! In the end, Alec’s manipulation grumbles Tess’s resistance. What makes Tess’s tragedy harder towards the end, is that she knows she is going to give in to Alec again, as her faith in Angel Clare is fading, until Angel Clare returns.
Clare’s sudden return throws Tess’s life upside down so quickly that she cannot handle it and in momentary panic she screams at Alec; ” And my sin will kill him and not kill me! … Oh, you have torn my life all to pieces… ade me a victim, a caged wretch” before killing Alec and running away. In Aristotelian sense, the moment Tess kills Alec should be the moment of restoration of events, but it is not. Tess’s and Angel’s tragedies are not yet over. The restoration is only restored once; “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of Immortals had ended his sport with Tess. And the D’Urberville knights and dames slept on their tombs unknowing. ” Tragedy of Aristotle
According to Aristotle, in his Poetics, the leading idea of a tragedy is the Plot, which is the most important structural aspect; it is Plot that shows how the imitation of reality and how the actions lead the story line and the characters in it, as a tragedy is not imitation of men, but rather an imitation of actions, and it is the actions that in the end determine the outcome, as “what we do determines the nature of our existence”. Essential ingredients to tragedy are the peripeteia, anagnorisis and the character’s hamartia, which together create the muthos (the organization of events).
The muthos is defined by an action which is in itself whole, completed and substantial, meaning that it has a beginning, middle and an end, the ending being the most important part as it brings upon the catharsis of emotions aroused. Aristotle goes on explaining that in a good tragedy “the muthos must imitate a single, unified and complete sequence of action”, the events must be well organized that any shift in their position would cause disfiguration with the events logicality and even irrationality, although each component part must have individual substance.
This idea of muthos is well organized in Tess, as even though the novel follows various story lines, in moves in order and in the end links them all together as a unity; “there should be an inevitable or plausible link between what happens and what follows”, as there is with Tess’s faith; she accidentally causes the death of the family horse, which leads to her parents sending her away for work for the relatives, which leads into Tess’s forced seduction by Alec and the tragic events that take place thereafter.
What leads to action in Aristotelian tragedy, is often the hamartia of the character, which can results from an intrinsic quality of the character or mere bad judgment from the protagonists side. Tess’s hamartia might be her naivety, coming from a small town, simple family with no real experiences, to the house of an experienced strong-willed and self-centred man, or it might be the fact that even after she has been taken advantage of by Alec, she still stays at the house for some time after the initial incident in the forest before deciding to flee back to her parents’ house and discovering she is about to bring a child into the world.
Tess’s hamartia can be a weakness of character, simplicity of not knowing better or a mere inability to stand up for herself. Whatever it is, the time she spent with Alec, and the child that was born from it, pushes forward a whole set of incidents that will strongly prove the depth of Tess’s tragic life, and of those around her. Aristotle uses Oedipus as his example of hamartia and its consequences; Oedipus by trying to prevent and avoid the predicted killing of his father and marriage to his own mother leads himself exactly into those situations and thus causes his own hamartia.
Tess does not exactly lead herself into her own downfall, but this is probably due to her inexperience and inability to see the risk and consequences of her own actions, and the actions of those around her. What follows the establishment of hamartia in action in tragedy is discovery as there is “an inevitable or implausible link between what happens and what follows”, and, just like in Tess, the important difference is whether something is happening because of something else, or something happening after it.
The discovery that takes place – when following Aristotle’s structure of ideas concerning tragedy – and leads Tess into knowledge or better, awareness of her own situation and the consequences of actions, comes after Sorrow’s death. And what more supports the idea of tragedy, is that even though Tess and her family were not people of high standard or great fortunes, they were decent people (and here Hardy’s take on towards Victorian society norms comes out) where they fall from good fortune to bad.
The Victorian era views of tragedy varied greatly from those of Aristotle who wrote Poetics before Christianity existed. Tragedy had been re-interpreted and reformed throughout times, notably in Renaissance where the Greek tragedy was rediscovered although with a gloomier twist. The Renaissance tragedy dealt with people of nobility and their tragic events, usually leading to the death of the protagonist and anyone else that mattered to the plot of they play (notably Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
The Victorian society viewed many moral issues in black and white terms relating most things to the morals stated in Christianity, and things like the status of a woman was very sternly looked upon, and any woman standing out of the moral codes, like compromising her purity would be condemned by society, and this notion comes through in Hardy’s descriptions of Tess’s hardships.
Even though some of the hardships that Tess endures are self-imposed, most of them come from Tess’s knowledge that her actions would not be accepted, and she thus imposes upon herself a punishment – vowing never to marry; she was a fallen woman, no matter if it was due to her or someone else’s actions.
Hardy discusses these aspects of Tess’s immorality and its consequences in comparison with the laws of nature and those of the society, especially that of the difference between the actions of man to those of a woman; Angel Clare admits on their honeymoon night of having had an affair with an older woman, but when Tess confesses her past experiences, he immediately judges her actions worse than his own, down-casting Tess immediately from his grace as to a woman who could not possibly be part of him.
Also, Tess by refusing to force Alec to marry her, or rather, accept herself to marry Alec, also shows another dawning change; the change in the status of women in modern English society. The Victorian era was in many ways an era of changes; there was the looming industrial revolution (which Hardy also deals in his writing, as something inevitable but not necessarily good), and the dawning of women’s rights movements. In Aristotelian view of “perfect” tragedy, the discovery should lead into restoration, or reversal of fortunes, and this should be just as inevitable or implausible as was discovery.
These actions that determine the discovery and reversal should arouse fear and pity and through them, a catharsis of emotions when the plot reaches the pathos stage, where the hero – or in this case – heroin is faced with suffering that arouses the above mentioned emotions. Perhaps Tess does not follow the original structure of Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy, as the characters, notably the protagonist is not a hero of high degree or reputation, but a lower middle-class young woman, whose morality is compromised.
Nor does the plot go from happiness to unhappiness but quite the opposite; Tess’s experiences start from a state of unawareness, neither particularly happy nor unhappy, but move quickly that of even a greater unhappiness bringing upon the downfall of all the characters of importance in the story. Aristotle also mentions that in the best of tragedies, “the deed must either be done or not be done; the does must either know the truth or not know the truth” as this is vital for the development of the plot.
In Tess, the situation might be closer to that of not knowing the full circumstances until afterwards, and this implies to all – Tess, Alec and Angel, who all go through set of actions and emotions that will change them and later on they try to make amends. Alec by turning to religion, only to fall again because of his feelings for Tess, and Angel by discarding Tess only to be brought to his senses by a stranger, and Tess by trying hard to keep faith and to do the right thing, only to yield again under Alec’s manipulation, and by taking the last desperate attempt to ratify things by killing Alec for his love for Angel.
Perhaps Tess’s tragedy is less that she has been abused, taken advantage of and finally abandoned by the one man she loved, than that she herself turned down the one man who was ready to abandon his own spiritual salvation in order to pursue her. Quite possibly, despite the roughness of Alec’s manners, he was more suitable for her, and the real tragedy comes from Tess’s inability to realise this.
The tragedy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles derives from the many life stories Hardy has chose in his novel to represent the ideals of his time, and even though Hardy’s shows his era in a pessimistic light, there is a sense of change in there that Hardy obviously strongly encourages. The most tragic conception of the novel is that Tess is not only suffering because of having been wronged, but also because her loved ones are not offering her the help and salvation she yearns for.