Tess in the Modern World


At the end of the 19th century when Thomas Hardy was writing novels (Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891), the Industrial Revolution was already beginning to change milleniums of settled routine, impacting society and culture in ways no one had predicted. Most people were, as usual, slow to catch on but the artists of the turn into the 20th century were struck by the changes as if by a bolt of unwelcome lightning.

In the 18th century, the Age of Reason had already demoted Christianity and other primitive religions to the status of crackpot cults and deified the Mind. Now, with the Industrial Revolution disconnecting humanity from the ancient rhythms of rural life, there came a fervent response to the emotionless rationalists, a worship of “the natural” as opposed to the man-made. Led by Rousseau’s rather silly elevation of the “savage” into a primordial, essential human value, the Naturalists praised the artlessness and honesty of Nature untampered by human hands or social conventions. In its purity, they said, it is a reflection of God Himself and cannot be improved upon.

In retrospect they, too, were silly and terribly naive but they had hold of a genuine and important truth nevertheless – that, contrary to the teachings of Christianity as they’d been dogmatically defined for centuries, the human body was neither sinful nor “dirty” and shouldn’t be suppressed and strenuously restricted but rather loosed from its ludicrous theocratic bonds to be the joyous nexus of life that God had always meant it to be.

Naturally (pun intended) this included sex.

Where Dreiser tended to see sex as the sensual antithesis of religious emotionalism, Hardy in Tess seems to see it as a human praxis crippled by religious feudalism and the disconnection of the human animal from its natural habitat. If he doesn’t extoll the “natural” virtues and power of sex, Hardy at least recognizes that it isn’t the work of Satan but the spawn of affection – a normal response to the feelings of love and springtime.

But like Dreiser, Hardy’s deepest concern in Tess isn’t with the natural world around her but the social world that has largely surrendered to a religious mania against ordinary bodily functions and a fanatical hatred of the “evils” of sex. Most especially he sees the way that women are treated in his day as deeply hypocritical, on the one hand with the lewd openness of a simple people daily exposed to the shennanigans of animals on a farm who think no more of sexual congress than of peeing in the pond, and on the other with the strictures of social mores built on and from a religious aversion to the pleasures of flesh, even to the extent that mortifications of the flesh – beatings – are preferable.

Hardy’s Tess is a full-blooded woman caught in a vise of social laws that are mindlessly exclusionary and attempt to impose an impossible rigidity on a fluid Nature. Where she responds honestly and with her heart, she is punished for it. Having once, when very young, given in to the importunate arrogance of a slightly older rake who then abandons her, she spends the rest of her life trying to find a place in society where the supposed forgiveness and charity of Christianity will allow her to live in peace with herself.

Needless to say, she never finds such a place. It doesn’t exist. Though she does, at the very end of the book, find an short-term alternative that is as close as she could ever come and is the direct result of her killing the rake who took advantage of her. Hardy’s Tess is always looking forward to a time and circumstance when the urges of her heart, not the demands of convention, are met with acceptance and joy. Though Hardy never explicitly condemns religion or suggest outright that “modern” Christianity is the reason for her ostracization, the suggestion that this is so is unmistakable.

While the tension between what is natural and what is grafted onto nature by philosophers and theosophists is the core confrontation in the book, Hardy’s descriptive focus is the natural world. The intellectual world gets short shrift – little respect and even less attention. He is famous for his densely-packed language, at once sensuous and literary, but to be honest, a good deal of it simply doesn’t work, at least in part because it is too intellectual and not common enough.

There is an early passage where Hardy tries a number of poetic parlor tricks to evoke the feelings of heath-based fogs with the result that he stumbles around as if he were in one. The description is so disconnected as to be incoherent. In another passage he tries to render the power of morning sunlight by insisting that only the masculine pronoun will do it justice and then writing that “He” forces his way through cottage windows and paints the tops of hayricks with his teeth. I suspect that even in Victorian England with its lavish disregard for the intellectual boundaries of sentimentality this sort of thing was looked at askance.

On the other hand, when his descriptive powers are working – which, truth to tell, is most of the time – his prose is as delicate and beautiful as a lacey flower petal.

But it isn’t the glories of his prose style (or lack of them) that make Tess a remarkable book, and neither is it his evocation of Egden Heath and the countryside of Wessex, despite what they told you in high school or college. It is Tess herself, a truly original creation in literature, who is the crowning glory of Hardy’s career.

Tough yet tender, pure even when she isn’t, Tess Derbyfield appears at first glance to be a mass of unmixable, oil-and-waterish contradictions. Then slowly, a layer at a time almost, Hardy reveals his real purpose: the case he is making is that there is no strict rule that defines goodness, that purity is a matter of intention and integrity of motivation. He gives us the ultimate sinner – a woman who has baby out of wedlock – and then proves that her “sin” was a function of the urgings of Nature, urgings that Man was never meant to avoid much less loathe.

And so we come back again to the religion-based social structure that condemns her entire life for a single slipped moment, an “errant” surrender that in Hardy’s Nature-centered view was what anyone with a yearning toward life and away from death would have and should have done. Though he never says it in so many words, it’s clear from what follows that if religion isn’t directly or deliberately guilty of the destruction of her life, it is guilty by the offhand cruelty of its reliance on dogma and its insistence on A Great Error: that Nature is to be sublimated and repressed rather than celebrated, and that the bodies which God gave us are to be locked away in a joyless room to protect us from their inherent evil.

It’s a good point and one we are rapidly, salutatory sexiness on every casual hand notwithstanding, needing to relearn.

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