I’m talking about lessons from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles of course. Is there a Christian lesson to learn?
I’ve been re-reading this wonderful book by a master story teller. Hardy has a wonderful way of describing the world and in particular, the now lost, rural world of Dorset. Sometimes he gets carried away and goes too far with it but generally his abilities enable us (me) to share in his love for this time and its people.
However, Hardy is wrong in his pessimism, which he personally described as realism. This may be the world as he saw it but I feel very sorry for a man who saw the world in such bleak ways. He seems determined to believe that the worst will always happen and that people are essentially evil, although the reverse seems to be true of Tess.
Yet this is a story and in a story it is possible to go too far to make a point. I think his critics sometimes miss this important point. So I’ve been trying to work out what point he is making in this book. I think there are probably many, good writers seem able to do that, but there is one point in particular that stands out to me. It revolves around the failures of the various characters to protect the purity of Tess.
I wondered. at first, if the point was that Angel should not have looked for purity in his new wife. I suppose this is part of the problem, in that everyone is a sinner and so we should think hard and understand our fallen condition before being the one to cast stones. Angel was also guilty – in my opinion more so – and yet he seems to think his simple confession takes away his guilt whereas Tess has to carry her guilt, according to Angel, despite her confession. This is complex and I think addresses the problem of male expectations of women and what men were allowed (if not expected) to do in Victorian England, etc. However, Angel then compounds his own guilt by failing to protect Tess through what follows. I can’t help but want Angel to return and save Tess, I think because I feel so much for the character of Tess herself. Hardy always maintained that Tess had kept her purity throughout all her trials, and I agree with him.
Tess is failed by her parents. Her father gets drunk and forces Tess to take the hives to market and her inexperience at driving (the problem compounded by her brother who is a better driver falling asleep – another let down for Tess) and so their horse is killed. Her father also fails to protect her innocence by passing his own responsibilities on to her mother. Her mother then fails to check the credentials of the man she entrusts Tess to, as well as failing to warn her of any of the dangers. Tess’ innocence then leads to her loss of physical purity.
Alec, her rapacious cousin, fails to protect her and instead takes advantage of her innocence. His later conversion to Christianity also soon fails Tess when he insists she is responsible for tempting him back into desiring her – though in truth she has done everything she can to spurn him.
The church fails her when she turns to it for help and comfort. We are told that she has an unsophisticated faith that contains elements of paganism. The church failed to educate her – despite in Hardy’s time having lots of opportunities (Hardy taught Sunday School himself in his youth, I understand). When she reached out for support she was let down. I think Hardy also believed that God has let Tess down by his absence throughout the story. You can write God out of a story but it does not mean you can write God out of life – by the way.
Angel arguably lets Tess down the worst. He should have forgiven her, it is obvious that he loves her and yet persuades himself that he can’t live with her past. Telling Tess that he cannot be her husband whilst the man she had sex with first still lives will ultimately lead to Tess killing Alec and her own death. Angel in failing to look after his wife also pushes Tess back into the abusive Alec’s arms, her motivation being her pure love for her family and sacrificing her own happiness for them. It would be easy to hate Angel but he does at least return and Tess’ true love for him seems to win me over.
Tess is ultimately let down by the law which saw no room for a woman to kill her abuser. Presumably, this becomes part of Hardy’s own thinking when as a 16 year old he witnessed the hanging of a woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband, and even when that abuse was known she was refused a pardon, or commuting of sentence, because she insisted her husband had been killed by a horse rather than at her own hand with an axe, right up to the last days before her execution. This moment left Hardy a changed man and it seems pretty clear had an influence on the telling of Tess’ story.
Tess’ purity is challenged by various events, which in many ways would make her impure in the eyes of people. I find it interesting that Hardy believed that her purity was maintained and presumably he believed there was something about purity that stands outside the physical. This is interesting in itself because Hardy seems to have become an atheist and someone who only believes in the physical. It is clear in Tess, though, that there is something that is immaterial (her purity) and if the immaterial does exist it surely opens the door to a belief in God. She was physically impure (pre-marital sex, illegitimate child and murder) and yet her true purity (love, intentions, etc) for Hardy remained pure. I agree with him.
I disagree with some commentators I’ve read who seem to believe Hardy is attacking social convention and religious taboos around sex. I actually think the opposite might be true. Hardy values purity above everything in this story. Yes, Tess’ inner purity is enough to make her physical impurity forgivable, if not excusable, because her physical purity is taken from her rather than her giving it away, but he is not trying to say that physical purity does not matter at all. If that was his message why does he go to such lengths to heap blame on those who failed to protect Tess’ physical purity? I also wonder if those of us who read the story do not in turn weep over Tess’ lost purity and innocence because we know the value of such things?
So there is a Christian message in this book. Innocence and purity are things we should protect and value and those who neglect to protect such things are as guilty of causing the loss of purity and innocence as anyone else. I just wish Hardy had found a way to finish the story with Tess’ purity winning through so I could have saved my own heartbreak at the end.