Term Paper: Tess of the D'urbervilles

Pages: 10 (3887 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] When Tess and Angel Clare take milk from the Talbothays dairy to the railway station, at a time when their love is just beginning to reach its full flowering, the contrast between the urbanized, technological modernity of the train and the rustic timelessness of Tess's appearance and manner is stressed:

The light of the engine flashed for a second upon Tess Durbeyfield's figure, motionless under the great holly tree. No object could have looked more foreign to the gleaming cranks and wheels than this unsophisticated girl, with the round bare arms, the rainy face and hair, the suspended attitude of a friendly leopard at pause, the print gown of no date or fashion, and the cotton bonnet drooping on her brow.

Tess is literally illuminated by the light of the modern era, but that light cannot penetrate into her essence. She stands beneath a holly tree - itself a tree redolent of paganism and the forces of timeless nature - herself like an animal, a leopard, marked by none of the outward appearances of passing fashion but standing as if rooted in the soil.

The soil of Wessex is as fundamental for Thomas Hardy's fiction as the characters that live their lives upon it. His fiction and poetry is deeply imbued with a sense of place, and his Wessex can be said to be not merely a setting for his stories, but almost a character in its own right. It seems at times to have moods and motivations of its own, to be able to express joy and despair, to express the shadow of fate and destiny, and mark and echo the events of birth, death, love and separation. Tess, rich in landscape and natural description, is particularly potent in this respect. For example, when Tess travels from her home valley, Blackmoor Vale, to work at the dairy in the Vale of Froom, the contrast between the shadows and overhanging doom of her old life and the light and freedom she hopes for in the new is clear: the new valley is 'not so luxuriantly beautiful, perhaps, as that other one which she knew so well; yet it was more cheering. It lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal.' The love which grows up between Tess and Angel Clare at Talbothays Dairy is related to the rich and fertile landscape and made to seem inevitable in such a place: 'Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.' Tess's new love is inevitable; in this respect as in others the role of the natural world in this novel is to constrain her within the bounds of her fate.

Tess is a novel full of fate, and Tess as a character appears to be generally accepting of the direction in which fate is taking her. At an early point in the story, her little brother Abraham asks her if the stars are worlds and, if so, if they are all 'like ours':

don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound - a few blighted.'

'Which do we live on - a splendid one or a blighted one?'

'A blighted one.'

"Tis very unlucky that we didn't pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of 'em!'

The narrator gives us to think that Tess does not think it unlucky - she simply accepts it as the fact. Omens also play a very potent role in the story; perhaps most notably immediately after Tess's wedding, when, in an inversion of the natural order of things, a cock crows in the middle of the afternoon: '"I don't like to hear him!" said Tess to her husband.' Such omens add to the 'pagan' sense of the novel, suggesting that the characters are at the mercy of primitive and powerful forces. At times such powers seem to be using symbols to mock them, as in the case of the mistletoe, a symbol of romance and fertility with ancient origins, that Angel hangs over their marital bed: 'Angel had put it there... In his zest and his gaiety he had hung it there. How foolish and in opportune that mistletoe looked now.' Over the following weeks the mistletoe echoes the estrangement and barrenness of the marriage, slowly fading and withering above the bed, until eventually Angel takes it down and crushes it in the grate.

Another, highly significant, example of this pagan symbolism and foreshadowing of fate is the stone pillar at the spot called 'Cross-in-Hand', a 'strange rude monolith, from a stratum unknown in any local quarry, on which was roughly carved a human hand.' Convinced by Alec D'Urberville, now a preacher, that it was once a Holy Cross, Tess is pressured by him to swear upon it that she will never 'tempt' him, by her 'charms or ways'. When Tess asks a shepherd the meaning of the edifice on which she has sworn her oath, he tells her that it has a far darker significance:

What is the meaning of that old stone I have passed?' she asked of him. 'Was it ever a Holy Cross?'

'Cross - no; 'twer not a cross! 'Tis a thing of ill-omen, Miss. It was put up in wuld times by the relations of a malefactor who was tortured there by nailing his hand to a post and afterwards hung. The bones lie underneath. They say he sold his soul to the devil, and that he walks at times.'

She felt the petit mort at this unexpectedly gruesome information, and left the solitary man behind her.

This incident prefigures Tess's own fate, of death by hanging; the public torture of the man echoes her own public shame; and the stone of the monument foreshadows the stones of Stonehenge, among which her journeying and her tragedy will come to an end. This pillar of stone, like the great slabs of Stonehenge, is made from a foreign type of stone from beyond the local area (the great stones of Stonehenge originate in South Wales, 200 miles from their final resting-place in Wiltshire), emphasizing its significance as a messenger from beyond the boundaries of Tess's ordinary life.

Other emblems of Tess's helplessness have pagan overtones. The steam threshing machine brought in to work on the farm where Tess goes to work after leaving the Dairy, and which exhausts her and her fellow-workers with its demand for corn, is described as 'the red tyrant that the women had come to serve' and the engineer who operates it behaves 'as if some ancient doom compelled him to wander here against his will in the service of his Plutonic master.'

It is, then, as an expression of pure Nature that Tess comes, with Angel, to Stonehenge at the end of the novel. Characteristically for a novel full of the obscurity and indistinctness of darkness, sleep and fog, the couple come to the monument in the darkness of the early hours, and before they see it, they hear it:

What monstrous place is this?' said Angel.

'It hums,' said she. 'Hearken!'

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp.

Earlier, when they were both working at Talbothays dairy, Tess had been drawn to Angel by his playing of the harp, and had crouched in the wildness of the garden to hear the music; but then there had been notes and harmonies symbolizing all the possibilities of new-found love. Now the great grim stones, producing their 'booming tune' of just one note, symbolize the closing down of possibilities, the end of freedom, and Tess's terrible fate. The two characters feel their way forward, but find only a further barrier of the great stones; they are set together like doorways, but doorways that lead nowhere. Angel names the place as Stonehenge, and his remark that it is 'Older than the centuries; older than the D'Urbervilles' implies the futility of the quest for the supposed noble ancestry of the Durbeyfields that has led Tess to her doom. Once more the significance of this great stone monument as a place of ending, where fate can no longer be evaded, is emphasized.

Tess does not seek to evade her fate, but appears to be resigned to it. She has travelled across Hardy's Wessex from the lush, fertile, warm southern valley to this cold, hard, exposed northern moor, paralleling her inner journey to the ultimate loneliness of her death. Not long before, we have been told, she had 'showed her old agility in the performance' of walking… [END OF PREVIEW]

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