Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousands of years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.
In his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) deals with issues of morality in two fundamental ways; one is the relativity of moral values - their variation according to time and place - the other is the opposition between man-made laws and Nature. These issues are explored through the experiences of Tess Durbyfield as she encounters the problems of life, and exemplify Hardy's idea of the 'two forces':
The 'circumstantial will against enjoyment' is often a matter of morality or convention, but equally often it is a matter of chance, or fate.
The first example of the relativity of moral values is seen in the clash of attitudes between Tess and her mother. Tess's education has given her a wider and more advanced outlook, transcending the parochial conventions of her mother's world.
In their attempt to solve their problems by re-associating themselves with their old family Mr. and Mrs. Durbyfield are clinging to an old, dead tradition. It is an unrealistic retrogressive act with which Tess would rather not be associated.
Tess is reluctant to approach, then to work for, the d'Urbervilles, but her reluctance is outweighed by her sense of a duty to make reparation for the loss of the horse - a virtuous motive - and the obstinate insistence of her mother. Tess is trapped; her freedom of choice is curtailed by a combination of 'the fates', (the death of the horse and the discovery of family connections), and filial duty.
In Hardy's world worthy ambitions are thwarted by circumstance, and modern enlightenment is strangled by old conventions.
The representation of the cheapening and decay of ancient traditions is one of the many roles of Alec d'Urberville. He is of course not a d'Urberville at all, and Hardy depicts his house in a way which highlights its modernity, and its disharmony with the natural and ancient surroundings.
Mr. and Mrs. Durbyfield cling to their obsolete idea of the family in total ignorance of the reality, and Tess suffers as a result.
In this first section of the novel specific moral issues have not been raised, but the absence of a fixed viewpoint in a changing society has been established, as has the way a combination of fate and social pressure can restrict personal freedom.
The specific moral issues come into play with Tess's pregnancy by Alec. In the scene of Tess's seduction Hardy avoids examining to what extent she was compliant, though by reference to the 'primeval yews', 'roosting birds', and 'hopping rabbits' (p.107) he stresses the naturalness of the event. With respect to its wider significance, in and authorial comments, he indicates one of his main themes, the inexplicable injustice and cruelty of fate:
Tess is repeatedly, as in the passage above, described in terms of natural simplicity and beauty.
Tess's first encounter with the unnatural artifice of moral dogma coincides with her seduction into the corrupt world of Alec d'Urberville. The Christian slogan in red paint conflicts physically and spiritually with nature, and Tess is the spokesperson for nature:
THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBRETH, NOT
Hardy's attitude towards Christianity is made quite clear:
Tess feels guilty about her liaison with Alec. Hardy looks very closely at this feeling of guilt and suggests that it is unnecessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, although she has broken an accepted social law, the villagers of Martlott do not morally censure her. She has an illegitimate child, but they still accept her as an individual, a member of the community, and do not look upon her as an outcast.
Tess imagines her guilt to be a natural consequence of her actions, not only in the eyes of the community but also in the eyes of nature. Hardy dispels this notion too. While walking in the hills:
Her mind is tormented by 'a crowd of moral hobgoblins' (p.120), which have been put there by her exposure to Christianity and which pervert her natural inclinations.
Hardy's intention with Tess is to test his concept of true natural goodness against the world.
Tess adheres to no doctrine or tradition, and represents Hardy's direct challenge to both when she confronts the vicar on the subject of her baby's baptism and burial. After baptising her baby herself she (as does Hardy) feels:
Hardy undermines the authority of the vicar by calling him a 'tradesman' (p.132) and showing how Tess's genuine human feelings sway his nobler feelings against his doctrine. He cannot give the baby a Christian burial, but with the account of Tess's simple sincerity in tending the baby's grave we are made to feel that the refusal was more off a loss to Christianity than to Tess.
Angel Clare's history parallels that of Tess in that he has broken away from his family through exposure to modern ideas. He outrages his father, the 'straightforward simple-minded . . . man of fixed ideas' (p.153) by wishing to use a university education for the 'honour and glory of man' (p.154) and not of God. Just as Tess is breaking away from parochial convention and superstition, he is breaking away from adherence to received dogma.
At Talbothay's Dairy Angel becomes aware of the closeness to natural rhythms involved in the agricultural way of life. He imagines he can appreciate and adjust to this new way of life, but he cannot become part of it. He sees Tess in idealised terms:
And he cannot accept it when that illusion is shattered
In the growing relationship between Tess and Angel, Hardy stresses the natural inevitability of their passion.
But the immorality attached to Tess's past has been established as 'unnatural', and this brings about a crisis for both of them, in which fate plays its part in making the results as tragic as possible. Later, Angel says that if Tess had told him her history earlier he might have been able to accept it. Tess must be held to blame for not telling him, though fate, in the letter she wrote him remaining unseen, and social pressure from her mother, are also partly responsible. Angel has imagined himself to be an enlightened humanist, but when he discovers his wife's immoral history he finds that his new attitudes have penetrated no deeper than his intellect.
And Tess, as she often does, verbalises the viewpoint Hardy is expressing through her:
So the intellectual and free-thinking Angel is the 'slave to custom and conventionality' (p.309), and the relatively ignorant Tess is the true humanist. It takes Angel a year of travelling and suffering during which 'he had mentally aged a dozen years' (p.388) before he can throw off his strictly moral upbringing and realise the validity of Tess's viewpoint.
Religious belief is further undermined by the rapid conversion, then de-conversion of Alec d'Urberville. He believes himself to be sincere, but Hardy shows his fanaticism to be a passing fad. It is during the arguments between Tess and Alec, (the dialectic nature of which puts rather a strain on the reality of Tess as a character), that Hardy seems to indicate his own beliefs.
To develop his argument Hardy has to admit the inadequacy of Tess as a spokesperson:
If there is any optimism, or tendency to suggest a code of conduct in Hardy, it is in these humanistic ideas. And if there is any tendency towards a religion involving worship of a superior being, it is towards a natural, a-moral object, the sun.
It is evident that Hardy regards Christianity as a worthless debasement of primitive spiritual ideas (sun-worship) from the bitter irony of this comment:
It is on the ancient altar of this 'saner religion' that Tess is finally sacrificed to spiritually-empty modern society.
By killing Alec Tess freed herself from the man who twice separated her from her lover, and allowed herself and Angel a few days of happiness together. But in Hardy's view this kind of happiness, between two enlightened people who take upon themselves responsibility for their own moral conduct, cannot be but short-lived.
The incongruity of modern policeman surrounding the ancient temple of Stonehenge indicates Hardy's view that modern man is in a spiritually hopeless state, as does Tess's attitude on being captured.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. New Wessex edition introduced by P. N. Furbank. London. Macmillan. 1974. (First published 1891)
© Ian Mackean, May 2001