Thomas Hardy Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Human Morality and the Laws of Nature

Tess

 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':

So the two forces were at work here as everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment. (p.332)

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.

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folklore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely revised code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. (p.50)

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.

If there is such a lady, it would be enough for us if she were friendly - not to expect her to give us help . . . I'd rather try to get work. (p.64)

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.

She had hoped to be a teacher at the school, but the fates seemed to decide otherwise. (p.77)

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.

It was of recent erection - indeed almost new - and of the same rich red colour that formed such a contrast with the evergreens of the lodge. Far behind . . . stretched . . . a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primeval date, where Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks . . . all this sylvan antiquity . . . was outside the immediate boundaries of the estate . . . On the extensive lawn stood an ornamental tent. (p.67)

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:

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. (p.107)

Tess is repeatedly, as in the passage above, described in terms of natural simplicity and beauty. ...

by Ian Mackean

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