When Thomas Hardy chose to subtitle his tragic novel "The Story of a Good Woman," he was clearly out to wave a red flag in the face of Victorian complacency. Not only was his heroine a "fallen woman" but a murderess as well. How could such a creature possibly be described as "good"? Tragic she certainly is, and over the course of the tale she is clearly ennobled by her sufferings. But is she really, truly a good woman? Does she become one by the novel's end?
I suspect that Hardy would have nothing but scorn for questions such as these. Where, the author might rumble, is your vaunted Christianity? And where, the virtue of forgiveness? There is too much judging going on here. And in judging Tess we become a readership of Mercy Chants who not only filch the poor woman's work boots — perhaps the most valuable item in her laborer's wardrobe — but then go on to self-righteously assert that the boots must have been concealed there by some tramp out to beg alms from such worthy villagers as the Clares and Mercy herself. Tess certainly has her pride --perhaps more than is good for a poor man's daughter to possess. But then Tess Derbyfield is a genuine D'Urberville not a faux- D'Urberville ennobled by cash, like her seducer Alec Stokes.
In truth Hardy's Tess is a true kinswomen to that desperate, melodramatic "Group of Noble Dames" whose careers the author had earlier detailed in a volume of longish short stories. Things happen to Tess in a rather melodramatic way. She is seduced. She rejects the easy role of A Rich Man's Fancy Woman. She returns to her village to bear her child out of wedlock and earn her daily bread as a field hand. Her child dies and she determines to seek solace as a dairymaid on a farm far from her home. There she meets Angel Clare, a young man from a good family, drawn to Tess by her simplicity and her air of having suffered. She tries to put him off, knowing that her past life with Alec (Stokes) D'Urberville is too great an obstacle for the nice, but priggish, Angel to overcome. If Alec had been a lusty young farmer it might be different, but Alec as he is represents all that Angel hates and the thought that his "natural" Tess may have ever found him attractive is more than he can bear.
Then there's Alec. Hardy could have taken the easy way out, and depicted him as a moustache-twirling seducer, and a thorough rotter. But he does not. Angel deserts Tess on their honeymoon, following her confession of the affair with Alec, to go off to a life of solitary suffering. And Tess emulates him, accepting a back-breaking "season in Hell" as a field hand on an isolated farm. But we soon learn it hasn't been all beer-and-skittles for Alec either. It seems that he truly loved his pretty "cousin" and had no idea that she had borne him a son. When they parted he had told her to contact him if she found herself in need, but her D'Urberville pride precludes it. When she parted from her husband of a fortnight Angel, she had asked if she could write to him, only to be told in essence: write only if you're desperate.
Now comes the ripest irony of the tale. Tess and Alec cross paths again. Only now he's a minister of the gospel, a Methodist "ranter." Although Tess no longer feels anything for the once-elegant Alec other than hatred for the part he played in estranging her Angel from her, his old love for her flares anew. At first he believes that he simply wants to make amends to a woman he wronged during his life as a sinner. But before long he has set aside his collar to pursue her unhindered. In short, as Alec once seduced the innocent Tess, the fallen Tess now seduces the reformed Alec. This may well have been the most shocking aspect of the novel to its Victorian audiences. Once a sinner repents and accepts the Lord as his savior, that's supposed to be the end of it. The sinner is not supposed to reject the Lord to pursue a woman.
Thus Tess of the D'Urbervilles becomes a tour of private hells, with Tess, Angel and Alec each locked in an inferno of their own making. Alec now loves Tess, who still loves Angel, who hated Tess initially but now regrets his brutal treatment of her and realizes that he does indeed love Tess, who has finally, in desperation at having had no work from her husband, given in to the importunate Alec and once again become his mistress. These three characters cannot help but hurt each other no matter what they do. But it's the passionate Tess, with her decadent, noble blood, who finally pushes the issue by stabbing Alec to death. And what prompted her to such a desperate act? Simply this--her humbled husband turns up on her doorstep to reclaim her. Perhaps Tess feels that only by murdering Alec can she wipe out her disgrace at his hands. This may seem an extreme, even an insane response to middle-class readers of the novel, but then Tess is not a middle-class heroine. She is a lineal descendent of one of the oldest noble families of the land, albeit debased by poverty. Tess is a noble dame, and noble dames don't react to life's little ironies in the same way that a solicitor's wife might.
How Hardy's good middle-class readership must have felt itself being scourged by the author's sense of irony! What were they to make of the number of well meaning, or at the least not ill-intentioned, characters who wreak such havoc upon poor Tess' life? To begin with there is the vicar who, in a moment of idle whimsy, reveals to the heretofore-satisfied Jack Derbyfield the vanished glories of his ancestors? Even his colleague in the village later ruefully comments that such facts were best withheld. Because Derbyfield and his wife send their eldest child Tess to visit her "distant relatives" in hope of gaining preference for her. Of course it's a further irony that these D'Urbervilles are not D'Urbervilles at all, but well-to-do Stokes who used some of their wealth to purchase Tess' name as their own. (And why not? Tess and her family aren't using it. They are perfectly happy being called Derbyfields until that parson spills the beans to "Sir John.") It's this chase after an illusory pot-of-gold that places the green Tess in the way of her experienced "cousin" Alec. A clergyman's idle display of his learning leads to a young girl's seduction.
Then there's Mercy Chant. She is the Professional Christian. By extension, so are Angel's parents and brothers. In fact, the Clares and Mercy Chant are an almost satirical depiction of the Victorian Do-Gooder. They have nothing but love in their hearts-and nothing but condemnations on their lips. It's to Angel's credit that he has tried so hard to distance himself from these whited sepulchres, but it's too late. Their contagion has clearly infected him, else how could he have treated his new wife so badly on their honeymoon? Angel is a good deal more judgmental than he likes to think himself. Of course he does appear by the novel's end to have grown out of his priggishness. He does loyally assist his murderess/ wife in her flight from the law. Perhaps his own "season in Hell" in South America and his long recuperation at home, tenderly ministered to by his family and Mercy, has made a "mensch" of him.
Certainly none of the Clares, Angel included, seem capable of making the sacrifice Alec has made for Tess. Alec believed himself "saved," and he tossed it away to re-possess Tess. His gesture is all the more outsized in that Tess gives no indication that her hostility towards him has in any way abated. Alec has not forsaken God for warm arms and nights of earthly bliss. He has forsaken Him to be with a woman who would prefer the husband who has cast her aside to the man who has cast God aside to be with her. It may be the last thing in the world that Tess would want to hear, but in truth Alec is better suited to her than is Angel. Alec and Tess both live their lives with operatic grandeur. Both are thoroughly decadent characters. Only Alec could throw away his salvation to pursue Tess. Only Tess could bury a knife in the chest of her family's benefactor as a means of wiping out her "disgrace" at his hands. Tess' tragedy is less that Angel abandoned her than that she abandoned the man who truly understood her and, to quote a tragedian from an earlier age, "loved her in spite of her heart." As I said, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is nothing less than a series of interlocking infernos.
Last modified: April 2000