Thomas Hardy
Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Human Morality and the Laws of Nature

by Ian Mackean
For more on Thomas Hardy see The Thomas Hardy Page >

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.

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:

2 Pet.ii.3

Against the peaceful landscape, the pale, decaying tints of the copses, the blue air of the horizon, and the lichened stile-boards, these staring vermilion words shone forth . . . 'I think they are horrible', said Tess. 'Crushing! Killing! (p.114-115)

Hardy's attitude towards Christianity is made quite clear:

The last grotesque phase of a creed which had served mankind well in its time. (p.115)

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.

She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly - the thought of the world's concern at her situation - was founded on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides herself Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought. If she made herself miserable the livelong night and day it was only this much to them - 'Ah, she makes herself unhappy.' (p.127)

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:

She looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference . . . She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly. (p.121)

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.

Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations. (p.127)

Hardy's intention with Tess is to test his concept of true natural goodness against the world.

her moral values having to be reckoned not by achievement but by tendency. (p.309)

She had set herself to stand or fall by her qualities (p.341)

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:

If Providence would not ratify such an act of approximation she, for one, did not value the kind of heaven lost by the irregularity. (p.131)

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:

What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is! (p.158)

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.

All the while they were converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale. (p.168)

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.

'I do forgive you, but forgiveness is not all.'
'And love me?'
To this question he did not answer. (p.274-5)

And Tess, as she often does, verbalises the viewpoint Hardy is expressing through her:

'It is in your own mind what you are angry at Angel; it is not in me.' (p.274)

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.

Alec: 'You seem to have no religion . . . '
Tess: 'But I have. Though I don't believe in anything supernatural . . . I believe in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount' (p.368)

Tess: 'Why, you can have the religion of loving-kindness and purity at least, if you can't have - what do you call it - dogma.' (p.377)

To develop his argument Hardy has to admit the inadequacy of Tess as a spokesperson:

She tried to argue, and tell him that he had mixed in his dull brain two matters, theology and morals, which in the primitive days of mankind had been quite distinct. But . . . she could not get on. (p.377)

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.

His present aspect, coupled with the lack of human forms in the scene, explained the old time heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion has never prevailed under the sky. (p.122)

It is evident that Hardy regards Christianity as a worthless debasement of primitive spiritual ideas (sun-worship) from the bitter irony of this comment:

but on this day of vanity, the Sun's-day, when flesh went forth to coquet with flesh wile hypocritically affecting business with spiritual things (p.182)

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.

'It is as it should be,' she murmured. Angel, I am almost glad - yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me! (p.447)

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


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