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Tess Of The Durbervilles English Literature Essay

Thomas Hardy, the English poet and regional novelist, is famous for his works of depicting as the county “Wessex”, named after the ancient kingdom of Alfred the Great. Hardy has a career as writer over fifty years. His earliest books appeared when Anthony Trollope (1815-82) wrote his Palliser series, and then he publishes poetry in the decade of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hardy's work reflected his stoical pessimism and sense of tragedy in human life.

In Hardy’s works, readers can read his confusion and contradiction in his mind. But living in that age and under that environment, nobody can give him an exact answer of his questions about the society. So he put his questions into his works. And he used his pen to challenge the unfairness and hypocrisy of Victorian time.

Hardy had a deep sense of moral sympathy for England's lower classes, particularly for rural women. He became famous for his (compassionate, often controversial) portrayal of young women victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of English social morality;

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is his most famous portrayal (1891) which is one of his representative works, and came into great conflicts with Victorian morals. It explores the dark side of his family connections in Berkshire. In the story the poor villager girl Tess Durbeyfield is seduced by the rich Alec D'Uberville in the woods. Afterwards she becomes pregnant. However, the child dies in infancy. She is despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage. And then Tess finds work as a dairymaid on a farm and falls in love with Angel Clare, who is a clergyman’s son and marries her. Tess enjoys a period of contentment and happiness. She eventually accepts his proposal to marry him. Still, she is troubled by pangs of conscience and feels she should tell Angel about her past. She tries to write him a confessional note and slip it under his door, but it slides under the carpet; Angel never sees it.

However, when Tess tells the truth to Angel about her past on their wedding night, he can not accept it and hypocritically deserts her. She bears her misfortunes bravely. And the burden of her family leaves her no choice. Tess is the eldest child in the family. The great self-sacrifice spirit is the nature of her character and she sadly becomes Alec’s mistress again. After Angel returns from Brazil, repenting his harshness, he finds Tess living with Alec. He tells her he has forgiven her and begs her to take him back. Tess tells him he has come too late. Tess kills Alec in desperation, and in the end she is arrested and has to be hanged. She is destroyed by the society. Tess is a typical human sacrifice at that time.

It seems to be a simple love story. But to Hardy and the people living in that society and morals, the book contains many things worthy thinking: human beings’ humanity in that society, the social morals, the religion and their conflicts. Hardy just presents us contradictory living conditions at that society. In the following chapters, this essay will give a vivid illustration of Hardy and his creating thoughts on social morals and humanity.

1.2 Hardy’s Care about the Humanity

Hardy believes that human beings should also respect individual’s values. Human beings are the core values of nobleness and dignity. He doesn’t approve of the behavior of dispraising the individual, oppressing the right of freedom and so on. He strengthens harmonization of individuals and the society.Most of Hardy’s works shows his care about humanity. Besides, Hardy also seeks for the value of freedom. He opposes any dictatorship to human beings’ thoughts, including the churches, politics, and social systems and so on. Of course, he advocates the personality of tolerance and respect to individual’s belief. In addition, he thinks human beings should obey the principle of equality of morals. Everyone has the same right ignoring the differences of religions, social status and so on.

He also believes that perfect humanity should establish on the basis of having dreams of freedom in true significance. The government, the upper class and the social powers do not have right to oppress their thinking ideas.

Those are Hardy’s advocating about perfect humanity. But ideals are always in conflicts with the reality. People’s individual values may be disturbed by the out force; the laboring people are the victims of the development of the society; the capitalist become the new controllers to master the society; the social morals are experiencing testing of its fairness.

In this essay, Hardy’s contradictory ideas and thoughts will be vividly discussed in the following chapters.

Chapter Two the background of Hardy’s thought contradiction

Social Changes from agriculture to industry

It is widely known that England of the nineteenth-century was enormously transformed by the powerful social changes. These changes included the urbanization of the population, industrialization from the agrarianism, the discoveries and innovations of science and the developing middle-class and its concerns.

The 19th century’s Britain mastered great powers including the political, economical and military power. The event of the Reform Bill of 1832 was a turning point for British social shift that the power was passed from the old aristocrats to the middle class capitalists, for the Industrial Revolution started. Many steam-powered engines were put into practice in many aspects, which had increased the capacity for production. Therefore Britain was reputed as the origins of the modern western society. After the Industrial Revolution, the England witnesses great economical changes—it shifted from a traditional agricultural society to a modern capitalist country. Thus the Victorian period reached into its peak in economy with sufficient production and unprecedented harmony.

Chronologically the Victorian period roughly coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria who ruled over England from 1836 to 1901. The period has been generally regarded as one of the most glorious in the English history.

The early years of the Victorian England were a time of rapid economic development as well as serious social problems. It seems that England develops in an ideal way, for the Victorians experiences huge changes. Actually, with the fast development of science and technology, many people have been deeply influenced by the new inventions and discoveries and all the knowledge unconsciously influences people’s religious conventions. At the mid of the 19th century, England had finally become the most developed country in the world at that time which mastered the biggest power. And yet under the great prosperity and richness, there were widespread poverty and wretchedness among the working class. Because of the terrible living and working conditions, many people were suffering unemployment. The new Poor Law of 1834 with its workhouse system finally aroused the Chartist Movement (1836-1848). In the next twenty years, England experienced a prosperous and relative stable time. However, the prosperity, respectability and material progress only belonged to the middle-class life of the time, while the working people were the real victims.

After the great changes of Industrial Revolution, machines had taken up the leading role in the agriculture, and farming method was no longer in the traditional way. Though many new ways and techniques like organization were put into practice into the agriculture, instead, the workers, in the eyes of Hardy, as an important part of the natural farming ways, were abandoned. Farmers, once the main labor force, descent into thetas. The effects of industrialization promote the economy on the one hand; speed up the helplessness of the struggling farmers on the other hand. In order to continue to live by themselves, they have to work for the aristocratic landlords.

Unfortunately, as a weak power, they still could not control their fate for they were at the position of being squeezed. The enclosure movement from 16th century to 19th century in England was another big strike to the farmers. Being oppressed by landlords, they were forced to leave their homes, lost their jobs and run away from their homeland for a better survival. However, strange new environment and new agricultural system made them feel helpless. What they could do was just to obey their rules and to be controlled at the mercy of machines.

Writers became to express their different ideas about the both developing society so that many new ideas were shown to the public, especially the idea of Darwinism, which was in direct conflict with the Biblical dogma of creation. Its occurrence challenged the teachings of the church and Bible, which directly influenced the thought of the middle-class. Many writers held a doubted view about the validity of religion after receiving the new concepts and ideas, thus they also gave doubts old morals and lifestyle.

Hardy, one of the writers among those who are affected by these ideas and changes, goes through a “crisis of doubt” as to the existence of a God. The middle-class’s beliefs and strivings in the period of 19th century were still success, happiness, and wealth. It can safely be said that religion played an important role in the lives of the people at that time. However, the old religions faced with precedent challenge compared with before, for these beliefs could not bring people in the lower class any benefits from the industrialization except more disasters and sufferings.

Hardy thinks that it is cruel and dehumanized to cut the connection between human beings and nature and to force nature to change its regular habit when the society continued to develop in a industrialized way. As a countryside writer, he puts his hatred for machines and doubts of the society into his work of Tess of the d'Urbervilles:

We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. Enough that in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange destinies. (Chapter 5)

Tess has experienced pure and immature stages after a series of struggles. During that period, she always persists in being loyal to her inner mind. Under the writing of Hardy, she is a brave, independent and persistent woman. Though Alec tries to induce her many times, she still refuses to receive the fake love, for she believes that she already has her own belief in love. Unfortunately, family’s refugee forces her to face with the cruel reality that only yielding to Alec will her family have hope to live better. So she has to marry Alec. From this aspect, Hardy expresses human beings’ helplessness when landlords with great machinery power take up the leading in the society that perfect humanity like Tess can not be admitted by public. People like Tess who leaves farmland become unskilled workers. They have to work as machines, even worse than them.

Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barley visible was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve a timber-farmed construction, with straps and wheels appearing the threshing-machine, which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves. (Tess, p.319)

These are the reflections of big shift from agriculture to industry. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is also the reflection of the social environment at that time. Alec in the book can represent the middle class and the old aristocrat who obey the social rules and squeeze the lower class. Tess belongs to the pure and enduring bottomed workers that they have their ideals, but have to face with the cruel living reality. Tess, as the core character in the book, is the representative of perfect humanity in the eyes of Hardy. Angel, however, is a contradictory complex, for he pursues for new thought and ideal humanity on the one hand, but on the other hand, he is so limited by the old morals that he can not accept the true Tess.

That is also the contradictory mind of Hardy himself. Facing with the shift of the society from agriculture to industry, Hardy’s emotions also shift: he becomes to be more concerned about the peasantry and questionable to the industrialization. He knows many workers try to work all by their effort to raise themselves. However, they can not be tolerated by the new order which is ruled by the capitalists. Therefore, their true humanity is oppressed by the unfair society. Tess’s end with death was the reflection of the ruthlessness of the industrialized society.

People’s shift of Conception at Victorian time

With the changes of the society, people’s criterion of social judgment experienced a big transition. During the Industrial Revolution, British society only upholds profits, have no regard for all else. Workers are only live tools in employers’ eyes. Before the invention of steamers, factories were in remote areas, and employers kept intimate relationship with workers, paying close attention to workers’ life, including their food, accommodation, etc. After the appearance of steamers, the relationship between employers and employees changed. Factories moved to urban areas, meanwhile workers were thrown into the insecure living situation. Nobody took interest in their life after they lose their jobs. Social bonds of humanity were completely twisted off, and mighty group of the society cared little about personal value. They only cared about profits. Furthermore, Influenced by Adam Smith’s liberalism economic theory, the mainstream values at that time, poverty was treated as a personal affair, and unemployment contributes to economic development because it could keep salary in the lowest level so as to reduce cost of production.

Secondly, since people attached more importance to the realistic value of social standards and received new ideas, the traditional social morals and religions seemed in conflicts with situations of the society at that time. Traditional values come from the Victorian belief structure. This structure forms the conventions of church and state, and therefore society. They are founded on bedrock of assumptions. These include a belief in a predictable universe presided over by a benevolent God that governed by immutable natural laws, a corresponding conviction that humankind was capable of arriving at a unified and fixed set of truths about all aspects of life, and an insistence on preserving absolute standards based on radical dichotomy between what was deemed “human” and that regarded as “animal” (Signal 9).

This “bedrock of assumptions” also gave rise to the struggle against those “absolute truths,” which was one of the characteristics of Victorian literature. Modernism, and even postmodernism, on the other hand, emphasizes that there are no absolute truths just individual truths. These rise of struggles about assumed truths that began to erode the traditional values as the turn of the century saw the Modernist period reject the idea of fixed truths and guidance from above.

The core of thought in Victorian age is a kind of serious value system, which is quite different from the leisure and elegant style of the 18th century. Due to the long reign time of Queen Victoria, the thoughts of the Victorian age are complex and various. It is undeniable that the Victorian time is a period filled with various kinds of contradictions, a time when women are greatly respected, meanwhile a time when one can buy a 13-year-old little girl with only a few pounds. During that period, in every sermon altar, newspaper and public speech, the sanctity of marriage and the importance of chastity before marriage are interminably propagandized. However, from crown princes to dignitaries, many people have secretly private life, which is more than ever before. At that time, warm description in any novel, play, poetry and other famous literatures never exceeds kissing. Other aspects of human activities are made great progress and liberation, but the most basic aspect — personal desire is demanding controlled.

The existence of the traditional morals and religions, sometimes, seemed not suitable for the new order and development of the society, and people who persisted in the obeying of them may fall into contradictions and even became the victims of the old morals and religions. Thomas Hardy put his doubts in his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Through analysis, it is apparent to see that the heroine Tess is a charming and thought-provoking figure. From a feminist perspective, the real cause of Tess’s tragedy is not her poor family and protagonist’s weakness in her character on the surface, but the traditional social inequality which commonly exists in patriarchal society. In patriarchal society, women’s virginity is the determining factor of women’s value. Tess is regarded as a reprobate woman after her being seduced and losing her virginity, and “once lost the virginity, forever degenerate.” Obviously, Hardy is against such traditional concept which takes women’s virginity as absolute standard of the evaluation. Hardy shows his sympathy to Tess and points out the absurdity of judging a women’s value by a simple physiological facts such traditional idea. In this novel, Hardy denies the traditional social inequality, and insists on the point that Tess is a pure woman. Hardy transcends the traditional Victorian social prejudice, regardless of strong criticism, which shows his progressive thinking. However, he is still limited in a man’s angle of view, and the only thing he can do is to shape an artistic image for Tess who must die at the end.

In the book Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy describes secular morality, religious morality, hedonism and other different moral values in a critical view, revealing the cruelty of the society at that time from different levels and angles. At the same time, Hardy also puts forward his own moral values, and emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility as the centre of unreligious moral value.

In typical Victorian family, fathers keep houses in a strict, religious, solemn and just way. Family is sacred to people in the Victorian age, as well as a place where one’s character formed. But in this period, women are considered humble and forced to accept this concept. The queen is the power, however women are socially disadvantaged. The only function of upper-class-woman is being treated as an adornment, which is elegant with high status, nevertheless passive. Moreover, women of lower class must go out to work, and their husbands are often as brutal as people in upper class or even more brutal. Whereas women at that time think it is better to marry a cruel man than being unmarried. So this is the difference between contemporary thought and modern thought.

The Contradiction between Old Morals and New Realities

In the Victoria era, the rapid development of science and technology has greatly broadened people’s vision. At the same time, Darwin’s theory of evolution has fundamentally overthrown the Christian faith. It seems that people should abandon the superstition, but in the UK, however, in Britain, religious superstition still poisons the people.

Hardy’s novel primarily reveals the social conflict through the bondage held by love, marriage, traditional moral aspects. Hardy says true love and human nature are baffled by the old law, old ethical code, and old morality. The contradiction between Tess and the society concentrates on the conflicts with the old law and old morality. So their failure and death note that the society is killing human personality. The old Moral tells the difference between good and evil, which leads people to think that anything against the principles is unacceptable, no matter what happens. However, when the new realities meet the old morals, people are tending to seek help and answer from old morals. Yet, they can only find the wrong answer. It confuses them which one is right and which one is wrong. Is that necessary to give an absolute definition about what is right and what is wrong?

Hardy saw the plight of people in the reality from moral and psychological aspect. As a result, the fierce conflict between human and the society constitute the basic theme of Thomas Hardy’s works. To be more specific, it’s Tess Durbeyfield against the whole old society. Being the poor victim of the conflicts between true human nature and old society. Human nature is one of the most distinguishing characteristics between human and animal. Human tend to have thinking, feeling and acting. The science and technology has developed, but most people’s thought is still being unchanged. They still hold tight to their so-called social morality. However, Tess Durbeyfield is different from all of them.

From Tess Durbeyfield’s perspective

Tess has a mighty rebellious spirit, and her pursuit for love and her resistance of the society have been detailed described by Hardy. Tess is the descendant of a prominent family which has already dropped. This family background makes her a normal girl as other poor ones except for her beauty and intelligence. Because of the increasing poverty, she has to turn to Alec d’Urbervilles for help; however, she does not want to do as what he wants. She has resisted the lure, but finally, life makes fun of her. After raped by Alec, she successfully makes it under the great pressure, and goes through thick and thin on her son’s death.

Tess gets rid of Alec and determined to go on with her own life. She meets Angle in the farm, and they two fall in love. Showing love after losing virginity seems to be an unbelievable thing to other girls, but not for Tess. She disregards the Victorian morality and ethnics, and say love to Angle. However, she is betrayed again by her love. Angle leaves her after knowing the truth, and goes to Brazil by himself.

Tess’s innocence and frankness have brought her great misfortune, but she does not lose faith in life. She finds a new job in the poor and struggling environment. When Alec finds her again, she writes to her husband in hoping her husband would like to come back to save her, but never receives any responds from him. Alec’s words make her believe that her love Angle can never come back, and no longer love her. Tess becomes desperate once again. Under great pressure of life, she agrees to live with Alec. When Angle comes back, Tess finds herself cheated. So she kills Alec under extreme anger, only in return for a few days to be together with her love.

Tess’s tragic fate is included in her numerous protests. After being deflowered, she dares to re-pursue their new life; in love with Angle, she does not care about decency and propriety. The second time when she meets Alec, she dares to expose the Alec’s evil. This may be a tragedy for her, that her spirit makes her difficult to be accepted by the society. But it is her resistance that makes her more attractive.(write more )Tess’s nature and character is so perfect. She represents the finest human nature. Comparing to the social hypocrisy, she bravely confront the cruel society with resistance. Refusing to live an ordinary life, she struggles against her destiny and her tragedy. It seems her destiny do like a huge tragedy. And tragedy never let her take a breath to hold happiness. The tragedy begins with her self-sacrifice for her family, and ends with her final struggle against the social morality. The conflict between her nature and social morality is her unavoidable destiny. Tess’ fighting implies the hypocritical society. And implies that we shouldn’t judge people by their past. Tess struggles against the past and believes she has the power to overcome it; this belief may be a phantasm, but holding fast to it is what makes Tess worthy of our sympathy, for it lies at the core of her personal heroism.

Under the judgment of the old social morality, she shouldn’t be pregnant before marriage; she shouldn’t be deflowered before the wedding night; and she shouldn’t be living with the one who has raped her; and most likely she shouldn’t kill the one has raped her and ruined her whole life. Tess is an odd combination of contraries: a fatalistic who nevertheless struggles for happiness and fulfillment in a world bent on denying her both. The brave girl takes brave choices to fight back her unfair life.

From Angel Clare’s perspective

Angle dares to resist the old religion and traditional morality. He is born in the priestly family, but he does not believe in God, does not want to become a pastor, but will rather goes to the Countryside to learn agriculture, to become a big farmer, to serve all the mankind.

On the other hand, under the influence of egoism of bourgeois, his selfishness pushes Tess into great desperation. He is not fond of the life in city, thus he goes to the countryside to realize his dream of being “Abraham in United States or Australia”. In front of this motivation is his resounding slogan “the service of humanity.” He uses the slogan “to serve the people”, which in fact is a dissimulation of his ambition to be a large landed estate. 

On the issue of love, his selfishness is more obvious. He loves Tess deeply indeed, because she can be a good partner for her beauty and competent; however, he views Tess to be his private property, and wants to dominate her exclusively. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know love is to give and forgive, to cherish, and to appreciate.

On the sexual unfaithfulness, Angle can not forgive Tess like what Tess has done to him.

“In the name of our love, forgive me!” she whispered with a dry mouth. “I have forgiven you for the same!'”

And, as he did not answer, she said again--

“Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel.”

“You - yes, you do”

“But you do not forgive me?”

“O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God - how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque - prestidigitation as that?” (TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, Chapter 35)

His mind is the combination of the old morals and the new realities, which has the biggest power to let him leave this woman, and go to another country. Undoubtedly, he loves her. But he loves more about himself. When thinking about the one he loves, he can’t ignore the old morals. However, he never questions himself about his own social morals. Does the social morality teach us man can do whatever they want before marriage? But when it comes to woman, the situation would be quite otherwise.

His mind is contradiction when facing the morality questions. Why he can forgive himself while refusing to give her a chance for happiness. The old morals in his mind and the new realities lead him into a dead end.

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