Josh K on Tess

Shadows of the Past, Mythos of the Blood – Realism in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

By Josh Kingston

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a work that explores the concept of dualism in relation to the realism of the world. Dueling classes, differing mythologies, and a differentiation between spirit and matter all feature prominently in the work. The first dichotomy found in the work is the d’Urbervilles family. While both Tess and Alec are descended from the d’Urbervilles, only Alec has preserved the family name and has claim to what is believed to be its noble power while Tess is a country woman associated with agriculture. The d’Urbervilles claim lineage from a Knight named Pagan d’Urberville. The name pagan has a duel connotation that is central to the text. By the most prominent meaning, the word pagan implies a heathen or an unbeliever. In a Christian society the word pagan can refer to a practitioner of ancient mythological beliefs, but exists more often as a slang word for practitioners of social degeneracy. In the ancient Latin context where Pagan is derived from, it was common slang for a farmer or a dweller of the countryside. Because Christianity took many more centuries to be accepted in the countryside of Italy compared to the major cities, the slang associating mythological fertility rites with country people took hold.

Alec’s devotion to the first interpretation of Pagan is seen by his commitment to the ancient mythology of the d’Urbervilles which involves raping a woman in a carriage and then either killing her or having her kill him: “One of the family is said to have abducted some beautiful woman, who tried to escape from the coach in which he was carrying her off, and in the struggle he killed her—or she killed him—I forget which.” (Hardy 356) One of the familiar pagan rites surrounding the Greek God Dionysius and the Scandinavian God Freyr (both Gods of Fertility and Agriculture) involved a sexual ritual involving a sacred Priestess and the God who travel together in a wagon. The story of the d’Urbervilles itself is very similar to the tale of one of the servants of Freyr found in the Icelandic tale Ögmundar þáttr dytts ok Gunnars helmings which is about the conflict between Christianity and the rite of Freyr’s wagon. The duel nature of the d’Urberville myth indicates that the fulfillment for the ritual involves killing one of the participants, thereby destroying their version of the myth. After the Christianization of the British Isles, the fertility ritual of Freyr was reinterpreted as the Death Carriage driven by the Devil that came for the souls of the damned. Of particular significance to Tess and Alec is that only the damned could hear and see Death’s Carriage as it came for them.  Part of the d’Urberville mythos is that the mark of a true d’Urberville is that they could sometimes hear a nonexistent carriage as Alec revealed to Tess when she claimed to hear a carriage that wasn’t there.

The fulfillment of the sexual mythos of the wagon requires either the destruction/prostitution of the woman by her union with the God of the wagon or a complete rejection of the rite by seeking spiritual fulfillment in another. It is here that the distinction between Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare is found. Alec d’Urberville is the man who personifies the master of the pagan rite. He is committed to the ritual and fulfilling it by sexual union with Tess. He stands as the landowner (or the God) of the land who directs the harvesting process and benefits from it in exchange for sexual favors. In addition, there is an ancient mythos of the blood which flows through the d’Urberville family that ties them to a certain form of madness and ritual which they must act out. In contrast to Alec, Angel Clare stands as the outsider who is outside the ritual of the Wagon, has never heard Death’s Carriage, and is a man who does possess the blood mythos of Pagan d’Urberville. He is strongly associated with the alternative to paganism by both his name (Angel implying a messenger of God) and his position as a Clergyman’s son.  Alec (whose name is derived from Alexander implying a warrior) by contrast is presented as an areligious man who briefly converts and then reverts to his previous ways.

The dialectic between the two men is further extended by their disassociation with one another. For Angel Clare, the rite of the wagon (where Tess is impregnated and her child dies, effectively killed by Alec d’Urberville) is something that is shocking and impossible to comprehend. He marries Tess believing her to be something pure and angelic, a reflection of himself. However, when Tess discloses that she was raped, he decides to withdraw from her before eventually repenting and deciding to return to her. This concept itself is similar to the Christian eschatology of Christ marrying the Bride, withdrawing from her until the end of the world (where it said that the whole Church is corrupted and destroyed by the forces of materialism and decadence), and then coming again to a Bride said to be pure. Angel Clare comes to realize at the end of his withdrawal from Tess that she was a: “virtual Faustina in the literal Cornelia, a spiritual Lucretia in a corporeal Phryne; he had thought of the woman taken and set in the midst as one deserving to be stoned, and of the wife of Uriah being made a queen; and he had asked himself why he had not judged Tess constructively rather than biographically, by the will rather than by the deed?.” (Hardy 371) A dialectic is drawn by these images of spiritually pure yet wronged women with famous materialistic women coming to the conclusion of Christ in the Book of John regarding the Adulterous Woman (implied to have had sexual relationships with her hypocritical accusers) who he prevented from being stoned, go and sin no more.

The interaction between Angel and Alec is ethereal in nature. Neither man ever meets the other, considering their world as a thing of fantasy and fiction, where the only intermediary is Tess. Angel Clare perceives the wealth and power that Alec d’Urberville wields as a fanciful thing which indicates that his spiritual fancifulness perceives Realism as a fantasy. The narrator describes that the city where Tess and Alec live was a “fashionable watering-place, with its eastern and its western stations, its piers, its groves of pines, its promenades, and its covered gardens, [which] was, to Angel Clare, like a fairy place suddenly created by the stroke of a wand, and allowed to get a little dusty.” (Hardy 376) For his own part, Alec d’Urberville is dominated by Materialism and can only see Angel Clare’s world as a fantasy. His complete lack of respect for Tess’s marriage and his position as a bringer of death and shame serve as the methods to destroy Angel Clare’s mythology.

The differences between spirituality and materialism go all through the book with two extremes represented by Alec d’Urberville’s materialism and the Clare family’s spiritual exclusivity. The first solution to the dialectic is found in Angel’s rejection of spiritual exclusivity. This is reflected in Angel’s statement that ‘we are all Children of the Soil’ (Hardy 370) in response to his Mother’s dismissal of Tess as a mere child of the soil. Furthermore, he insists that many of those called children of the soil are actually people of great worth and ancient names. For her part, Tess’s destruction of the ritual and the d’Urberville family by murdering Alec destroys the materialistic ritual bringing death to all participants of the wagon rite.

The dichotomy found in Tess herself is interesting. She is a woman who has two husbands and is therefore always of two minds and two pulls. Her physical husband is Alec d’Urberville who is the only man in the novel that she has sexual relations with. Her husband by the rite of marriage is Angel Clare who she never has sexual relations with. When she is joined to Alec d’Urberville initially, the rite brings death to her when the son of the union dies. Later, when she joins Alec as his mistress, it is because the fact that “in a physical sense this man alone was her husband seemed to weigh on her more and more.” (Hardy 360) She gains a great amount of wealth and material prestige by becoming the mistress of Alec, however she has to bare shame and confusion. When Angel comes again to her, Tess sees that he is dying because they have withdrawn from each other and states that “my sin will kill him and not kill me.” (Hardy 381) The desire to preserve and defend Angel and his rite becomes her primary motivation for murdering d’Urberville.

The final ritual of the wagon becomes clear in its inverted form. Tess kills Alec d’Urberville and then rejoins Angel where they finally end up on an old pagan alter. It is here that the final appearance of Tess occurs where she is sacrificed by the police and government (forces associated with the power of Realism and d’Urbervilles’ class) for killing d’Urberville. However, she is reborn in a purified form as her sister who is protected and joined to Angel, both serving as the witnesses to her death. When Tess lived with her physical husband after the rite of the Wagon, everyone who was associated with her died. After the inverted rite of the wagon, both Tess and her physical husband died, however those associated with her lived on. In this way, both participants in the rites rode Death’s Carriage to their death, but the ritual of the d’Urberville’s was at last destroyed and brought to an end.

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 2nd ed. Ed. Sarah Maier. Peterborough: Broadview, 2013. Print.

One thought on “Josh K on Tess

  1. I was really enthralled by your analytical evaluation on the text and the dichotomy between Alec and Clare.I was also pleasantly surprised to learn about the myth of Death’s Carriage. I had never heard of such a legend before and it was very interesting to see how Hardy uses strikingly similar imagery in his text. I could not help but find myself agreeing with your assessment of the text throughout your piece and perhaps slightly more aware of the artistic references made by Hardy.


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