Hardy’s art of characterisation of his heroine in Tess Of The D’Urbervilles

Thomas hardy could be considered as one of the major authors of the 19th Century. This was a time when issues regarding double-standards, social rigidity, and movements for the upheaval of women’s positions in society were quite prominent in society as well as literature. The tragedy of “Tess”, a beautiful young woman with the misfortune of belonging to a poor family in the wake of a recently-discovered aristocratic lineage, was composed in the year 1891. Hardy’s characterisation of Tess makes her a beautiful heroine, with various aspects to her nature, displaying her as more than just a two-dimensional protagonist. In Hardy’s defence, he was not just the sadist that critics claimed, but a sympathetic author who used his authorial voice to sympathise with Tess in every way possible. It is possible, that this sympathy showed most prominently in his selection of the title, his treatment of the topic, as well as his narrator’s untiring support for Tess.

From a technical point of view, Hardy employed the use of Chapters, segmenting the book into seven phases: every phase being a phase in Tess’ life that pushed her further towards her sad end. What is interesting is the blank page left, between “Phase the First: The Maiden” and “Phase the Second: Maiden no More”. This allows for not only a pause in the pace of the novel, but more importantly, the blank page becomes a curtain of silence representing Victorian hesitation in dealing with such topics, an art employed by the Classicist writers, and also Hardy’s sensitive treatment of the matter. Moreover, of the several arts employed by him, his wording of the sub-title was perhaps one of the most important features of not just the novel but his own feelings towards Tess too. “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” was subtitled “A Pure woman Faithfully Presented” – and the “pure woman” has been read by different critics in different ways. Professor Dutta comments that Hardy might have simply meant “pure” in a way as casual as, say, “a pure coincidence”, or as a woman of moral, physical purity: redeeming her thus from her apparent stature of a Fallen Woman. For Hardy, Tess was a woman who had sinned in body but her mind had remained untouched by this incidence, which might be the reason behind the word “pure”. But as Angel portrayed Tess to his family, she was “more sinned against than sinning herself”. A view which he, ironically, could not endorse till much later, that is after a

failed Brazilian expedition. But Hardy’s narrator definitely subscribed to this view, and much more. Hardy used the privileges of an omniscient narrator throughout his novel with admirable dexterity. Time and again, the narrator tried to display the innocence of Tess – even as he exposed the poor woman to a public exhibition which was the last thing she could have desired. Alec accused her beauty as her means of beguiling him and leading him astray, not only exposing the typical way in which men try justifying their actions, but also reversing the roles of the two characters. Just like she was subjected to keen male gaze in the circumference of her existence, so was she exposed to the objective viewing of the reader. Millgate, Hardy’s biographer, suggested that “Passivity and submissiveness went hand in hand with a hostile defensiveness”. He said this of Hardy and his regard for his position as an artist, how people thought of him, etc. but this could be suggested as an exact parallel to the characterization of Tess’ with regards to her ostensible passivity alongside her awareness of herself as an object of public vision. However, this exposition was not entirely without its merit: it drew the reader towards sympathizing with her more. The narrator described Tess as an extraordinarily beautiful woman, yet one who was somehow overlooked by Angel at the May Day dance. And yet this same beauty led her into the clutches of Alec “Stork” D’Urbervilles - “The wrong man at the wrong time” as echoed in the book, reestablishing Tess as a victim of circumstance. In a way, this objectification of beauty through the novel shows even more the nobility of Tess’ character – her ability to remain so unaffected and simple, was proof of a spiritual beauty that surmounted her physical perishable beauty. As per one of Hardy’s reviewers, “In the characterization of Tess Durbeyfield, Hardy’s unorthodox linkage of ideas about primitivism and about moral purity may well have accounted for some of the fury over Tess: the idea of a primitive or pagan instinct is often used by the novel’s narrator to invoke sympathy for this character precisely for her lack of flirtatiousness and capriciousness”. This separation of the mind and the body created by the narrator made even more pronounced Tess’ moral purity that remained unhampered by the violation on her body. It is this beauty of Tess’ that is impressed upon the mind of the reader by the narrator’s descriptions and the perceptions of the other characters too. Hardy’s use of events to showcase Tess’ character can be seen with examples like that in “The Woman Pays”, chapter 35. At the cottage where they revealed their secrets to each other, Tess’ simple minded forgiveness of Angel for his past misdemeanours evidenced her moral superiority. Angel, the learned son of a clergy and a gentleman, could not have the kind of open-mindedness of Tess, despite all his claims. He was restricted in his outlook, whereas the girl with her primitive ideas born not out of education but instinct was shown as capable of an innate understanding of life. Again, Hardy hints at her possession of prescience: the

examples in the novel being perhaps, the tear lingering on her eyelids even before the violation in the Chase. Herein lies the echo of a statement made previously by the reviewer quoted above further validating the point. As Hardy’s fictive creation, Tess reveals herself through her own actions and words, as well as his own comments about her. In the chapter where she returns home from the house of “their cousin” after the Violation in the Chase, she blamed her mother, for not having warned her of the “danger in men”, leaving her to perhaps Divine Providence that as per the narrator repeatedly failed Tess in her hour of need. This strengthened the views on her innocence, even though through her lack of knowledge regarding the workings of the world. There appeared two separate versions of Tess as perceived by the two major male characters - that is Angel Clare and Alec D’Urbervilles. Alec showed Tess as a woman of mature well-endowed sexual beauty, while Angel saw her not only as a pretty face but also as an education project perhaps. Yet, 'His love inclined to the imaginative and ethereal' (Ch 31). Hardy thus allowed the reader to notice the differences in their attitudes towards Tess, and form their own opinions regarding her. Still, even Angel found in her a depth that was entirely out of place in a dairywoman: he must have surely seen something more than mere beauty, in this woman, to have fallen in love with her when he did.

Hardy thus successfully portrayed Tess as a woman caught in an eternal conflict between two men, in a way replaying the Morality Plays – here, showing Angel as the more spiritual one, Alec as the earthy one. It is almost sad that both of these men contrive in a way to destroy her body and spirit as Hardy shows. Man exploiting woman: this eternal scene is enacted again through this novel in a way. However, Tess is almost portrayed as a representative of her class. In the characterization of her, Hardy makes use of the condition of many people in the village countryside (as is claimed by the characters in the novel including Tess). It is pointed out that, many people had belonged once to aristocratic families but were reduced to poverty and hard times, degenerating into the poor dregs of Victorian society. This gives Hardy an opportunity to model Tess as a rustic girl with nothing more than elementary education, an earthiness in her beauty, manners and speech. Yet, her aristocratic lineage is useful in explaining the nobility of her features, her pride, elegance and changes in carriage (the last taking place when in the presence of refined people). This aristocratic title, “D’Urbervilles”, in fact, led to the entire structuring of the story, leading to most of the events and definitely to her downfall. This title thus can be seen as a personal attribute to Tess, who ironically did not want to be a “D’Urbervilles” or even the degenerate “Durbeyfield” and rather “just Tess”. Her ancestry is repeatedly used in making her situation more poignant. History is seen to be repeated, and Tess was perhaps punished for the faults of one of her ancestors, even as at her hanging the “d’Urbervilles knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing.” (Chapter 59, last paragraph)

Another interesting thing about the novel is that it revealed Hardy’s awareness of nature and other works of art. Often, Hardy used the image of a bird or small animal trapped in a snare as a symbol of Tess’ own state. A rabbit caught in a snare or the fly in the tale called The Fly who was suppressed every time by difficulties even as it tried to surmount them, are entirely reminiscent of Tess. The images of a “hunted cow” in the novel bring to mind the image of Tess as a hunted woman in the Stonehenge scene. Hardy on one level makes Tess a victim of not only personal injustice but also that of Victorian society and its unequal laws. The concept of small animals trapped in snares was not unfamiliar to the readers. The same innocence of a bird that falls prey to the more powerful creatures was thus transferred to Tess in a way by these simple scenes from the countryside. Hardy showed her animal-like innocent uncomplicated mind lacking in sophistication as well as cunning, sprouting the simple conclusion that killing Alec could be the only way for her to return to her rightful husband, without realizing the gravity of the situation. She was more like the animal who was being trapped, than the hunter. She was not even clear on her ideas regarding the legal system, maybe justifying her faith in the concept of divorce, her supposition that seeing Angel could marry Lisa-Lu, or her incomplete comprehension of the criminal nature of her act: Hardy’s character thus justifying many of her own actions through this same ignorance. Moreover, Hardy used various images reminiscent of other immortal characters of literature. Tess is mostly in the image of an innocent Eve, lured by Satan or the Snake (as per Alec’s self-characterization in the novel). Her waking up from her sleep at Stonehenge was meant perhaps to conjure images of King Lear. The injustice, the innocence, and the cruelty of her situation are more strongly impressed upon the mind of the reader through these parallels that Hardy uses as indirect characterizations of his heroine. Thus, in this novel, skilful narration, and symbolisms strengthening Tess’ link to nature, contrive to establish the protagonist as a rustic girl with the refinements of a woman through whose veins flew the blood of the noble D’Urbervilles. Literary allusions, vivid imagery, detailed descriptions and a very interesting selection of words serve to depict this woman for whom Hardy’s sympathy could not have been more obvious. Yet, the fate he dealt her made people accuse him of being a sadist: when perhaps it was the kindest he could provide for her. It was only the sad state of women, as he pointed out, that made exceptional women like Tess fall victim to society: making readers suspect that Tess was not just the representative of her class but an exceptionally “pure” and refined woman too.