“Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?” “Never heard it before, sir!”
In this passage, from Chapter I, the local parson informs Mr. Durbeyfield of his grand lineage, thus setting in motion the events that change the fate of Tess Durbeyfield forever. Interestingly, the parson’s tone is casual, as if he is unable even to conceive of how his news might lead to tragedy later. For the parson it is genealogical trivia, but for Durbeyfield it feels like fate—the deepest truth about himself, like Oedipus’s discovery of his own identity. The fact that this prophetic news is delivered on the road, in an open field, right at the beginning of the work is reminiscent of the opening of Macbeth. There, the witches address Macbeth as “Thane of Cawdor” and “King of Scotland,” just as the parson addresses Durbeyfield as “Sir John.” As in Macbeth’s case, the noble address leads to disaster and death—in this case, the death of the “rightful” d’Urberville, Alec.
Hardy emphasizes the irony of Durbeyfield’s situation not only by contrasting the common peddler on the road with the image of the “renowned knight” who was his forebear, but also by contrasting the modes of address of Durbeyfield and the parson. The parson has just addressed him as “Sir John,” which sets the whole conversation in motion, but we see here that the parson soon lapses back into the familiar tone more appropriate to one addressing a social inferior: “Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield. . . . “ Durbeyfield does the same: despite his discovery that he is Sir John, it is he who calls the parson “sir” here. The ironies multiply, making questions of class and identity complex and unstable, as Hardy intends to depict them.
Clare came close, and bent over her. “Dead, dead, dead!” he murmured. After fixedly regarding her for some moments with the same gaze of unmeasurable woe he bent lower, enclosed her in his arms, and rolled her in the sheet as in a shroud. Then lifting her from the bed with as much respect as one would show to a dead body, he carried her across the room, murmuring, “My poor poor Tess, my dearest darling Tess! So sweet, so good, so true!” The words of endearment, withheld so severely in his waking hours, were inexpressibly sweet to her forlorn and hungry heart. If it had been to save her weary life she would not, by moving or struggling, have put an end to the position she found herself in. Thus she lay in absolute stillness, scarcely venturing to breathe, and, wondering what he was going to do with her, suffered herself to be borne out upon the landing. “My wife—dead, dead!” he said.
In Chapter XXXVII, Angel Clare begins to sleepwalk on the third night of his estrangement from Tess, having rejected her as his wife because of her earlier disgrace. Like Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, Angel’s nighttime somnambulism reveals an inner conflict within a character who earlier seems convinced of a moral idea, in control, and inflexible. For Lady Macbeth, her earlier cold protestations that killing a king is justifiable are belied by her unconscious fixation on being bloodstained. For Angel, the situation is reversed. He consciously maintains a conviction that Tess is bad, corrupt, and cannot be forgiven, but his unconscious sleepwalking self reveals the tender love and moral respect for her (“so good, so true!”) that he feels somewhere inside him. This revelation foreshadows his final realization, too late, that his condemnation of Tess was wrongheaded. Angel’s words “dead, dead, dead” hint at Tess’s future death, but they also signal Angel’s conception of Tess. She is alive physically, but for him she is dead morally, as dead as an idea of purity that he once revered.
Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out—all of them writhing in agony except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more. With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself, Tess’s first thought was to put the still living birds out of their torture, and to this end with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find, leaving them to lie where she had found them till the gamekeepers should come, as they probably would come, to look for them a second time. “Poor darlings—to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o’ such misery as yours!” she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly.
Tess stumbles upon the pheasants at the end of Chapter XLI, feeling like a “hunted soul.” The dying birds symbolize her own condition. It is a strange and unexpected image, since throughout all the scenes of farm life we have witnessed in the novel, there has never been any killing. Farming is always associated with production, never with loss or sacrifice. But hunting is different: it kills creatures, and does so unnecessarily. It is gratuitous cruelty. The image of silently suffering victims of violence evokes Tess’s quiet acceptance of her own violation at the hands of Alec, which was also gratuitous. In a literary sense, these flightless birds stand in sharp contrast to the high-flying birds of Romantic poetry—we recall that Angel is compared to Shelley, who wrote an ode to a skylark. Romantic birds leave the Earth below to soar into a higher plane of existence, but the birds here have no such luck, having been shot down as Tess has been.
Tess’s killing of these suffering birds suggests that she is killing off that part of herself that has quietly accepted many years of agony. After this scene Tess begins to show a more active resolution that culminates in her final murder of Alec. Her newfound activity may not save her; indeed, her punishment for the murder, presumably death by hanging, will snap her neck just like she snaps the necks of these pheasants. Nevertheless, it may be preferable to her earlier passivity, providing her with a nobler way to face her fate.
As soon as she drew close to it she discovered all in a moment that the figure was a living person; and the shock to her sense of not having been alone was so violent that she was quite overcome, and sank down nigh to fainting, not however till she had recognized Alec d’Urberville in the form. He leapt off the slab and supported her. “I saw you come in,” he said smiling, “and got up there not to interrupt your meditations. A family gathering, is it not, with these old fellows under us here? Listen.” He stamped with his heel heavily on the floor; whereupon there arose a hollow echo from below. “That shook them a bit, I’ll warrant,” he continued. “And you thought I was the mere stone reproduction of one of them. But no. The old order changeth. The little finger of the sham d’Urberville can do more for you than the whole dynasty of the real underneath. . . . Now command me. What shall I do?”
Having sought shelter for her family in the ancient clan’s church in Chapter LII, Tess has gone out walking at night and has come upon her family vault and Alec d’Urberville. Hardy’s irony is deep here: originally, the knowledge that Tess belongs to the d’Urberville line brings her into tragic conflict with Alec, and here those ancestors and Alec are united before her dazed eyes. The two main factors in her sad fate are brought together for her viewing. Moreover, it is ironic that Alec is at first mistaken for one of the sculpted ancestors, as if the distinction between the truly noble d’Urbervilles and the “sham” ones—to use Alec’s own word—is not as important as it first seemed. They are all part of the same display. Whether true or fake, the d’Urbervilles have brought Tess only grief. When Alec stomps on the floor of the crypt and a “hollow echo from below” is heard, we feel that those ancestors may indeed be nothing more than an empty void, a meaningless nothingness. Alec believes he is different from them, since he has power over her while they do not, but in fact he is just like them, using his power like a grand lord although he is quite hollow. He promises empty advantages to her, like the wealth she eventually receives from him, that can never be more important than love. This scene in the corpse-ridden vault shows how dead all thoughts of personal grandeur are next to the life of true feeling, like that of Tess’s feelings for Angel.
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained there a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.
This passage is the last paragraph of Chapter LIX at the close of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Its tired and unimpassioned tone suggests the narrator’s weariness with the ways of the world, as if quite familiar with the fact that life always unfolds in this way. Nothing great is achieved by this finale: the two figures of Liza-Lu and Angel “went on” at the end, just as life itself will go on. Ignorance rules, rather than understanding: the d’Urberville ancestors who cause the tragedy are not even moved from their slumber, blithely unaffected by the agony and death of one of their own line. Tess’s tale has not been a climactic unfolding, but a rather humdrum affair that perhaps happens all the time.
In this sense, there is great irony in Hardy’s reference to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, since we feel tragedy should be more impassioned, like the Prometheus Bound referred to here. Prometheus dared to steal fire from the gods for the benefit of men, thus improving human life, but he was punished by eternal agony sent by the president of the gods. Aeschylus’s view of that divine justice was ironic—just as Hardy’s justice is placed in ironic quotation marks—since it seemed deeply unjust to punish Prometheus so severely. Our judgment of Prometheus’s crime matters immensely. Yet Tess’s suffering, by contrast, seems simply a game or “sport,” as if nothing important is at stake. It is hard to know whether Tess has brought any benefits to anyone, though Angel’s life has been changed and Liza-Lu may grow up to be like her sister. In any case, Hardy hints that Tess’s life may have a mythical and tragic importance like that of Prometheus, but it is up to us to judge how ironic this justice is, or what her life’s importance might be.
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