“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.