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As the various facets of a diamond reflect light according to the viewing perspective, so humans also possess multi-faceted aspects of personality. Hardy’s Victorian novel presents an interesting character study of Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, the lascivious rake who violates his ‘cousin,’ converts to a fiery preacher, and tragically discovers his lack of worldly and religious faith. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Alec’s personality and character undergo superficial transformations observable in his physical appearance, emotional temperament, and intellectual guile.
Before Hardy brings Alec onto the set, he introduces the Stoke-d’Urbervilles’ spurious claim to the d’Urberville nobility, which Alec’s father established after “conning for an hour” (33). Alec’s emergence from the “dark triangular” door of his tent suggests a menacing distortion of the Holy Trinity. Hardy’s physical description of Alec paints a lifelike embodiment of his physique and captures fleeting images of his character. Alec’s “swarthy complexion,” “badly molded” mouth, and barbaric traces portray a sinister figure (34). Despite these unattractive physical characteristics, Alec still possesses “full, smooth” lips and a “well-groomed” mustache (34). Likewise, Alec’s character combines an evil side with a noble side, as his subsequent concern for Tess’s situation shows. Most evident in the windows to his soul, Alec does not restrain his carnal desires, but allows his “rolling eye” to boldly scan Tess’s “fulness of growth,” further verifying a lack of moral constraint (37).
Hardy subtly introduces the temperamental traits of Alec through the various interactions with other characters. Upon Tess’s arrival at Trantridge Cross, Alec immediately perceives her confusion and plays the part of a kind, friendly kinsman, though his eyes betray a different interest. In the fruit garden, Alec obstinately insists on his way. Although Tess wishes to depart and to eat the strawberries with her own hands, Alec compels her to remain and feeds her the fruits. His diction further exposes his depraved nature as he immediately calls Tess his “Beauty” (34) and his “pretty coz” (36). His nonchalant description of his mother as an “invalid” (34) reveals an impertinent attitude toward elders. When Alec visits the Durbeyfields to request Tess’s assistance on the fowl farm, he constantly places his hand up to his moustache, arrogantly flaunting his diamond ring. The wild descent on horseback reflects his reckless conduct and vehement temper. Car Darch’s jealousy of Tess divulges Alec’s capricious passions, passing quickly from one relationship to another. During the night in Chaseborough, Alec persistently follows Tess though she repeatedly refuses his offers to accompany her home.
In addition to his physical features and determination, Alec’s deceptive nature plays a large role in trapping Tess. When the Durbeyfield’s receive a letter from the blind Mrs. d’Urberville, Hardy delicately insinuates at the rather “masculine” handwriting, revealing the deceptive nature of Alec (42). After meeting Mrs. d’Urberville, Tess concludes that little love exists between the blind woman and son, wherein Hardy promptly rectifies that Mrs. d’Urberville loves her son “resentfully” and is “bitterly fond” of him (55), paradoxical sentiments that Tess later expresses for her illegitimate child. Although Hardy repudiates the belief of sins of the forefathers visiting subsequent generations, the earlier mention of Alec’s uncertain origin and the false titular annexation seem to bare the father’s past misdeeds and explain the son’s deceitful spirit. Two years after spoiling Tess’s maidenhood, Alec hardly repents and merely tells Tess to stop reminding him, for he will mend any wrongdoing with his money. He coldly declares that he no longer needs to flatter Tess with compliments since he has obtained what he desired from her.
Two years after the night in The Chase, Tess reencounters d’Urberville and observes the same man of her past only now clothed in a different costume. Alec still bears the same “handsome unpleasantness” of mien, differing only in the replacement of his former black mustache with old-fashioned whiskers (299). His garments are only partially clerical, a slight modification. Before Alec notices Tess in the doorway, Hardy foreshadows that the black angularities of Alec’s face mirror the stubbornness of an “incorrigible backslider” (300). His facial expressions have merely been “diverted” from their “hereditary connotation,” false “impressions” for which nature never intended them (300). Hardy mentions that Alec’s appearance is “less a reform than a transfiguration,” hinting that Alec’s transformation is merely a transitory variation and not a permanent renunciation of former moral defects (299).
Alec’s disposition further undermines the authenticity of his conversion. When Alec spots Tess and follows her, he appears sincerely remorseful and genuinely devoted to his religious doctrine. Yet Tess’s reference to a superior man who does not adhere to Alec’s religious scheme causes Alec’s old resentment to immediately spring out at a “moment’s notice” (303). As Hardy intimated previously, Alec’s former sensuousness has only adapted to the devotional passion that his clerical profession requires. Alec’s old self has merely lain dormant during his “whimsical conversion” (318), neither “extracted, nor even entirely subdued” (304). When Alec meets Tess again, he partially accepts the blame for her condition and reveals that he is merely the “base imitation” (308) of a d’Urberville. His weakness, however, causes him to continually accuse Tess as the sole cause of his backsliding.
The final development of Alec’s character arises as the rejection of his former beliefs leads to an obsessive pursuit after Tess. Alec’s persuasive tactics take the form of unrelenting questions, poisonous seeds of doubt, and material provision. He begins to weaken her resolve in order to ensnare her again. Although Alec apologizes to Tess, he seeks not her forgiveness, but rather the fulfillment of his mother’s dying wish—marriage. Despite her dismissals, Alec consistently returns to Tess, speaks in seductive tones, and ignores her cold behavior. When Tess desperately implores Alec not to mention her brothers and sisters lest she completely break down, Alec instinctively stores this valuable fact away for later use. His attempts to ‘protect’ her from Farmer Groby and sympathize with her parallel the wiles of the “Other One” who successively tempted Eve (343). He incessantly negates the prospect of Angel’s return and positively confirms his status as her “friend” (349). Knowing that Tess has lost her father and the property, the “determined,” “emphatic” d’Urberville takes full advantage of the situation, insisting on caring for her mother and her siblings (349).
Thomas Hardy’s development of Alec Stoke-d’Urberville begins with a misleading physical description that leads to an equally deceiving personality. The shady features of Alec’s figure mirror his questionable character. His pretentious claim to the d’Urberville name reflects his equally hollow religious conversion. His adamant temperament and resentment merely lie hidden beneath a shallow coating of religion. Once he abandons this religious yoke, he throws all of his energy into capturing Tess, the tragic end of an empty soul.
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