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Thomas Hardy once said, “A Plot, or Tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions, by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passions, prejudices, and ambitions.” To this end, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the author uses the literary device of nemesis, i.e. poetic justice to great effect. In the novel’s final phase, “Fulfillment,” the reader is confronted with justice dealt to three of the characters, Alec for corruptedness, Angel for unforgiveness, and Tess for being a murderess. Nevertheless, in choosing to end the novel on the hopeful note of a marriage between Angel and Liza-Lu, Hardy provides a means both for Angel’s redemption and the continuation of Tess’ legacy.
At the beginning of Chapter 53, an aged and sallow Angel returns from Brazil cured of his obstinate idealism and desperate to right the wrongs he committed against Tess. Unfortunately, since the two letters she has written him are contradictory, he cannot know whether she will take him back. When he finally finds her he discovers that she has been masquerading as Mrs. Alec D’Urberville, and therein lies his punishment. The “mere yellow skeleton,” once the shining Angel Clare, realizes the folly of his hard-heartedness all too late and finds himself a cuckold (Hardy 378). In accepting Alec’s economic support, Tess has allowed her family loyalty to undermine her morality, thus dooming her to the fate of a fallen woman. Angels’ reappearance incites great emotional distress on the part of Tess because she blames Alec for extinguishing the hope that her true husband would return. Therefore, in a fit of passion, she murders Alec, punishing him for his corrupting influence and consequently placing herself at the mercy of the English justice system. Whether it can be rationalized or not, all three characters receive poetic justice at the hands of Hardy, and therefore set the scene for the renewal of hope exemplified in the relationship formed between Angel and Tess’ sister ‘Liza-Lu.
At first Tess avoids retribution for her crime by escaping with Angel to the countryside. It is only when she begins to seriously consider her inevitable capture and execution that she intimates to Angel that he should marry her younger sister. In this scene once again her family loyalty influences her decisions, as she first says, “Angel, if anything happens to me, will you watch over ‘Liza-Lu for my sake?” Further supporting her argument she states, “‘Liza-Lu is so gentle and sweet…she has all the best of me without the bad of me…if she were to become yours it would almost seem as if death had not divided us” (Hardy 394). On a superficial level, by asking Angel to his sister-in-law, Tess is merely ensuring the economic security of her family, who she has made sacrifices for throughout the novel. This idea is vital to the novel’s resolution because in shouldering this responsibility Angel would be able to redeem himself for his sins against Tess. Moreover, the marriage would be an act of atonement because Angel would have to take yet another bride from a poor family and flout civil laws against marrying a deceased wife’s sister (the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill condoning this was only passed in 1907).
It is debatable whether or not Tess actually believes her own exclamation of, “O I could share you with her willingly when we are spirits” (Hardy 394)2E Even though ‘Liza-Lu is described as a “spiritualized image” of Tess, it is probably less important that the deceased Tess live vicariously through her sister than the living Tess feel that Angel has someone to fulfill his ideal of purity (Hardy 396). Nevertheless, it is important to consider that even though the old Angel told Tess that he was in love with someone else in her form after her confession, it is entirely possible that the matured Angel finally loves Tess for who she is, “a pure woman” despite tragic circumstances. This reveals itself when Angel responds to Tess’ entreaty that he marry ‘Liza-Lu with, “If I lose you I lose all!” (Hardy 394). Tess thinks that she is giving Angel what he wants in terms of an ideal marriage with a purer version of herself, but the reader can hardly imagine that the union of ‘Liza-Lu and Angel, born out of necessity and a sense of duty, will be a joyful one.
In general, one would not be mistaken in assuming that in most novels, marriages denote happy endings. However, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the auspiciousness of this plot twist is questionable. It is difficult to believe that Angel will soon forget Tess. Moreover, even if he does, will he judge ‘Liza-Lu by his old idealistic standards or continually compare her to his dead wife? In the end, it is ironic that Tess is executed for the only act in which she asserts herself against her seducer. The reader experiences a conflict between desire for Tess to emerge as a strong character and the Victorian convention of the long-suffering heroine. It is vital to consider that although Alec and Tess are both punished by death for their ethical transgressions, at the novel’s conclusion, Angel is left alive and full of regret. The marriage to ‘Liza-Lu is therefore of extreme importance because if Angel devotes himself to his new wife he can begin to redeem himself for wronging Tess. An interesting point of speculation is that any child of Angel and ‘Liza-Lu would be a part of Tess and a perpetuation of the noble line of the D’Urbervilles. In biology there is a phenomenon known as kin selection which explains the tendency of altruism among family members as a desire to perpetuate genes held in common. If Tess can guarantee that her genes are preserved in a child of Angel and ‘Liza-Lu, who is to say that while the mighty can fall, they may not rise again?
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