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If one word could come close to characterizing the entirety of the Victorian Era that would most certainly be change. In all aspects and domains, from industrialization to scientific discoveries, the period stands for development and rebirth. But greatness cannot be achieved completely and the proof stands in the inequality that the development brought with itself. This change has also made an impact on the authors of the age for which the literature that they were offering to the audience started to have a different meaning than the usual one. The literature was given the mission of advocating for the change that people desired to see in the society.
The period represented for many authors the source of inspiration for their writings perhaps because of the condition of the individual in that particular time, which depended entirely on society and its development. Some of them managed to foreground the society as well as its influence on the inhabitants of Victoria’s Empire and in the same time their thoughts and feelings or perspective towards the Age.
Thomas Hardy was one of the first novelists of the Victorian Era that put the bases of the realistic way of writing in the English literature, through his novels. His style has remained unique all throughout this time grace to the intense use of emotions that he made his characters experience and his highly pessimistic views of the society which he has not hesitated to picture through his writings.
The village in which he was born in the year of 1840, in the county of Dorset, had provided him with all the needed inspiration for his fiction and poetry, the writer itself becoming a reflection of the little village and identifying himself and his work with it with it as the characters of his novels are exploring closely the unseen sides of the village.
Similar to Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy was no stranger to the way in which the Victorian life was rewarding for few and hardly tolerated by many of its citizens. Those belonging to lower social classes were cursed to endure the low standards of living that the industrial cities were offering them as a reward for their long working hours in the factories that were meant to assure England’s prosperity. He comes to acknowledging the hardships of the city life through his architectural apprenticeship that he is taking in London that he soon leaves for the career that is being prospected after the success of his installments novel that is published in the newspaper ,A pair of blue eyes that turns into Far from the Maddening Crowd soon after.
“Thomas Hardy is one of those writers sensitive, reflective, and expressive of the magnitude of the change his era was undergoing. Inhabiting past and present as well as the rural and the urban worlds, he hovered on the margins of each, conscious of not being fully a member of either”.
The novel is the first one through which Hardy introduces Wessex to the audience receiving praises and admiration for the agricultural setting and the fine blend of tragic, comical and pastoral elements within it.
Through the realistic way in which was able to describe life in the Victorian England, coating it with his own views on the events which was seldom leaning into criticism, Thomas Hardy manages to break through the stiff walls of the Victorian literature, bringing a new perspective towards the Age and further more towards the style of writing. His characters are never shallow, never simple, always portrayed experiencing the peak of their emotions whether the ones in cause are leaning into the tragic or comic category. The events that they are faced with are always the ones that are to be held responsible for their emotional state or for their upcoming actions that are reflections of their deep, intense feelings towards the events or the society they are placed in.
Hardy manages to give a realistic touch even to his poetry, his poems ranging from lyric to ballad and going even as far as dramatic monologue, experimenting with different styles and stanza forms. Their subjects are as various as his experiments with styles foregrounding the war such as in The Dynasts which brings an epic drama of the war with Napoleon. The poem written in blank verse portrays the vision of the writer of the universe as a place governed by unconscious forces who in Hardy’s perspective take the name of Immanent Will. The death of his wife, Emma influences Hardy in finding other subjects for his poems which now are reflecting the regret and remorse that the author is experiencing through this tragedy, the collection bearing names such as After a Journey and The Voice. This period in Thomas Hardy’s life is also considered by critics the peak of his poetic achievement, the death of his wife bringing the author to explore different feelings that he manages to portray through his poems.
Tomalin (2007) says that “the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet” is related to Emma’s death, going as far as mentioning that some of “finest and strangest celebrations of the dead in English poetry” are represented by the poems that eulogies his wife’s death.
Hardy’s career in fiction comes to an end once with the publication of his two later novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891 and Jude, the Obscure in 1895, both of which represent some of the writer’s finest novels. Even though different in style, both of the novels foreground different aspects of life of the same individuals belonging to the working class of England, during the Victorian Era. While the biggest difference is made through the main character of the both novels, the two , Tess and Jude belonging to different sexes and having their own personality and character influencing the unfolding of the story, there are also brought to the light through Tess’s character, society’s sexual mores that are continuously being questioned though the events that are shaping Tess’s destiny and through Jude’s character , the stonemason, the criticism towards the educational system and the institution of marriage judging by the relationship he has with Sue.
Both of the characters are strong reflections of the writer’s critical views towards the Victorian society, the way in which the poor are treated by the rich and how their condition proves to be the determining factor of their destinies as he himself had witnessed from his childhood.
“As he grew he observed many further gradations within village life and understood how safe and sheltered his home was and how privileged his education. Among the laboring families round about there was real hardship, sometimes leading to grim scenes and tragedy”.
Some of the main taboo subjects of the Era, sex and femininity seem to find themselves being thoroughly explored by the writer, even more so throughout the unfolding of the story of Tess, the female figure being foregrounded in views of emphasizing the role of a black fate in a hostile environment. In the same time the author makes sure that the audience is in a complete understanding of the purpose of the novel, that of depicting through Tess’s destiny not only an individual destiny but rather predicting the potential fate of all women alike her living in that particular time, Tess being an exponent of the female category dominated by males in the Victorian society.
What Hardy tries to project through his work is a challenge for all the morals and norms of the century, particularly in England. The challenge does not reside in the density of the written text or the complexity of the story but in the complex way in which the main character is being constructed and revealed to the audience, her feelings and attitude towards the way in which she is supposed to appear in front of others that could not be classified as belonging to the moral conduct of the age.
When reading the last two of his novels, but more specifically Tess of the d’Urbervilles, one becomes aware of the dual role that the narrator is accomplishing being in the same time an advocate of Tess’s actions and defending her behavior, because she is his creation, but also switching to the voice of the category that he belongs to, Victorian men for whom the heroine’s decisions and behavior are the ones to be held responsible for her demise and ultimately, her death.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles was born between the pages of a newspaper and had to submit to the commercial rules of the suspense which to the author’s dismay was rising the density of the written text. In spite of its popularity, the story of Tess brought with itself many critical opinions that were labeling the heroine as immoral, savage or sly, a misfit in a world in which the woman was supposed to be an angel, completely stranger to the tormenting passions.
The development of the action stays fairly simple but the characters souls surpass the outlines of the biography, vigorously shaken by any unwelcomed event that is threatening their existence or happiness.
The beginning of the novel is in the same time the moment that leads to the unfolding of the action and is also symbolical for the period in which the action takes place, when the name that one was bearing was the deciding factor of its position in the society and of its own destiny.
The discussion between the heroine of the novel and her brother, Abraham about the stars seen as different worlds comes to further emphasize the position that the Durbeyfields are being given by the society and the impossibility of transcending that condition on their own.
“-Which do we live on-a splendid one or a blighted one
-A blighted one.
-Tis very unlucky that we didn’t pitch on a sound one when there were so many more of them.”
Completely aware of how the Victorian world designates its winners and losers, when finding out from a priest that he might be a descendant of a noble family of lords and even though without being certain of the truthfulness of the priest’s words, Tess Durbeyfield’s father starts to further research with the purpose of finding the truth. He sends Tess to Mrs. d’Urbervilles who it is believed to be related to them in views of assuring Tess’s future with the inheritance that the family is thought to be leaving to his daughter. In reality the d’Urbervilles are by no means related to the Durbeyfield family and their name is just as truthful as their bought position in the society. When retiring Simon Stoke, or the believed to be Mr. d’Urbervilles changed his last name buying their actual one along with their improved condition, climbing effortlessly on the social ladder.
The portrayal of Tess’s presumably family along with their son, Alec represents the introduction to the Victorian society and the way in which it is functioning. It depicts a two-faced world in which money represents the mean through which everything can be bought when in possession of the right amount. It is the ruler of the world, beholder of power and advantages and moreover, it has such strength that it can falsify identities and positions.
Even though not related in any aspect to Tess and determined to maintain their respectable image in the society, Mrs. D’Urbervilles offers Tess the job of tending to her fowls collection. The depiction of Tess attending to animals marks the concern that Hardy was having regarding the newly acknowledged theory of Charles Darwin according to which men were no longer superior to animals but one of their descendants. Furthermore, he is expressing the fear for the consequences of this theory when depicting the fowls and their behavior as owners of the house which lead to the acceptance of the reduced status of the human being.
“The lower rooms were entirely given over to the birds, who walked about them with a proprietary air, as though the place had been built by themselves, and not by certain dusty copyholders who now lay east and west in the churchyard…The rooms wherein dozens of infants had wailed at their nursing now resounded with the tapping of nascent chicks. Distracted hens in coops occupied spots where formerly stood chairs supporting sedate agriculturalists. The chimney-corner in which the hens laid their eggs; while out of doors the plots that each succeeding householder had carefully shaped with his spade were torn by the cocks in wildest fashion”.
In the same time the job that Tess is given in the house of the d’Urbervilles is symbolical for her position that she is currently occupying in the society being at the bottom of the social ladder, having to attend to the more fortunate people’s will and wishes.
Here Tess has her first encounter with the vile things that the human soul is capable of in the shape of the family’s son, Alec. From the very beginning Alec asserts his position as a dominant over Tess’s mind and feelings and in the same time manipulating the girl into falling in his trap following the seduction and betrayal pattern. The young girl is not the least aware of the sexuality that she embodies in Alec’s eyes, being completely oblivious to the meaning behind the boy’s behavior. In this sense Alec is the one that initiates Tess in the erotic side of her, stimulating her instinctual conduct in his favor.
Aside from his seductive behavior that dazes and annihilates any judgment or will of the heroine, Tess is being pushed into the son of the d’Urbervilles arms by her own parents that are as well bewitched by the wealth of the boy’s family and the way in which their situation will be enhanced by the marriage between the two.
The relationship between Alec and Tess inevitably takes into account the treatment of women and the image of women in the society which prove to be a recurring theme in the Victorian literature. In spite of what Tess’s parents are lead to believe about him, Alec shares the views of the society that he lives in, not having any consideration for the woman’s will or feelings and simply trying to satisfy his desires
“Considers satisfying his sexual need his privilege as a male member of the upper class. Alec – almost a stereotypical villain with a black pointy mustache – makes a game of seducing women…Rather than conceiving of women as powerful equals, Alec uses women’s sexuality to dominate them’.
In his twisted thinking he feels entitled to take from Tess what he feels that rightfully belongs to him. In his seduction game he enjoys stimulating her sexuality but also uses his wealth and power seldom mentioning her family and their condition that she is supposed to improve in order to manipulate her into surrendering to his will.
“I have enough and more than enough to put you out of anxiety, both for yourself and your parents and sisters. I can make them all comfortable if you will only show confidence in me.”
This reduced status of the human proves to also be the very essence of Alec’s behavior towards Tess and ultimately when he assaults her in the woods showing no mercy for the poor girl in the role of a predator that has spent far too long hunting his prey and is now enjoying his victory.
Even though the nature of the act is vaguely mentioned since we are not being told if the event that is happening in the woods was consensually or the result of Alec’s pressures upon Tess, the heroine of Hardy’s novel is depicted as being almost absent throughout all of the tragedies that she is going through, giving the impression that she lets her life and actions to be decided by destiny, having no personal will, in Alec’s presence, in changing the course of her destiny.
Another element that can be used as reference for the way of thinking of the Victorian Britain is represented by the idea that there existed no higher force that could be found controlling the lives and actions of the human beings. God’s existence has been denied by many ever since Charles Darwin introduced his theory of the survival of the fittest, therefore people were free to impose their will over anybody without the fear of being punished by the spiritual forces. This vision is emphasized especially in the scene of Tess’s assault in the woods that Hardy describes as a brutal act that was not stopped by anybody, not even by the higher celestial forces whose existence have been previously denied.
“But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel where was the providence of her simple faith. Perhaps like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked”.
Alec’s actions do not have repercussions only upon Tess, whether we are taking into consideration the physical abuse or the mental one that he has inflicted on her, but also on the image of the heroine in the society in which she is placed. From the pure, untainted and oblivious young girl, her image is being distorted and places her in the least pleasant category that a woman could ever be in, in the eyes of the society. She is now considered to be a woman that takes enjoyment in her sexuality and who has abandoned herself to the tormenting passions which deems her as an outcast for the society, taking into consideration the morals of the period.
Moreover, Alec’s assault had not only left her with a tainted image that provides her with the symbolical title of the fallen woman, that is not worthy of being respected but rather condemned for her vicious ways, but has also given her a child. The little girl stands as the evidence of the sin that Tess has committed and is in the same time a constant reminder of the way in which she left herself manipulated by Alec’s ways. Tess herself becomes aware of the domination that Alec has over her body and mind and ultimately of his real intentions for which he started pursuing her.
“‘If you wish’, she answered indifferently, ‘See how you’ve mastered me! She thereupon turned round and lifted her face to his ,and remained like a marble term while he imprinted a kiss upon her cheek.”
Her transformation is further marked by the structure of the book, Hardy choosing to emphasize the new status of his heroine by referring to it as the end of the first phase, the maiden Tess unaware of the world’s evil forces that were possessing the people.
The beginning of the second phase depicts Tess as a woman that has now experienced the cruelty of the human beings, the human nature and instincts that control their actions and attitude. Even though a victim of Alec’s game, the only one blamed for her downfall is Tess herself in society’s perspective and in her own family’s as well. This attitude is a reflection of the morals of the Age that could not find guilty the male in such cases, but rather the woman, who violating the rules of the imposed conduct, has put herself in the position of suffering the expected consequences by tempting others. Her own mother is displeased with Tess’s behavior and deems her as responsible for her own embarrassment and sufferance even though the girl was completely unaware of what could be the end of his pursuit.
She tells Tess that “You ought to have been more careful if you didn’t mean to get him to make you his wife” (Hardy,2016, 119) caring more about the chance that her daughter has missed of becoming a part of the aristocracy along with helping her family improve their life than about her wellbeing and the ordeal that she had to suffer through proving once again the lack of true feelings in a world dominated by who possesses more.
The evidence of the tragedy, her child that she is to raise as a single mother, represents for Tess the mark of her transformation but is in the same time the element that propels the heroine into the adulthood and the responsibilities that are implied. Even though she rarely shows affection for the little creature, she is convinced of the guilt that she bears in his birth, rather than its own, thinking that they should both have died rather than having to live through the embarrassment. She accepts the consequences that she has to endure for her capital sin, even though she played no role in Alec’s game but the one of the puppet, attracted and manipulated into committing the sin.
Unfortunately, the child does not get to live to be a perpetual reminder of that cursed night and dies shortly after his birth, falling ill. His death does not represent as much of a reason of sadness for Tess , as it does the place in which the soul of the little one will rest, as consequence of being an illegitimate child, unbaptized and decides to hurriedly baptize him giving it a name fit for the guilt that she will have to live with, Sorrow.
“She thought of the child consigned to the nethermost corner of hell, as its double doom for lack of baptism and lack of legitimacy; saw the arch-fiend tossing it his three-pronged fork….to which picture she added many other quaint and curious details of torment sometimes taught the young in this Christian country”.
Tess’s concern shows once again the purity of her soul and her belief in the Christian penitence for sin that was vigorously held onto during the Victorian times. By putting it into opposition with the moment that the young girl gets raped in the woods, one can easily observe the contradiction between the denial of a providential force and the acceptance of its existence.
This contradiction comes to further emphasize the views of the Age regarding Christianity and the Christian values that after Darwin’s theory of evolution had been visibly shaken and put into question.
After the loss of her child that she did not mourn due to its significance for her life, Tess seizes the opportunity of distancing herself from all the unfortunate experiences lived in her native village and start anew in a different place where she could not be recognized nor condemned for her previous mistakes.
Unfortunately, the girl will have to learn the hard way that once you have been given a certain position or you have made a certain image for yourself in the society’s eyes, there is no possible way of surpassing that position, of changing your fate, no matter what are the ways in which you are trying to do so. The blind forces that are that handle the string of people’s lives are the same ones that dictate Tess’s destiny from the very beginning of her life showing her that one cannot rebel against the fate and what it has prepared for him even more so in a society ruled by men in which she stands on the other side of the barricade. It is also one of the beliefs of the Victorian society that everyone’s fate has been decided from the start and any attempts to change it are proven to be futile, especially if the person in question is trying to change beliefs and perspectives that have been inherited from the ancestors.
At the dairy house where she manages to get a job as the milkmaid she meets Angel Clare, the same man that she has seen at the fair in her maiden days but failed to get to know him better, this fact proving once again that destiny has its own plan with Tess’s life. The man is reverend Clare’s son and comes from a highly respected family, therefore Tess feels herself obligated to hide from him the condition that she has had to live with ever since she lost her virginity. Fearful of what the man that she considers to be her chance at redeeming herself and her image, she chooses to not mention to Angel the sufferance that she has been provoked by her assaulter or her lost child.
So it happens that Angel is planning their marriage completely oblivious to the important information that Tess has omitted to share with him.
The guilt and remorse that are tormenting her, even now when she is happily heading towards the life that she had desired with Angel, are the result of the patriarchal Victorian society to which the heroine has to submit to, regardless of her will and feelings. A double-standard society that victimizes women and treats them differently than men, denying them the right to ever defend themselves from the male domination. Regardless of the severity of their actions men are always given the benefit of the doubt while women are constantly looked down upon, being chastised for their conduct deemed as inappropriate and immoral.
The author himself is aware of the way in which the standards of the society are set differently for the male and female part and emphasizes the beliefs of the patriarchal society attributing its origin to religion and the doctrine that Christianity is preaching to its followers.
“The greater the sinner the greater the saint: it was not necessary to dive far into Christianity to discover that”.
Angel shares the beliefs of the society that he lives in considering himself superior to Tess whom he wants to marry or rather inflict his dominance upon her, Tess finding herself once again mastered by a man that seeks to show his superiority, rather than partake in a relationship where both of them are equals.
All along their encounters, until finding out the true nature of the girl, Angel considers her pure untainted, virginal, seldom referring to her as “angel” and other divine entities, coming to further prove the Victorian beliefs in the two categories that the women could fit into: the angel of the house and the whore, labels given by the male category. When finding out about the girl’s past, she is automatically climbed down from the pedestal that she had been previously been put on, and falls in the latter category in Angel’s eyes. Unfortunately, he does not live up to the meaning of his name, especially after finding out the true condition of his lover and provokes her sufferance, rejecting the side of her that deems her as unworthy of his love, respect and attention but most of all of the society’s that would condemn him for marrying such a woman. Feeling herself unworthy of his affection as well, Tess accepts the ordeal that Angel will put her through by abandoning her, falling once again in the position of the slave that is mastered by her unmerciful master.
“I agree to the conditions, Angel; because you know best what my punishment ought to be; only – only – don’t make it more than I can bear!”
Full of prejudices and with views that concern women and their moral conduct that he has been gifted with by the respectable society, Angel makes Tess go again through the whole ordeal of the abandonment that she had feared of from the very beginning of their relationship.
While he has departed away from Tess and the reminder of her condition, the young deserted girl has an encounter with the new bishop in the shape of Alec that is far from repenting from his sins in spite of his new acquired position. At the sight of his former prey, Alec is ready to give up his honorable title for gaining for the second time the girl’s trust and attention but most of all to enjoy in pursuing her and manipulating her again into oblivious obeisance. Tess bravely resists his efforts not having forgotten, not even for once, the way in which he has disposed of her after satisfying his ego.
“You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted!”
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