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Men have learned to harness nature, but they have yet to transcend it. The laws of nature powerfully affect human behavior, and these laws are often antithetical to those of society. Thus the conscientious human being is constantly in flux—at once pulled by primal and civilized forces. In Tess of D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy portrays Tess Durbeyfield as a character under this type of duress. She and the men that love her are unable to achieve a compromise between their animal lust and their civilized sensibilities—and their collective inability ultimately destroys her happiness.
Hardy shows Tess has primal desires. At the May Day procession, she is the distinctive girl with the deep red mouth, mobile face, red ribbon, and abundant endowment. Her figure exudes sexuality. Hardy even places Tess in scenery that matches her sensuous, nature-given attributes. Following the sound of Angel’s harp, she walks across a garden “damp and rank with juicy grass, which sent up mists of pollen at a touch…upon her naked arms [were] sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her arms” (97). The heavy, ripe description in this passage screams sex. The wetness and pollen are conducive to reproduction, the arms are naked, and the stains happen to be snow-white on the trees—alluding to semen. Through this scene Hardy suggests Tess’s ability to be sexually aroused, though this arousal may only be in her subconscious, for she does not particularly notice her surroundings. The use of natural imagery shows that the lust in Tess came with her features—as gifts from nature. Tess’s Sixth Standard education and Christian morality are merely thin veneers, for ultimately she cannot resist the biological urge to procreate. The season also reflects this urge, as Tess’s passion for Angel grows like the summer heat, “[a]mid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization” (113). The author explicitly connects Tess with the busy fertilization activity of the valley around her. He shows that nature forces Tess to seek Angel, just as nature would force two rivers in the same valley to eventually merge.
Hardy also depicts the attraction between Alec and Tess as natural. At their first meeting, Alec feeds Tess strawberries, and she eats them in a “half-pleased, half-reluctant state” (30). Alec also covers Tess with roses. Strawberries and roses are symbols of passion; Tess readily accepts them. Hardy reveals that Tess has animal instincts that her more refined sensibilities cannot hope to suppress. This sense of inevitability is implicit in Hardy’s description of The Chase: “Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase…about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares” (58). Apparently, nothing is amiss—life in the woods goes on. Hardy’s mention of rabbits and hares is not just a pretty detail, for these animals are known to be prolific breeders. Tess and Alec are in fitting company. Throughout this scene, Hardy emphasizes that the half-forced, half-consensual sexual act, gross to human sensibilities, is entirely normal in the natural scheme of things.
Therein lies the conflict. Despite Tess’s strong lust for Alec and Angel, she cannot reconcile her feelings with the social laws that mandate women to be physically and mentally chaste. As Tess walks up the lonely hills surrounding Marlott, shortly after her return from Trantridge, she reflects on her actions and condemns herself for them. The narrator then comments that Tess “had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly” (68). In other words, Tess yields to the sexual drive nature has given her. In contrast, the social laws seem arbitrary and unrelated to the reality of life on Earth. Yet it is the social laws that Tess consciously tries to obey, though her attempt inflicts guilt and unhappiness.
Tess is also victimized by the sexual double standard. On the night Angel and Tess arrive at the D’Urberville mansion, Angel secures Tess’s forgiveness of his fling with a London lover. Ironically, Angel is unable to find the same compassion within himself when Tess tells of her own misdeed. The double standard stems from the Victorian era belief that virile young men were to be made allowances. Furthermore, men were the initiators of sex. Women were supposed to passively accept male desire. Yet one would expect Angel to transcend these prejudices. The irony of the confession scene lies in the contrast between what one expects of Angel and what he does. Angel is a person who has rejected Christianity for humanism. Hardy relates that Angel said that it might have “resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilization, and not Palestine” (126). For that opinion, one would expect Angel to recognize morality as relative to the circumstances. Yet Angel obeys a harsh, dogmatic set of morals, one that is even more condemning than that of his parents, whose “hearts went out of them at a bound towards extreme cases” (242). Angel’s parents would pity Tess—they would have seen her as a person to be loved and saved. Thus it is doubly ironic that Angel rejects Tess—he is neither true to his parents nor to himself. Through Angel’s rejection, Hardy convincingly demonstrates the power of society to shape morality and thus behavior. Although Angel can forget both his humanism and Christian forgiveness, he cannot escape the powerful bind of the oppressive social code until it is too late. Tess, inculcated with the same Victorian values, accepts Angel’s judgment of her: “I will obey you like your wretched slave even if it is to lie down and die” (184). Tess does not defend herself; she accepts that her past actions have taken away her right to self-determination. She, like Angel, believes that lust and propriety cannot co-exist in the same person. Again, the conflict between nature and society destroys Tess’s hope for a happy relationship.
The men in Tess cannot reconcile their own nature-given and society-instilled attitudes toward love. But the conflict between nature and society prevents that melding, for the men are unable to combine sexual passion and Victorian morality—they choose one or the other. Alec is the character whose love is primal—representing the force of nature. Nature only demands the proliferation of life, the physical act of sex. Sophisticated love does little to propagate a species. Angel is the antithesis of Alec. His love is not physical—it is idealized and spiritual. Together, they form the perfect lover for Tess, who needs both types of love. But in love two halves do not make a whole.
Alec plays his role from the beginning, calling Tess “my beauty,” “my pretty girl,” and “my pretty coz” when they first meet. His behavior is unsurprising because it is Tess’s “luxuriance of aspect” that first causes Alec’s eyes to “rivet themselves upon her” (30). He mainly perceives her physical attributes, for beauty makes sex more enjoyable. When Tess leaves, Alec thinks of kissing her. He is barely inhibited by the social customs of marriage and foreplay. He wants to possess Tess physically then and there. His inability to love Tess spiritually causes the first great tragedy of the novel in The Chase. Because he has no respect for Tess’s spirit, he crushes it, though he does give Tess physical pleasure—a pleasure that is ultimately empty without fulfillment on a higher plane.
Angel is likewise predictable. After first seeing Tess at the dining table, he exclaims, “What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!” (96) Angel does not know Tess—he has society’s idealization of a virginal and pure woman in mind, and he superimposes this idealization on the physical form of Tess. Tess’s beauty is not of intrinsic worth to him—it is of worth only insofar as it symbolizes her purity, the true object of his spiritual love. When he carries Tess across the flooded road, he whispers, “Three Leahs to get one Rachel” (115). Angel is delusional; he attributes to Tess the qualities of Greek goddesses and biblical figures. Angel does not ground his relationship with physical love—he cannot love the woman of flesh and bone before him. His kisses are chaste. If Angel and Tess engage in passionate behavior on their walks in the countryside, Hardy certainly does not tell. After their marriage, Angel commits the opposite of rape—the denial of sex, a principal determinant of happiness in any marriage. When Tess attempts to kiss Angel as he leaves the D’Urberville mansion for work, Angel brushes her off, and “Tess shrank into herself as if she had been struck” (194). The unhappiness caused by Angel’s abstinence is seen. Had Angel loved Tess physically, even though this love would have been crude by the standards of society, their relationship would likely have survived, for mutual lust would have kept them together. With the salve of time, Angel would have seen past her affair with Alec and have regained his spiritual love for her. This reconciliation would then not have been postponed to the end of the book, when it was too late. But because Angel is as blinded toward physical love as Alec was toward spiritual love, the two males both doom Tess to physical and spiritual obliteration.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is essentially the story of the struggle between the natural desire for sexual fulfillment and the social mandate of sexual repression. This conflict makes a victim out of Tess, for she cannot obey both her natural instinct and social upbringing. In a sense, Victorian society strove to build a dam to keep in the reservoir of primal human desire. Through his penultimate novel, Hardy shows that when the dam is pierced, it unleashes its flood of repressed unhappiness.
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