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Indubitably, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is largely reminiscent of the archetypal Grecian tragedy; evoking an overwhelming sense of pity/catharsis for the female protagonist. However, the constituents of said ‘tragedy’; though in essence prevalent throughout, are discordant throughout the majority of Hardy’s novel. It is generally stipulated than in order to be defined as a ‘Greek Tragedy’; a number of elements must work in unison: the protagonist, though critical to the plot, must remain emotionally detached- the plot propelled by action; irrespective of the thoughts and psychology of the central character and often, as a result, omitting the presence of a consistent narrative. Aristotle stated that tragedy, at its core is ‘an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery’- a plot in which the characters serve to purge the emotions of the spectators and create a focus of empathy, in a tale compelled by nothing more than the misfortune of fate, the cosmos and the Gods.
However, discrepancies arise when looking into the semantics of Hardy’s novel- Tess’ fate, cannot be prescribed to the fault of the Gods, nor the work of higher beings; Tess possesses no credible form of hamartia, as the faults which seem to denounce her recognition as a ‘virtuous being’ are prevalent within all other central characters: her ‘defining’ sexual impurity, almost satirically paralleled by the acts of her ‘spiritually enlightened’ husband. Therefore, it is not through the Victorian prism of purity that Tess is assigned her hamartia; Tess’s one and only fatal flaw is that which, ironically, coincides with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in the sense that it is beyond her control: she is a woman. It is her gender which serves to condemn her.
Hardy seemingly inverts the concept of tragedy, insofar that, as opposed to an imitation of the joys and dejections of life, Tess is used on an individual level to paint a bitter portrait of realism and inculpate the society which dictates such melancholy. Rather than purging the audience of their inner turmoil through a, typically male protagonist; Hardy humanizes Tess’s condition: men embodying the authority of God- the figures of Angel (biblically symbolizing the hope of redemption for the fallen woman ) and Alec (signifying impious temptation) dominating the course of the maiden. The cosmos and God’s which are to blame for our misfortunes are demeaned to a very factual level: it is men whom oppress her through ignorance of their own faults and exacerbation of hers; as she is ultimately judged by societies’ delineation of ethics.
In a sense, Hardy mirrors the ideology of the Greek tragedy, to the extent that, just as the knowledge that the perennial intervention of the God’s relieves us of the blame for our destinies; the invisible construct of society with its judgments on sexuality, womanhood, morality and status are entirely accountable for the demise of Tess. Hardy propagates this concept of accountability through the unorthodox addition of a narration throughout; often satirically mocking the concept that Tess is vilified by the God’s for her actions- noting that ‘Providence must have been sleeping’ at the moment in which the maiden’s fate is determined by rape. Rather than being propelled by action, Hardy speculates on the events occurring, the human witness punctuating the novel, suggesting that intervention and a divergence of fate is entirely possible; just as, as the author, Hardy has the ability to manipulate and/or alleviate the deterioration of Tess.
Cumulatively, the nature of Tess’s death serves to mock the Victorian detachment from the plight of the ‘fallen’ woman- the penultimate scene, whereupon Tess’s symbolically sacrificial demise in the ruins of Stonehenge occurs, vitriolically described as ‘justice’ by the author. However, the detachment from the constraints of Victorian society and the unrefined and essential ‘purity’ of Tess in terms of her authenticity as a woman upon her death is clearly perpetuated- the historical burial ground in which she lies possessing no respect or glorification of wealth, lineage or sexual purity, the stones- ‘Older than the centuries; older than the d’Urbervilles!’- belittling and trivializing the matters which have disproportionately denounced Tess throughout.
As a result, the audience, though reluctantly, enters the cathartic stage stipulated within the theory of tragedy, however, distinguishable, not for the emotions of their protagonist and the concurrent sense of self-gratification gained, but a purging of their own guilt and prescription to the immorality of the society which murdered what, in the end, is portrayed to be nothing more than a girl. It is this realism which resonates until the final word: Tess is not a victim of the God’s, the cosmos, or the divine- she is a victim of humanity… and that is the most tragic reality of all.
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