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Reviewed by:
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • Brigid Lowe (bio)
Thomas Hardy , Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891)

Is Victorian fiction comforting? I think it is—but not because, as is often implied, its conventions embody or reflect a conservative social, epistemological, or metaphysical "ideology." If this were the key to its enduring popularity, it would be hard to see how a bitterly oppositional novel like Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) could share the appeal. But Victorian fiction has its own myths—and Tess, by dint of its very darkness, offers a particularly clear insight into the consolations these myths offer for some of our peculiarly modern human aches.

The dynamic of Tess's paradoxical attraction is graphically present in one of its most repellent images:

The whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face from chin to brow should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other ... without [End Page 56] anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.


A strange way of seeing—why see a face in something with no features? Why the horrific sense of unnatural "vacuity"?

The horror is easily enough accounted for. In Tess, more than in any of his other novels, Hardy gives tongue to the full shock of atheism. His disenchanted version of Browning is that "God's not in his heaven: all's wrong with the world!" (273). Hardy smells what Nietzsche called "the odour of divine decomposition" (section 125). The working girls are like flies on the corpse of a recently deceased—defaced—God. Echoing Tennyson's "hollow sky" (Maud 18.5), a recurrent nineteenth-century image of a universe void of a creator, Hardy's little Abraham Durbeyfield makes "observations on the stars, whose cold pulses were beating amid the black hollows above, in serene dissociation from these two wisps of human life. He asked ... whether God was on the other side" (36-7). The astronomical imagery looks a long way back, to the early modern discoveries that marked the start of the replacement of theological with scientific ways of understanding the universe. The thoroughly modern Angel Clare views his father's "transcendental aspirations—still unconsciously based on the geocentric view of things" as "as foreign to his own as if they had been the dreams of people on another planet. Latterly he had seen only Life" (176).

And yet Angel, too, has his complacencies. His capitalized sense of "Life," his idealized, Wordsworthian conception of a nature shaped to shelter and nourish mankind, cannot accommodate the mixed, wasteful, arbitrary quirks of nature as Hardy understands it. What seems like pastoralism in the natural scenery of Tess never loses its dark edge:

The garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells—weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went ... gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin.


Hardy's nature is an uncultivated, undesigned environment in which we just happen to find ourselves. It is as rank with death as it is bright with life, as red as madder as it is snow clear, and as disgusting as it is dazzling. Tess's story is meant to make us wonder "whence the poet [Wordsworth] whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his song is breezy and pure, gets his authority for speaking of 'Nature's holy plan'"(30). And Hardy's [End Page 57] way of lapsing from the lyricism of pastoral into the indifferent perspective of post...


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pp. 56-60
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