On Victorian Morality’s Sacrificial Altar

Thomas Hardy. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 1891. Romantic tragedy. Very English.


First and foremost, Thomas Hardy writes with wonderful elegance, recalling the sure and serene prose of his contemporaries, Henry James and George Eliot. Also like the best of James, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is very tightly plotted, including just three major characters and developing a rather simple story gradually and consistently. Unlike the patrician James or the rather middle-class Eliot, however, Hardy writes lovingly of English peasants. And more so than his contemporaries, Hardy uses his novels to assail the bourgeois Victorian “values” that condemned women (but not men) so utterly for sexual infractions, regardless of their circumstances.

Faith and fate are other key themes in this model of literary naturalism. Tess leaves us to speculate whether Tess’s fate arose from a character flaw inherited from her d’Urberville ancestors (Neo-Darwinism here), or whether she was victimized by divine caprice, and even whether she was being punished for her ancestors’ sins.

Tess - Gemma Arterton

Tess – Gemma Arterton

Fatalism pervades this novel as deeply as does Hardy’s “aesthetic, sensuous, pagan pleasure in natural life.” Tess is repeatedly described as a child of nature, likened to Eve and Demeter, glimpsed lying down on the sacrificial altar of Stonehenge like some virginal pagan of old.

Yet this novel falls short of greatness. The characters are unindividuated types who revert instead of developing, and Tess is a passive heroine. She does what men bid her, reluctantly, sadly, but inevitably. This story has murder, betrayal, true love, and religious doubt—every fascinating and frightening behavior in the book of existence. So why is the novel so stifled and stilted? “Oh, it is not Angel—not my son—the Angel who went away!” wails Mrs. Clare. No one actually talks like that! For all your efforts at naturalism, my dear Mr. Hardy, you have not verisimilitude.

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