Hardy: Gothic defender of women

Can anyone read Hardy without feeling crushed at the injustice of the world? Most particularly at the meddling, life-destroying injustice of the world towards genuine love between two souls? Hardy is not generally listed among Gothic writers, but the tale before us is more than just a tragedy. Pummeling the reader with malady after bitter malady, improbable misfortune after unfortunate encounter, Hardy works the reader into an emotional frenzy more deeply piercing than Walpole ever manages in The Castle of Otranto, but just as unrelenting. But, more than this, Hardy ‘raise[s] the sad spectres of “othered” and oppressed behaviours, crossings of boundaries, and classes of people and finally arrange[s] for the distancing and destruction of those figures or spaces into which the most troubling anomalies have been abjected by most of the middle class’ (Hogle, 2002: 13).

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, provisionally called Too Late Beloved, is a harrowing epic of a country maiden’s swift fall from society’s favour that unravels her life in so complete a manner that one feels her final punishment a reward, though her martyrdom goes unnoticed. Hardy wastes no time in introducing death and destruction, with the unwitting Tess, a mere teen, feeling herself the cause of her family’s ruin when their only horse is slain on her watch. This early insight into her generous and self-aware nature, that cannot help but read the effects of her actions on those around her, prepares us for the more miserable self-blame to come.

Just as swiftly, Hardy brings on Phase the second: Maiden no more, Tess having fallen prey to the man her parents have urged her to request help from—Alec D’Urberville. If this isn’t enough, Tess is with child. If this isn’t enough, her mother blames her for her silliness. If this isn’t enough, the child dies soon after birth. If this isn’t enough, the priest will not baptise the dying baby. Tess names him Sorrow. On being scolded by her mother for her indiscretion, Tess finally lashes out: She couldn’t have known; she was sent into the arms of a beast with no warning from her own mother, with no novels to educate her of the wiles of man.

I would that folk forgot me quite,
Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
Of my day’s work as done.

Tess struggles with her sudden impurity, and seeks a fresh start—still a teen—moving away from home and finding work in a dairy. She buries her baby and buries her past, leaving her personal demon, Alec D’Urberville, behind. Her mother’s advice—the most sympathetic she ever receives—guides her, backed by centuries of mistreated women and those who blamed them for their misfortunes (p. 191):

Many a woman—some of the Highest in the Land—have had a Trouble in their time; and why should you Trumpet yours when others don’t Trumpet theirs? No girl would be such a Fool, especially as it is so long ago, and not your Fault at all.


Ah! Dairy where I lived so long,
I lived so long;
Where I would rise up staunch and strong,
And lie down hopefully.
‘Twas there within the chimney-seat
He watched me to the clock’s slow beat—
Loved me, and learnt to call me Sweet,
And whispered words to me.

Here Tess meets a face from her carefree younger days, a young man named Angel Clare, son of a clergyman who, having turned his back on the church and thus been denied a university education (something of a sore point for Hardy, reminiscent of Jude the Obscure), is training to be an ‘agriculturalist.’ A slow and sweet romance blossoms between the two that draws Tess out of her bitter mistrust of men. Hardy makes it so pure, airy and magical, that one wants to slip under it like the waters of a cool stream and revel in the morsel of happiness he allows Tess, though one knows it is but a morsel and the thick wad of pages to follow will be scrawled with agony and misfortune (pp. 192-3):

She had not known that men could be so disinterested, chivalrous, protective, in their love for women as he. Angel Clare was far from all that she thought him in this respect; but he was, in truth, more spiritual than animal; he had himself well in hand, and was singularly free from grossness. Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot—less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal; it was an emotion which could jealously guard the loved one against his very self. This amazed and enraptured Tess.

Compelled into marrying him, both by her own intense feelings and his, Tess cannot be so unjust to so loving a soul as to keep such a significant secret from him. And to our minds, we yearn for Tess to find a confidant to describe her sorrows to and ease her burden just a little, and think Angel is above social conventions. But he is not. On Tess’s revelation of her unfortunate past, Angel can no longer see in her his pure country maid. Though he knows intellectually that she is not to blame, and though he knows that the world wrongs her in oppressing her for what was committed by others, he wants Tess to fulfill his ideal of a spotless dairymaid. Forgiving in the general, he cannot accept this situation in the particular, when he had such romantic notions of his own lot in life.

It is here that Hardy is the staunchest defender of womankind: the writer and the reader know that Tess is what she seems, only someone with power over her has been cruel and thoughtless with her body. The reader implores Clare to dig deeper in his heart, and the writer warns us to think again, and not to trust even the kindest-hearted man, who would yet ruin a woman because he cannot have her entirely for his own. Don’t think you are different, or that he is different!—cries Hardy. Men, forsake the chains of society and its false morality and love your women, he cries. Love them through their suffering and the crimes committed against them; don’t make them pay twice.

These feminist themes cement Hardy’s work as Gothic, for it is at its root about the clash of gender roles and expectations that ought to belong to a bygone century but still persist in his own time. Gothic is the perfect vehicle for this: ‘No other form of writing…is as insistent as Gothic on juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction—about gender, sexuality, race, class the colonisers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal versus normal psychology—and leaving both extremes sharply before us and far less resolved than the conventional endings in most of these works claim them to be’ (p. 13).

And now he’s gone; and now he’s gone; …
And now he’s gone!
The flowers we potted perhaps are thrown
To rot upon the farm.
And where we had our supper-fire
May now grow nettle, dock, and briar,
And all the place be mould and mire
So cozy once and warm.

Alec D’Urberville is Tess’s misfortune personified. Not only does he violate her in her fresh-faced youth, not only does his irremovable blight sever her from her loving husband, but he returns to haunt her—as an evangelist. It is not enough that he has destroyed her happiness, but he is now born again, of a D.L. Moody, Anabaptist-descended variety, if I am not mistaken, preaching fire and brimstone to sinners, getting about in a smock-frock and beard in place of his dandy clothes and cane of his younger, more reckless days. The Gothic coincidence which makes this twist even more painful is that he has been converted by Angel Clare’s clergyman father. D’Urberville is redeemed. Tess is condemned. D’Urberville has broken no law and is blameless in the eyes of God. Tess has flouted the law in marrying when she is physically bound to the man who first raped her; she is forever soiled in God’s eyes for seducing a man. And she believes it.

Tess Durbeyfield and Alec D'Urberville, by Hubert Herkomer

When Tess expresses her views on Christianity, only promoting the spirit of the sermon on the mount, views formed first by Clare and not wholly understood by Tess’s still forming mind, she unwittingly converts her destroyer away from God and his evangelical calling. Freed of his struggle of spirit against flesh, D’Urberville reverts to pursuing Tess with the full force of his passions. He attains his vile, domineering union, and Tess is wed to her misfortune.

And it was I who did it all,
Who did it all;
‘Twas I who made the blow to fall
On him who thought no guile.
Well, it is finished—past, and he
Has left me to my misery,
And I must take my Cross on me
For wronging him awhile.

Clare’s internal struggle continues for years, and he cannot forget his abandoned wife, whose friend had asserted, ‘Nobody could love ’ee more than Tess did! … She would have laid down her life for ’ee’ (p. 270). Yet he is still not willing to overlook her stains (pp. 264-5):

This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgement this advanced man was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings. … In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire.

Not even Angel Clare is able to see past the vicious condemnation of victims of rape, until his own lover is tied to her destroyer. Tess is ‘too late beloved.’ The tensions are not resolved in time; Tess is a victim of her gender and of her time.

Tess finally destroys her destroyer, and is in the act emancipated. Is it symbolic? Should she have confronted injustice and misfortune earlier? But we know that she couldn’t, for, though downtrodden, she was not then thoroughly driven to despair. Tess had learned her lot in life, and feeble as it was, she had clung to it and made the best of it. In freeing herself, however, she has removed the last crumbs of respectability society had to toss her way, and is finally and completely condemned. ‘“Justice” was done’ (p. 397). It is harrowing that Hardy’s novels were also condemned in his lifetime, with his manuscript rejected ‘on moral grounds’ by three publishers (p. xix). Hardy described Tess’s ‘fall’ a ‘paradoxical morality,’ but was unable to sway conservative readers, many of whom loathed the ‘succulence’ of Tess, branding her a ‘little harlot’ properly chastised (pp. xix-xx). Here’s to a morally clear-sighted and bravely outspoken critic of his times, who, drawing on Gothic devices to present his formidable social commentary, was on our side.

Hardy, Thomas. 2008 [1891]. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Penguin Classics: London.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002. ‘Introduction: the Gothic in western culture.’ The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.


2 thoughts on “Hardy: Gothic defender of women

  1. A wonderful book and an excellent review. I really enjoyed reading your take on it.. I may have to pull it off my shelf and give it another read. It’s been about 20 years. 🙂

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