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Hardy, Attic Novelist

Thomas Hardy's recourse to an ancient genre--tragedy--is also a proclamation of his modernism. As a practitioner of tragedy, Hardy anticipates the modernist liquidation of plot as the primary engine of character formation. He brings to the fore the quintessentially modernist moment, which pauses and counters plot, as the locus of personhood. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure ( 1895) picture forward-moving narrative as corrosive to character and plot's interruption--in Fredric Jameson's term, its antimony, or nonnarrative "affect"--as expressive of character (10). While Hardy's fiction might seem to fit Jameson's definition of realism because it maintains "destiny" and "affect" in insoluble conflict, these novels' objection to fate and preference for the moment signal their departure from Jamesonian realism. (1) No wonder Virginia Woolf, who decries the novelist's bondage to conventional storylines, praises "the violence and convolution of Hardy's plots" and his nonnarrative "moments of vision" ("The Novels" 256-57, 247). Too little noticed in Hardy criticism is the fact that these novels' insistence on plot coincides with their indictment of it; that Hardy represents, qua tragedy, narratives that constitute characters despite themselves, in brutal and coercive ways. Such is Hardy's modernist contestation of modernity's own pretensions to self-mastery and world-mastering. What today draws a groundswell of literary critics to tragedy drew Hardy then: its uncompromising expose of the extent to which we do not author ourselves, and are imprisoned within storylines not of our choosing. (2)

Hardy disposes of plot as the purveyor of social and existential comfort--as a template for Bildung that would enjoin readers to believe in "the world-as-homeland," in Franco Moretti's memorable phrase (18). Instead, Hardy's tragic trajectories communicate the "transcendental homelessness" that Gyorgy Lukacs considers the signature of the novel (Theory 41). Such is Lukacs's 1916 assessment in his Theory of the Novel. Following his Marxist maturation, however, Lukacs reserves this definition for the modernist novel only. Hardy's fiction embodies, then, all that Lukacs associates with "'modernist' anti-realism" and "anti-humanism": "the denial of history, of development," the absence of faith in an objective, ameliorative narrative of history that structures the world and that realism discloses ("Ideology" 395, 404, 405). For Hardy, however, any such master-plot is unrealistic and false, what later tragedian Albert Camus would call modernity's melodrama, what critic David Scott has lately called modernity's Romance. (3) Thus in Hardy's incipiently modernist fiction, no celestial or terrestrial script assures the salvation of his leading men and women. Such "failure" of plot undermines--casts doubt upon--theories of human and social perfectibility and of autonomous, all-conquering subjectivity. Instead, tragedy's narratives prove the enemy of wish-fulfillment: the very marker of reality in these works is plot's negation of characters' wishes.

Only pauses in narrative, those fleeting or imagined moments in which characters flourish, contest plot's hegemony. These vanishing or yearning interludes, that erupt and expire against the backdrop of plot, engender Hardy's tragic multiverse--the alternate worlds in which plot might have flowed or meant differently, in which events transpired or were understood otherwise. While Tess and Sue, then, are doomed to inscription within a dominant narrative, Hardy's novels as a whole exhort readers to make this narrative's others, its "mere" fictions--its counterfactuals, its profusion of momentary, interruptive, interpretive and experiential anomalies--reality. Hardy's tragedies, like their Greek predecessors, give voice to myriad interpretations of the plot twists at hand, insisting that multiple readings of them are possible. In good Sophist fashion, Hardy's tragedies deliver not only irrevocable destiny but embattled perspectives on it: the prosecution and defense of varying accounts of the fate in question. In a space of optative desire, that is, we see the origin and meaning of events contested and reframed, their relation to external and internal compulsion re-construed. And just as Sophist philosopher Gorgias composed his "Encomium of Helen," a plurality of interpretations that exonerated the most castigated of women--Helen was overpowered by Aphrodite, by Paris's abduction and rape, by language, more victim than villain--so Tess's narrator raises an "Encomium of Tess" and Jude an "Encomium of Sue," in moments of counter-narrative rebellion.

These moments mark the unjust condemnation of these characters, what plot only furthers; tragedy, here, consists in Tess's and Sue's undue conscription into guilt. Tragedy consists in their being damned from one perspective, defended from another. Bridging the ancient and the modern, if it is tragic that culpability attaches to Sophocles's Oedipus through no fault of his own, simply because he is destined to fulfill Apollo's prophecy, then it is equally tragic that Tess and Sue, innocent victims, are consigned to guilt by certain Christian interpretations of their histories. Ironically, these Christian readings, casting each woman's adversity as evidence of her moral corruption, prove the irascible oracle--bereft of reason and justice--that neither can escape. Attic bad fortune subjects Tess to rape and Sue to the deaths of her children, but it is a Christian interpretive schema, in which these unjustifiable events are taken to be judgments against Tess and Sue, that destroys these women. "Dead, dead, dead," sleeping-walking Angel pronounces Tess, having learned of her past; he proves a seer whose newfound conviction that her soul is tainted, her purity a masquerade, conjures his lethal vision into being (193). It is Tess's narrator and Jude who hew to a rival conception of personhood: that all that transpires without one's consent should not be held against one. Indeed, as Jean-Pierre Vernant argues, both fifth-century legal and tragic vocabularies themselves began to contest the notion of character revealed and determined from without. This archaic Greek conception of religious guilt--in which divine curses attach to generations, constitute individuals, and impart defilement to them--still pervaded tragedy, but its characters increasingly lamented and questioned it. In Vernant's words, an unforeseen action could render one de facto and insuperably guilty from the religious perspective; such an "action does not emanate from the agent as from its source; rather it envelops him and carries him away, swallowing him up in a power that must perforce be beyond him since it extends, both spatially and temporally, far beyond his own person" ("Intimations of the Will" 63). But precisely these conditions come to seem the basis of one's innocence from a legal and psychological perspective. According to the ancient religious model, guilt depends upon superhuman exercises of power, upon externally dictated transformations in character, upon all that "envelops...and carries away" one's former identity; on the ancient secular model, human motivations are determinative. In the latter case, persons are blameless for all they do involuntarily, under constraint or in ignorance, while blame may attach to all they do voluntarily. In representative fashion, Oedipus first espouses the religious view, taking himself to be synonymous with abomination in Oedipus the King; his identity appears to him forever changed, inseparable from "my guilt, my horrendous guilt," his unveiled "sickness to the core" (1.1516, 1.1529). But he voices a thoroughly emended self-image in Oedipus at Colonus. He maintains that his person ("deep inside me") is distinct from the miseries visited upon it:
But no, no--
how could you call me guilty, how by nature?
But in fact.
knowing nothing, no, I went...the way I went--
but the ones who made me suffer, they knew full well.
they wanted to destroy me. (1.288-89, 1.292-95)
I am innocent! Pure in the eyes of the law,
blind, unknowing, I, I came to this! (1.615-16)
I have suffered it all, and all against my will!
Such was the pleasure of the gods, raging,
perhaps, against our race from ages past.
But as for me alone--
say my unwitting crimes against myself
and against my own were payments from the gods
for something criminal deep inside, look hard,
you'll find no guilt to accuse me of--I am innocent! (1.1098-105)

In similar fashion, powers external to Hardy's women conspire to "destroy" them, and succeed in besmirching their characters, yet others protest their innocence, their abiding goodness, adopting Oedipus's line of reasoning: that they suffer against their wills and that there is nothing "criminal deep inside" them for which such suffering is "payment."

Tess's narrator and Jude, however, do not view Tess and Sue as divinely singled out for pain; instead "man and senseless circumstances" stand in for the "pleasure of the gods, raging" against them (Jude 269). Secular "power that must perforce be beyond [them] since it extends, both spatially and temporally, far beyond [their own persons]" insists on the degradation of their good character, which they varyingly accept and refuse. As fateful as the Olympians, human convictions, religious or otherwise, foist guilt on these heroines who have done nothing wrong; like Greek dramas, Hardy's works both stage and indict this phenomenon. Thus Tess's narrator and Jude do not see these women as the authors of their own misfortunes. This is the Aristotelian move that makes tragic heroines themselves--not gods or other men--causally, inadvertently responsible for their own unhappiness, even as their intentions are blameless and their goodness remains intact. On Aristotle's reading, instead of external force that takes aim at good character, internal force inaugurates one's suffering, even as one's moral quotient is undisturbed. In Aristotle's view, the world does not, fundamentally, seek to undercut one's identity, to undermine heroines' good natures--or others' perception of their good natures--against their will and to their detriment. Certainly Tess's and Sue's apologists also maintain their undiminished virtue, but in so doing they contest the prevailing wisdom that such women have become "bad"; they dissent from the dominant view that these women are morally debased. And they cannot concur that a heroine's pain is self-inflicted. Finally, these novels abjure the Christian interpretation of tragedy that excludes not only outside influences that are bent on disrupting noble character, but also tragic heroines' preliminary goodness. Now foundational moral failings beget such figures' punishments. The latter mode of analysis treats plot itself as the outcome of hamartia, understood as an ethical flaw that earns heroines their chastisement; it is precisely this model of inner iniquity that Oedipus denounces. Such moralizing of the tragic fall, then, is not Greek literature's creation: Plato envisions such a moral universe as the antithesis of tragedy, and it is Aristotle who takes tragic characters to be the unwitting ground zero of their fates. Full moralization of the genre, in which personal vice is the root of suffering, comes with medieval and early modern reimaginings of tragedy. (4) But even contemporary readings of Hardy's tragic novels that remove hamartic's moral valence--assigning Tess a character flaw that is simply her heredity, her deterministic, biological inheritance--make her person the engine of her fate. (5) Yet Greek tragic destiny descends on characters from without and engulfs them. Greek tragic characters are not their fates' sole site of origin. Characters, in the Greeks and in Hardy, are not responsible--in a causal or moral sense--for the entirety of what befalls them.

When critics then argue that Hardy's concentration upon externally wrought demises is a fault in his novelistic craftsmanship, a ponderous over-plottedness, they fail to see that crushing outside forces are the signature of his Attic tragedy--and that in incorporating such destructive power into his fiction, Hardy lays the foundation to indict the assimilation of menaces to personhood into justificatory narratives. (6) Combining tragedy and the novel, Hardy fiercely accentuates the fragility and innocence of character: the victim of tragic plot twists, blamed for its victimhood. If, as Woolf says, "[all novels] deal with character, and it is to express character--not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved," then Hardy's novelistic tragedy does target what comes to the fore in modernist fiction, characters' inimitable, feeling natures, and mercilessly pits both plot and its construal against them ("Mr. Bennett" 749). The inhumanity of the invulnerable gods becomes, in Hardy and in modernism more broadly, the inhumanity of natural and cultural environments.

Only Tess's narrator consistently recognizes and champions the guiltless and thriving character that it is not Tess's fate to secure in the eyes of the world. (7) Only he suggests that she can leave her rape and its pains behind her--or that if she cannot, her past might be viewed as wholly without shame, or indeed advantageous to her. If every detail of her experience must contribute to her character--like innumerable drops of coloring that tint a clear liquid--he opts for accounts of that coloring that are salutary to Tess. Such, indeed, is Nietzsche's recommendation in The Gay Science: to be "poets of our life" who "see as beautiful what is necessary in things" (240, 223). Tess's narrator, therefore, distinguishes between the Tess driven to extremity by Angel's and Alec's appraisals of her and the Tess who might have been, who should have been--who fought to be. His rightful Tess is pulled from her "natural" course, which bends toward happiness, and forced down a fatal track: casualty of rape and of the assumptive meanings Angel and Alec assign to it.

When Jude and Sue then come closer to finding what Tess's narrator regrets that she will not--"the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment"--they do appear to judge one another aright and to vibrate at the same affective frequency (Tess 31). Their tenor of feeling, which Jude delimits as properly human and humane, contrasts with that of affectless natural processes and with their fellows' excessively animalistic or devout dispositions. Yet their union comes "fifty years too soon": their finely developed sympathy for all living creatures is precocious (Jude 315). Their love is also belated in that each has already married wrongly. And for all that each locates in the other the "right and desired one" (Tess 30-31 ), they travel opposite trajectories, backward or forward in time, away from one another: Jude moves from his modern-day spirituality to pre-Christian belief in a tragic universe of unearned suffering, whereas Sue begins irreverently pagan and ends mired in Christian views of transgression. Their prized moments of intersubjective intimacy--when they are most themselves--have no staying power. Plot and their divergent accounts of it debilitate both and drive them asunder.

In Jude, Sue's misassumption of culpability, following the deaths of her and Jude's children, allows Hardy to depict how the moralization of tragic events is, on the one hand, a strategy to survive them, to assign them an explanation in order to bear them--yet also how excruciating such moralizing logic, which makes character wholly responsible for fate, can be. Hardy's fiction as a whole, however, does not blame Sue for blaming herself, and does not present her grief-stricken worldview as the final revelation of her character. Given the extent to which the novel laments what she has become--the pain her transformation causes both her and Jude--it suggests that tragic circumstances, beyond Sue's control, have destroyed rather than clarified her character. Just as Tess never has the chance to pass from grief to prosperity, because others do not take her side in time, Sue's "mental volte-face'" signifies that affliction has obliterated her former self--she whom Jude considers the true Sue (279).

Hardy's fiction undertakes a delicate feat of representation: to separate the emergence and consolidation of character from character's distortion at the hands of both unforeseen events and pernicious belief systems. Hardy's tragic novels attempt to differentiate flourishing "Tess" and "Sue," on the one hand, from what occasions their "ruins," and from their ruined selves, on the other.

Hardy versus Plato and Aristotle

Hardy's Sue in fact acts out Plato's counter-tragic dream of moralization. As Stephen Halliwell argues, in the myth of Er that closes Republic X Plato is at pains "to translate potential tragic material into the substance of a moralistic fable" in which man "is taken to bring his own fate on himself; the cause of it lies in his own soul. His sufferings will be a punishment, and Platonic punishment is good for its subject" ("Denial" 52). Aristotle, however, delivers a subtler transformation of tragedy proper in his Poetics: while he does not convert it to moral fable, he does hold its characters causally responsible for their fates. And although this might seem a less substantial revolution in thinking--Aristotle does not, after all, seek to eliminate the very category of innocent suffering--what is so eliminative about his interpretive model is that to the extent tragic characters are not morally at fault for their pains, neither are extrahuman forces or other human beings. Whereas Oedipus contrasts his inner guiltlessness with a supernatural determination to persecute him, Aristotle lodges both the innocent victim and the architect of his doom in one and the same person.

Aristotle resists any external cause--divine or human, opaque or intelligible--as the source of a character's fall or flourishing. The events of the play ideally issue from him. When Aristotle objects to the irrationality of the deus ex machina, for instance, he refuses a narrative development that does not follow necessarily from a hero's own deed. Aristotle rejects the gods' obscure ends as causes of plot's unfurling; he rejects how unexpectedly fortunes can change in their hands. If chance must make an appearance in tragedy, Aristotle asserts that "even chance events make the greatest impact of wonder when they appear to have a purpose (as in the case where Mitys's statue at Argos fell on Mitys's murderer and killed him, while he was looking at it: such things do not seem to happen without reason)" (I.9, 1452a4-9). In this instance of an occurrence that gives the impression, at least, of possessing a clear explanation, its reason is also a moral one: the murderous villain has brought this fall (this tumbling statue) upon himself. Thus it is Aristotle's commitment to excluding the Greek gods' unreason--their inscrutable and unpredictable behaviors--from the tragic stage that constitutes his "secularization" of tragedy. (8) Aristotle asserts that what lies beyond characters' doing is extraneous to plot: "Plots should not consist of parts which are irrational. As far as possible, there should be no irrational component; otherwise it should be outside the plot-structure" (I.24, 1460a26-29). Aristotle pictures personal ignorance or powerlessness as a complete etiology of suffering; he paints human vulnerability to unsolicited eventualities as an imperfection native to persons themselves. Although such figures elicit pity because they are not actively to blame for their woes, their passive accrual of guilt can be traced to them alone.

In his own ethical writings, Aristotle is likewise committed to delineating the sources of excusable and culpable action. In keeping with legal developments of the fifth century BCE, he determines that the threshold for guilt depends on the individual himself. That which he does under external compulsion or in ignorance is not his fault. But he is responsible for all that he does knowingly and intentionally. As Martha Nussbaum concludes, Aristotle would judge Oedipus morally responsible for homicide only and not for parricide (Fragility 283). And as Vernant explains, Aristotelian actors do not have free will in the Christian sense; instead they are bound by internal compulsion to behave as they do ("Intimations of the Will" 59-60, 67-69). Character, once formed, cannot do other than it does. But when such inner mandate is wanting, as in tragedy, Aristotle does not conclude that characters are driven by the divine (prophecy, curse) or by the social (war, enslavement, rape, revenge), but by their own limited knowledge. Instead of brute power that wreaks havoc on persons and communities who can react--lament, persuade, even defy certain of their oppressors--characters are their own worst enemies. Jonathan Lear captures Aristotle's deft interpretive maneuver as follows: "In Aristotle's conception of tragedy, the individual actor takes on the burden of badness, and the world as a whole is absolved" (325). To dramatize the "badness" of the world is indeed, for Aristotle, bad form. Aristotle's poetics, his aesthetic prohibitions against "impossibilities, irrationalities, morally harmful elements, contradictions, and offences against the true standard of the art," carry an ethics: keep evocations of senseless external threat to a minimum (I.25, 1461b20-24).

While it could seem that Aristotle in fact paves the way for Hardy, by seeing that tragedy can be secular--that characters' ignorance of past and future need not be divinely produced, and that divinely orchestrated plots are not the only means of communicating the divergence between laudable character and her desired outcome--Aristotle does more than re-conceive tragic suffering as terrestrial in origin. He does more than understand divine irrationalities as so many metaphors for fearful and pitiable mortal luck in the world. Granting that Aristotle believes a rational sequence of events to be more fear-inspiring than a capricious one, because comprehensible misfortune impresses audiences more with its likelihood, he still derives some additional benefit from making unwitting characters the source of their ills, rather than others who plague them. As Nussbaum writes: "The unanswered question... is why Aristotle insists that the causal mechanism must be an act of the hero's, rather than a (casually intelligible) network of events that bears down on him from outside" ("Self-Sufficiency" 278). Perhaps the answer is that heroes who unknowingly engender their own dooms (or risk doing so, catching themselves in the last instant) are not, for Aristotle, the starkest dramatization of a pitiless cosmos that governs and sports with mortals. Aristotle instead delimits and minimizes the sphere from which menace comes, steering clear of the chancy divine agency and its secular substitutes that remain the paradigmatic signifiers, in Attic drama, of a universal human vulnerability to loss.

Modernist literary critic F. L. Lucas rightly remarks that "Aristotle himself... felt that the misfortunes of absolutely righteous characters were too shocking for the tragic stage"; thus the hero must have some causal part to play in his own destruction (102). Yet Lucas remarks that Aristotle was also misread: "not studied in the Greek spirit, but rather as if he had been a Hebrew prophet," as if his tragic actors were morally corrupt from the start (14). This is an apt critique of Aristotle's reception--nonetheless, Aristotle's own partial implication of tragic persons in their falls already serves to quash further inquiry into the limits of agency, into the extent to which others yoke us to identities we internalize, conscript us into damning systems of meaning we cannot dismantle. Halliwell concludes that Aristotle practices the "denial of tragedy's deepest level," "more of an attempt to woo it over to philosophy's side than to meet it on its own terms" ("Denial" 67). Anthony Cascardi diagnoses in the philosophical tradition as a whole a defining need to "overcome," "defeat," or "avert" the tragic (171). Aristotle's very commentary on the genre begins to contain and to sanitize it: it requires character to generate the fullness of plot. In Aristotle, the moment of anagnorisis (recognition, self-knowledge) ideally coincides with the peripeteia, the reversal of fortune contrary to expectation--and it is one's own unintended deeds, their meaning come fully to light, that effect the narrative shift from well-being to sorrow. There is no further antagonist to discern or denounce.

For numerous contemporary philosophers, literary critics, and classicists, then, Aristotle envisions a rational, even benign universe in a way that the ancient tragedians do not. (9) That is, undeserved, often inexplicable upheavals of fortune (tyche, luck, the allotment of the gods) await and deform virtuous heroes and heroines in Attic plays; in Aristotle, however, it is characters' susceptibility to error that determines their fates. And while Aristotle recognizes that what is "deep inside" one is no protection against disaster, he fails to mark that this is particularly true when outside forces target mortals' virtue and dignity. Unlike Aristotle, Hardy's Angel takes the Attic view that undeserved events, once transpired, undercut one's good character and refashion it in the image of the abominations that have taken place--they damage it or abolish it entirely. Here, intention is in no way an exculpatory or self-preservatory lifeline; for Angel, no gap exists between fate and character, as eventually it does for Oedipus, and as it does for Tess's narrator. For the majority of the novel, Angel is convinced that Tess's involuntary action necessitates the reappraisal of her identity. Discovering her past, Angel feels that he has loved not an unsullied Tess, but "another woman in your shape," even as Tess protests "that I am the same women, Angel, as you fell in love with" (179, 265). Angel's change of heart comes too late; too late does he conclude that "the beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed" (267). And even more condemnatory than the Greek religious perspective--that recasts character in light of fate, regardless of personal volition--is the Christian perspective in Jude that holds persons' outcomes and intentions to be congruent. To end badly, Sue concludes, one must have begun bad. Sue re-sees Aristotle's pitiable and unintended fall--of the hero who is morally sound both before and after--as the fully deserved consequence of her own sinfulness.

Hardy's novels as a whole, however, maintain that character is not always coincident with its endpoint. Tess is not equivalent to her destiny; she is not, to her narrator, the product of her cumulative circumstances because she has not initiated them and they should not, in his view, be permitted to imprint her identity to her grief. Contra Aristotle, Tess's narrator finds that it is the very mischance of malign human agency bent on harming Tess that issues in her "fallenness," while in accordance with Aristotle, Tess's narrator deems her virtue unwavering--precisely what Angel fails to recognize until the novel's close. Even Sue, whose character is eclipsed in the end, who embraces self-slander where Tess attempts to resist it, is not reducible to her final posture, in Jude's estimation. While Sue promotes the Aristotelian premise that the sufferer alone is responsible for her doom, and supplements this view with a model of Christian tragic causation in which it is not Aristotle's ignorant misstep, little diminishing goodness, that accounts for her suffering, but her own moral depravity, Hardy's fiction as a whole pictures "pure" character at war with circumstances that curb and criminalize it: "the inherent will to enjoy" menaced by "the circumstantial will against enjoyment" (Tess 224-25). In contradistinction to Angel and to Sue, Tess's narrator and Jude view tragic suffering as Tess's mother does: "as a thing which had come upon them irrespective of desert or folly; a chance external impingement to be borne with; not a lesson" (202). Hardy's fiction, that is, trains its readers in a new mode of decryption, asking us to reject the notion that a heroine's final outcome presents the consolidation of her character. Hardy's protagonists do travel a single, unitary course, but Hardy's novels suggest that plot and its interpretation can warp and obscure personhood, rather than bring it fully to light.

Two Tesses

From the moment we meet Alec, Tess's narrator establishes, contra Aristotle, that Alec is the instigator, the seed of this tragic plot, not Tess. Hardy's narrator positions Alec as "the 'tragic mischief of her drama--one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life," a fact that she "[does] not divine, as she innocently" beholds him (30). During Alec's rape of Tess, Hardy's narrator maintains this grammar of overpowering fate and powerless character: upon "her tissue" Alec "traced" the "coarse pattern it was doomed to receive" (57). In Hardy's anti-Aristotelian view of tragedy, "practically blank" Tess is branded, tattooed, stenciled in suddenly--her life-plot marked by an agency not her own. No philosophical or theological attempts to rationalize this occurrence, he asserts, will satisfy our "sense of order" or "mend the matter":
Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the
primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle
roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping
rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian
angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like
that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or
he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to
be awaked.
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as
gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have
been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why
so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the
woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical
philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may,
indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present
catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors
rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more
ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the
sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for
divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore
does not mend the matter. (57)

"Why," he repeats twice, the insoluble question that haunts this tragic formation of character. It is against such a "coarse pattern" and the Tess it forges--hounded by her past--that Hardy's narrator rails, imagining the open future that ought to be hers.

In this scene, too, Hardy's narrator renders Christianity as unresponsive and impotent as the supreme pagan divinity, Baal, of whom Elijah ("the ironical Tishbite") speaks with contempt. Elijah reports that Baal's prophets beseech their god to display his power, but "there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded" (1 Kings 18:29). For Hardy's narrator, this "primeval" indifference is the enduring condition of the natural world. The Greek gods who look aside in much Attic drama as human beings wreak havoc upon one another are now the "Purblind Doomsters" of Hardy's "Hap" (Complete 9). Now the countenance of the mist is "eyeless," as Hardy writes in his anti-theistic poem "A Sign-Seeker" (Complete 49). For the nonhuman world not to look, not to care, is for Hardy both a tenet of Darwinian science and a tenet of tragic fiction.

Hardy's narrator also makes this episode the occasion to indict the Attic logic of inherited familial curses. These Greek precursors to the Judeo-Christian "sins of the fathers" are daemonic miasmas that infect innocent youth, inevitably. Like biological agents, they do not mete out warranted punishment. Hardy's narrator objects to the spurious notion that Tess's rape is retribution for those rapes that her male ancestors have perpetrated against their social and sexual inferiors. This is precisely the structure of violence that Aeschylus dramatizes and challenges: crime begets crime begets crime. The vileness of one act is expunged by the commission of that same act against the previous wrongdoer. Aeschylus himself is at pains to break this cycle, to envision a new form of juridical practice that does not visit wrong upon wrong. And Hardy's narrator's tirelessly mounted defenses of Tess, as we will see, show his own loathing for a logic in which the viciousness of the fathers is paid for with the life of the daughter. Here, Hardy's tragedy recovers from the ancients the indictment of such models--Iphigenia slaughtered by Agamemnon, her father, for wind to Troy, and Cassandra raped by him, or Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena, sacrificed by the Greek host so that Achilles's ghost can have her. In the company of the Greek tragedians, Tess reprises and reproves the very idea of sacrifice: beginning with the May-Day celebration, a descendent of pagan fertility rites in which the death of the maiden, initiated into sex, ensures the vigor of the harvest, and clothing Tess in the same ceremonial white frock to meet Alec. (10)

Thus the gods of pagan and Judeo-Christian mythology slumber while Alec invades Tess's sleep. It is Tess, however, who sees writ large on the boards of a stile, "THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT" (62). Her own impulse is to challenge this credo, that bad fortune is proof of bad character: "'But,' said she tremulously, 'suppose your sin was not of your own seeking?'" (62). He who paints the words replies, "I leave their application to the hearts of the people who read 'em" and Tess boldly counters: "I think they are horrible.... Crushing! Killing!" (62). She goes further: '"Pooh--I don't believe God said such things!' she murmured contemptuously" (63). But it is precisely her fellows' insistence upon her impurity that casts the fatal pall over her life.

Hardy's narrator, however, reiterates that while her rape changes her, it spells her undoing in this moralizing universe only. His commentary works to establish how singular, how anomalously reproving is her particular social milieu: "Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensation" (71). He imagines other worlds in which she would thrive, where no one would require her to be Angel's immaculate, neo-pagan goddess, the vestal proto-Christian of the vale, in order to survive and to flourish. Specifically, he imagines places in which she would have no past, ensuring that no life-negating interpretation of it could prevail:
Moreover, alone in a desert island would she have been wretched at what
had happened to her? Not greatly. (71)
But just created, to discover herself as a spouseless mother, with no
experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the
position have caused her to despair? No, she would have taken it
calmly, and found pleasure therein. (71)
Let the truth be told--women do as a rule live through such
humiliations, and regain their spirits, and again look about them with
an interested eye. While there's life there's hope is a conviction not
so entirely unknown to the "betrayed" as some amiable theorists would
have us believe. (82)

Tess's narrator's fictions and truths, however, contradict those of his story world. Tess is consigned to surroundings in which these "amiable" theorists of damnation have their way, a world in which her narrator's imagined scenarios do not win out. Yet it is his signature practice to improvise alternatives to her fate, and to denounce the fact that she is made to feel guilt and shame for her tragic ill luck. Thus he devises three more re-tellings of her story, incompatible with one another, but each in her defense. Hardy's narrator suggests that Nature's own morality clears Tess of guilt vis-a-vis her past, that amoral Nature purifies Tess of her past entirely, and that her past enhances rather than impeaches her character.

In his first gambit, Hardy's narrator allows that Tess's internalization of guilt is real to her, but also, editorializing heavily, asserts that hers is an inaccurate self-assessment. Because she personifies nature such that its harsh weather seems a commentary upon her culpable soul, he rejoins that nature bespeaks her innocence. He pivots away from the tragic, unseeing Nature that has eyelessly countenanced her rape and imagines a Nature whose own moral tenets refute society's "moral hobgoblins":
The midnight airs and gusts, moaning amongst the tightly-wrapped buds
and bark of the winter twigs, were formulae of bitter reproach. A wet
day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the
mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as
the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other.
But this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of
convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a
sorry and mistaken creation of Tess's fancy--a cloud of moral
hobgoblins, by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that
were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the
sleeping birds in the hedges, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough,
she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts
of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where
there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in
accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law
known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an
anomaly. (67)

Hardy's narrator wishes to imply that by the standards of "Nature," by the laws "known to the environment," Tess has committed no crime, that these "haunts of Innocence" are indeed her asylum and vindication, refuting her self-indictment. Hardy's narrator would himself exonerate her, and seeks in this view of nature his keenest ally and her most invincible apologist: she is "no different" from, "in accord" with her natural surroundings, and therefore as blameless as they. He confirms that for all her "conventional" shame, "every see-saw of her breath, every wave of her blood, every pulse singing in her ears was a voice that joined with Nature in revolt against her scrupulousness" (139). It would seem that the "natural side of her which knew no social law" is proof of her truest character (72).

"Nature," now the faultless external realm of tree and pheasant, and the manifold of seen and unseen laws that govern all life, travels inward--is her nature too. "Every wave of her blood" denies the very categories in which condemnation of her might be framed, the terms in which she, too, castigates herself. Her "natural side" has its own commandments that countermand the artificial charges brought against her. Her narrator's description of her child, too, presupposes the misattribution of artificial character to natural character: "So passed away Sorrow the Undesired--that intrusive creature, that bastard gift of shameless Nature who respects no social law" (75). Tess's narrator bitingly evokes the perversions to which he bears witness: rendering a child a "sorrow," the creaturely "intrusive," a gift a "bastard," Nature herself culpable. He plays on the opposing meanings of "shameless"--wanting proper shame, from society's condemnatory perspective, and exempt from needless shame, under nature's law.

But is there no shame in the forced act of procreation that begot Sorrow? Because Tess is young, fecund, and luxuriantly attractive, is her rape, too, harmless, lawful, even salutary? Furthermore, are the "moral hobgoblins" of religion, classism, and sexism really Tess's own "fancies"? This well-intentioned shielding of Tess from censure is riven with contradiction. She has every practical reason to be concerned for her future, even if the causes of her fear and regret, namely her feelings of shame, sin, taint, and culpability, should be dismissed. If her persecutors are "out of harmony with the actual world," what actual world does Hardy's narrator mean? The so-called natural world, whose "ethics" absolves her of guilt by licensing her rape? The world of society as it should be, the counterfactual, just and humane world which the entire novel coaxes its readers to desire? Just as Hardy's narrator's "real" Tess is not the recipient of punitive, sham "justice," his "actual world" does not dole out such punishments. Meanwhile, the actual world in which Tess dwells denies her a lifetime of love and kills her without remorse. It shoots these pheasants from whom, in her narrator's reverie, she is no different.

Invoking Nature's laws to acquit Tess, to de-criminalize her biology, her person, and her past, her narrator risks justifying all that has befallen her under Nature's ostensible supervision. He must, then, to protect his heroine, retreat from claims of Nature's justice, reserving the sphere of compassion, of the ethical, for the very human society that elects her ruin; and that society's thoughtlessness, its failure to care for Tess, must be criminal in a way that Nature's is not. Her narrator must communicate that no laws of Nature have protected Tess from an indefensible and not innocuous rape; no bough or pheasant has interceded on her behalf. Tess's very exemption from guilt must be a matter of human discrimination, not of resemblance to the unfeeling haunts of forest and vale. Thus Hardy's narrator intermittently brandishes Nature's immunity from shame as a strategy to afford Tess relief from her anguishing "scrupulousness," yet he also registers that this shamelessness, this imperviousness to sentiment, is Nature's keenest deficiency. Nature cannot differentiate between shameful and un-shameful acts as narrator or reader can. Nature cannot preclude the former or condone the latter. Tess, unaware of her supporters, can only lament that God's blameless sun shines on the just and the unjust alike (99).

Acknowledging that Tess's environment cannot, after all, serve as her character witness or sympathetic companion--for the "familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain"--Tess's narrator embarks upon his second mode of defense, suggesting a new analogy between his heroine and her environment that promotes her recovery and flourishing (71). Allowing that her surroundings, however rich in their "oozing fatness and warm ferments," are alien to human feeling and judgment, he proceeds to emphasize that this fertile vegetation and Tess are nonetheless wont to rejuvenate, to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of their literal or metaphorical winters: "yet even now Tess felt the pulse of hopeful life still warm within her" (116, 78). Morality aside, the biosphere in its lush plenitude still objects to her tragic end: a "particularly fine spring came round, and the stir of germination was almost audible in the buds; it moved her, as it moved the wild animals" and "some spirit within her rose automatically as the sap in the twigs. It was unexpected youth, surging up anew after its temporary check" (78). Knowing full well that Tess's life will be permanently and prematurely checked, her narrator nonetheless paints her encounter with Alec as he thinks it ought to be, as a "temporary check" only:
The irresistible, universal, automatic tendency to find sweet pleasure
somewhere, which pervades all life, from the meanest to the highest,
had at length mastered Tess. Being even now only a young woman of
twenty, one who mentally and sentimentally had not finished growing, it
was impossible that any event should have left upon her an impression
that was not in time capable of transmutation. (81)

He militates for Tess's resilience and adaptability--her developing character--in lieu of a character ossified and contracted in one fell swoop.

Whether nature is Tess's moral advocate or her amoral partner in indomitable, resilient life, her narrator consistently suggests that her own "innate sensation," her oft-referenced life "pulse," proves her keenest source of resistance to crushing social scruples. Her human nature, like her narrator's, throbs with counter-scruples, counter-impulses. But at times her inborn sensations pain her, intrude upon her well-being; her inner ecology, that is, is not unequivocally salubrious, the internal imprint of some external perfection. Within Tess's own body, her nature may either "sing" "revolt" or "thrust" "oppressiveness" upon her, and she must navigate these promptings and impediments to her happiness (115). Hardy's narrator cannot derive an infallible code of ethics from any supernatural, extrahuman, or human source; human convictions, in Humean fashion, spring only from interrogations of fallible human nature itself.

Yet because of the profusion of perspectives that Tess's narrator varyingly adopts and abandons, beginning in 1895 Lionel Johnson criticizes Hardy, in representative fashion, for embroiling readers in a morass of contradictory descriptions and pronouncements:
...Mr. Hardy is not content to frame his indictment, by the stern
narration of sad facts; he inserts fragments of that reasoning, which
has brought him to his dark conclusion. They are too many, too bitter,
too passionate, to be but an overflow, as it were, from his narration;
they are too sparse, too ironical, too declamatory, to be quite
intelligible.... I want definitions of nature, law, society, and
justice: the want is coarse, doubtless, and unimaginative, but I cannot
suppress it. (qtd. in Tess 391)

Johnson's is not a coarse or illegitimate want; Hardy's fiction provokes this ache for definition. It is Hardy's narrator's own, as he labors both to delineate and to refute those conceptions of "nature, law, society, and justice" that entrap his heroine. His array of declamatory statements is at once too sparse and too passionate to be fully intelligible, but this jostle of ardent, piecemeal viewpoints is still more intentional than haphazard. Hardy's narrator does not labor for absolute clarity and fail; rather, what his interwoven proclamations add to "stern narration" is the novel's aura of active, critical, ethical struggle. His "reasoning" does not simply rehearse, or justify, a "dark conclusion" to come. With consistency, he entertains rival stances in an endeavor to challenge dismal events, and to determine (alongside his readers) those premises about Nature, human nature, and the distortion of character that either undo Tess or pose alternatives to her ruin. It is entirely true that he is "not content" to narrate unobtrusively, but "overflows" into character himself, bitter and ironical: "'Justice' was done," he announces scathingly, "and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess" (314).

Tess's narrator, therefore, has one further counter-narrative that he brandishes both early and late: "but for the world's opinion, [Tess's] experiences would have been simply a liberal education" (77). He chooses to allude to Tess's past merely as a fortuitous eye-opener, a school-of-hard-knocks tutorial, amplifying her spirit. He adopts a seemingly myopic, even cold-hearted position of disregard--casts Tess's rape and loss of a child in unequivocally positive terms--precisely to counter in advance the gratuitous suffering that he foresees for her. If she is the teleological outcome of her past, he reasons, her character is the richer, the more loving and loyal, for her experience. In this particular judgment of her prior powerlessness and current knowledge, he cleaves only to the benefits of her suffering, excluding all else, intimating the potential brightness of the future that will be denied her. He celebrates her maturation, brushing aside at what cost she has achieved it. This "would have been" narrative, conditional given the facts of the fiction, is for Hardy's narrator much closer to the truth of the matter. He emphasizes, as no one else will, that the woman who attracts Angel possesses these prior experiences--they enrich her gaze, augment her beauty--experiences that Angel refuses to hear and cannot understand.

Hardy's narrator is not as fickle or as unreliable as is Clare, his character. He adopts this contrarian position--"Tess's passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest"--because her fate is the opposite of his pronouncements, her allotment the inverse of his hopes. Angel's appreciation of Tess's mental harvest--Angel's awareness of her alluring gravitas, whose origin eludes him--is of passing duration, while a conviction of her lasting corporeal blight overtakes him. Although Hardy's narrator insists upon nature's regenerative power, Tess will find herself insuperably "unregenerate" in the eyes of others (240). Tess indeed tries to leave her past behind: "She dismissed the past--trod upon it and put it out, as one treads on a coal that is smouldering and dangerous" (151). Tess strives to keep at bay the "gloomy spectres" of a self-characterization that will break her, and yet "she knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light" (153). For all that Tess labors to banish the past (never daring to recast it as her narrator does), she comes to feel that she cannot evade a character imposed upon her from without, which affords her the "almost physical sense of an implacable past which still engirdled her":

It intensified her consciousness of error to a practical despair; the break of continuity between her earlier and present existence, which she had hoped for, had not. after all, taken place. Bygones would never be complete bygones till she was a bygone herself. (240)

In light of such imprisonment, Tess's confinement to an "earlier" character formation that she cannot transmute, Hardy's narrator seems driven to model an agitated intellect constantly at odds with the modes of thought, the "standard of judgment," the "sense of condemnation," that have thus led Tess to despair of getting by (236, 219). He resents all that conspires to transform his "pure" heroine (a character she never loses, in his view) into a heroine with blood on her hands.

From the beginning, he narrates a Tess who is cowed, intimidated, and compelled to intimacy in Alec's carriage, where Alec plants his "kiss of mastery" upon her (40). Alec spies, hunts, and follows her, his predation sinister. When Alec then returns to re-entrap her, seething with anger at his thwarted possession, he announces that "I was your master once! I will be your master again," and this ineluctable symmetry of abuses, which robs Tess of self-determination a second time, is what Hardy's narrator seems unable to bear in silence (261). Similarly, if he must give voice to Angel's condemnatory thinking, he will classify it as a "hard logical deposit" and insert his tidbits of counter-logic (189). If Angel dares to call Alec Tess's "husband in nature" (and to suggest that "if he were dead it might be different"), Hardy's narrator will evoke Tess's visceral revulsion to such a classification (190). Tess is nonetheless forced to believe, to repeat those words, to argue that "this man alone was her husband" (282). It is a supposed truth so inimical to her feeling that, unable to voice or to legitimate an alternative conception of union or self (too late would Angel sanction it), she strikes down that which she has been compelled, time and again, to accept as a restraint to her every bodily impulse, and she dies for her resistance.

Overcome with "mad grief and lamentation--"Oh--Oh--Oh!"--Tess cannot bear that Alec has a second time "made me be what I prayed you in pity not to make me be again" (304, 300, 301). The "original Tess," whom Angel at long last recognizes, has for the second time lost sovereignty over her body: "allowing it to drift, like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from its living will" (299). Like Sue to follow, Tess's living will is broken, her body turned corpse under subjection and false belief. Only upon killing Alec does Tess experience a short-lived, poetic beat of joy--but "this happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough" (312). As she knows, her moment of being will not arrest her narrative's merciless becoming. Her very self-assertion, her defense of personhood, saddles her with the charge of guilt, of culpable action, that she has sought to disprove. So Hardy's narrator, his own tale's counterweight, constantly gestures toward a "great passionate pulse of existence, unwarped, uncontorted, untrammeled," hers in his imagining, as if he cannot tolerate the events he transcribes, and must conjure the pulse of her "might have been" life, playing devil's advocate to the "tragic machinery" he represents (Tess 124; Jude 7).

Sue's Reversals

Whereas Tess falls prey to others' life-negating interpretations of her person, Sue herself cannot bear a tragic universe in which suffering and death have no decipherable meaning and lie beyond her control; Sue moralizes her own fate. Attic calamity causes her to efface the very character that Jude has come to love: Sue's reversal of fortune leads her wholly to re-envision the world and herself. Jude pictures Sue's final penitence--the denial of her affective impulses--as the negation of her character.

It is tragic loss, with its unbearable surfeit of sadness, that comes to divide them: "Sue and himself," Jude realizes, "had mentally travelled in opposite directions since the tragedy" (270). Sue comes to feel as Tess had, that "in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong" (Tess 243). Sue's unprecedented grief spawns her newfound conviction that "Arabella's child killing mine was a judgement--the right slaying the wrong"; it is a commentary upon "my badness" (275, 210). Even as this "despairing self-suppression" suffuses her conversation with Jude--their speech grows as racked and uncertain as his sickly gait--Sue calls her curtailed liberty of expression "self-mastery" (283, 277).

When the very religious proscriptions that Jude has ceased to obey consume Sue's thought, he forswears them further. "It's no use fighting against God!" she cries in her reactionary desperation, following her announcement that she will return to her first husband, Phillotson, and Jude replies:
It is only against man and senseless circumstances.... You make me hate
Christianity, or mysticism, or Sacerdotalism, or whatever it may be
called. if it's that which has caused this deterioration in you. That a
woman-poet, a woman seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond--whom
all the wise of the world would have been proud of, if they could have
known you--should degrade herself like this! I am glad I had nothing to
do with Divinity--damn glad--if it's going to ruin you in this way!...
How you argued that marriage was only a clumsy contract--which it
is--how you showed all the objections to it--the absurdities! If two
and two made four when we were happy together, surely they make four
now?... Can this be the girl who brought the Pagan deities into this
most Christian city?--who...quoted Gibbon, and Shelley, and Mill?...
All wrong, all wrong, he said huskily. Error--perversity! It drives me
out of my senses. You are my wife! Do you care for him? Do you love
him? You know you don't! It will be a fanatic prostitution--! (269,
276, 283)

Sue demonizes the very feelings that have justified her union with Jude. Now she opts for the ascetic, the self-flagellating suppression of her natural urges, opts for a "fanatic prostitution" of her body, because in her pain she blames her "unlicensed" pleasure and the convictions it sponsored for the deaths of her children (171). She cannot accept "man and senseless circumstances," Hardy's own tragic antagonists (the social, its organizations devoid of rhyme or reason) as her children's destroyers--for where is the sense, the redemptive power in that? She cries to Phillotson: "My children--are dead--and it is right that they should be! I am glad--almost. They were sin-begotten. They were sacrificed to teach me how to live! Their death was the first stage of my purification. That's why they have not died in vain!" (285). She must be the author of so agonizing a loss; she becomes a Christian theorist of the tragic.

Suffering of Attic proportion attaches Sue to those Christian scruples that she eschewed "in the independent days, when her intellect played like lambent lightning over conventions and formalities which [Jude] at that time respected, though he did not now" (270). She had been adamant that:
It is none of the natural tragedies of love that's love's usual tragedy
in civilized life, but a tragedy artificially manufactured for people
who in a natural state would find relief in parting!...I am certain one
ought to be allowed to undo what one had done so ignorantly! I daresay
it happens to lots of women, only they submit, and I kick.... When
people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and
superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in,
what will they say! (170)

The "natural tragedies" of love involve unwanted partings, sincere losses: Sue's of her children, Jude's of her. But the "usual tragedy of civilized life" is gratuitous, "artificially manufactured," consists in refusal of the "relief of separation, of the "oughts" of free feeling. Thriving on forced couplings, manufactured tragedy drives asunder those who most desire togetherness. Sue has deemed the socially mandated strangulation of one's feelings, to the benefit of none, akin to the "amputation of a limb," and yet she now submits, stops kicking--because what she formerly designated "barbarous customs and superstitions" she re-sees as her atonement (168).

Sue, who used to understand herself "outside all laws except gravitation and germination," views Little Father Time's murder-suicide as an indicator of God's law (111). Following a social excommunication based upon "artificial compulsions" (Jude's term in Hardy's manuscript), (11) Sue is overtaken "by an awful conviction that her discourse with the boy [about the family's troubles] had been the main cause of the tragedy" (264). Yet for all that his act is read as Hardy's Malthusian interlude, in which the child determines to decrease the familial population ("done because we are too menny" [264]), this incident is itself a warning against the mis-assumption of personal fault. That / am to blame is the logic that overtakes both mother and stepson. A certainty of her own sinfulness colonizes Sue's mind, and she submits her body to what most repels it on the notion that she now, rightly, subordinates sinful flesh to soulful faith in a proper and penitent manner. That it should feel so forced, so foul and punishing, she now takes as a sign of her perversity; Jude, of course, reads the pains of fanaticism as signs of its perversity, and rejects the notion that a fault in her character has wrought her own misery. Sue, however, needs to believe in some affective hamartia, a tragic flaw in her nature, to erase from view the horrors of human cruelty and cosmic indifference.

Jude indicts a particular theory of tragedy: because "Fate has given us this stab in the back," as Sue rationalizes, we ourselves must have occasioned it (266). Sue insists not only on her causal role in Little Father Time's act; she blames her heretical feelings for it. She then proposes a Christian solution to her initiatory crime of "self-delight," of making "a virtue of joy," that she and Jude have committed: "we should mortify the flesh--the terrible flesh" (270, 266). For all that Jude resists her "creed-drunk" ethos, reiterating that "the letter killeth" and that "there's no evil woman in you," her conviction of their iniquity does pain him to death (307, 306, 271). Tess, too, indicts this "crushing" narrative logic: "all was, alas, worse than vanity--injustice, punishment" (Tess 218). Tess also recognizes that the unearned griefs of tragedy are unjustly reimagined as grounds for Biblical chastisement. Angel's "view of her deadened her," and so punishing is his conviction of her impurity that even he comes to suspect that his "conventional" thinking constitutes the indefensible cruelty of a forsaken and Greek tragic universe: "God's not in his heaven: All's wrong with the world," he conjectures irreverently (179, 199). Thus while the rape of innocent women and the slaughter of innocent children would suffice to destroy characters in Attic drama, in Hardy's fiction rape and murder-suicide are precursors to their "killing" moralization. It is Tess's narrator who vociferously reminds us that any number of alternative readings of Tess would have saved her. Similarly, when Sue determines that the stabs of Fate are a Christian commentary upon her character, the widow Edlin recognizes that this interpretation is the real doom that overtakes her, that cuts her off from all human connection and sentences her to self-exile as the most defiled of women: now "she's got nobody on her side. The one man who'd be her friend the obstinate creature won't allow to come near her" (289). Edlin regrets the further plot twist that issues from Sue's new philosophy: "the self-sacrifice of the woman on the altar of what she was pleased to call her principles" (290). Tragedy, the undeserved desecration of good character, forced into an impossible mold--that of poetic justice--announces the end of all joy for Tess, Sue, and Jude.



(1) Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism. While Jameson's "affect" is largely collective and impersonal, Hardy favors subjective and intersubjective feeling as plot's antithesis.

(2) For tragedy's appeal nowadays to myriad critics, see Rita Felski's edited volume Rethinking Tragedy.

(3) See Camus, "On the Future of Tragedy" and Scott, Conscripts of Modernity.

(4) Medieval English conceptions of tragedy were generated by authors who had no direct access to the Greek plays. These medieval ideas of tragedy allowed for rival understandings of causality. One model pictured human agency within a providential universe--great men punished for their vices--while the other model evoked pagan contingency outside of providential narrative. This duality laid the groundwork for the ensuing Renaissance, neoclassical. Enlightenment, German idealist, and Victorian battles over the interpretation of the Greeks. Even PMLA's recent special issue on tragedy opens with these conflicting assumptions: a tragic universe is moral or it is amoral. See Maura Nolan and Willard Farnham on medieval tragedy and its legacies. See also Michael Lurie's "Facing up to Tragedy: Toward an Intellectual History of Sophocles in Europe from Camerarius to Nietzsche" in The Blackwell Companion to Sophocles. Lurie contrasts Renaissance thinkers Joachim Camerarius's and Francesco Robortello's theories of Aristotle and Sophocles--in which Greek characters' sufferings are undeserved and do not testify to divine justice--with a concerted Christianization of the genre. Philippe Melanchthon and Andre Dacier, for instance, insist that Attic drama does represent divine providence: plots that punish the wicked and characters whose own vices occasion their downfalls. As Lurie shows, even during the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century backlash against Renaissance and neoclassical interpretations' Christianizing of Aristotle and tragedy, when thinkers such as Saint-Evremond, Fontenelle, and the Abbe Terrasson argued for a decidedly non-Christian Attic worldview, they did so in order to disparage this Greek outlook and to profess the superiority of a modern tragedy that could perform moral work (Lurie 448-49). In their bid to distinguish modern-day reason and justice from a Greek impiety alien to God's providence, these Enlightenment thinkers gave voice to the very view of the cosmos that Hardy understands as Greek and espouses as his own. For Hardy, however, to dramatize cosmic amorality is not to encourage immoral behavior. See also Simon Goldhill on German Idealism's conflation of tragedy and theodicy.

(5) Peter Morton, for instance, argues that Tess is impulsive and incautious by birth; she is free of culpability for a nature she did not choose, but doomed from within to act in self-destructive ways. See also Dale Kramer and Jeanette King, who discuss Victorian tragedy's apology for innocent suffering. Hardy, I would contend, rejects the notion that such suffering hallows heroines and confirms their virtue; unwarranted pain, in his fiction, distorts rather than consummates character, and is a spur to ameliorative ethical action. Pamela Gossin argues, as I do, that Hardy instead adopts a "neo-Greek" view of the cosmos, in which blameless characters are subject to externally wrought misfortune (at the hands of both chance and men, as the Greeks had it).

(6) When William Dean Howells and Havelock Ellis defend Jude in 1895 and 1896 respectively--taking the minority position at the time--they still regret that a "capricious troll" at times holds the reins of his plot (Ellis 42). T. S. Eliot and E. M Forster complain similarly of Hardy's narrative structure (After Strange Gods 54-58 and Aspects of the Novel 140-42). Yet Woolf sees the logic behind such twists of fate: "To find anything approaching the violence and convolutions of Hardy's plots one must go back to the Elizabethan drama.... no reading of life can possibly outdo the strangeness of life itself, no symbol of caprice and unreason be too extreme to represent the astonishing circumstances of our existence" ("The Novels of Thomas Hardy" 256-57).

(7) Little attention has been given to Tess's narrator as a significant contributor to the form of Hardy's novel. I see him as a replacement for the Greek tragic chorus, an onlooker who not only laments but refuses the plot at hand. Yet Hardy's narrator in Tess, if discussed at all, is often viewed as the mouthpiece for an overly intrusive author, and as an awkward and self-contradictory spokesman. See R. P. Draper's collection Hardy: The Tragic Novels, in particular David Lodge's "Tess, Nature, and the Voices of Hardy."

(8) See Stephen Halliwell, with whom I agree, for a full commentary on this "secularization" of tragedy.

(9) See Anthony Cascardi, Stephen Halliwell, George Harris, and Jonathan Lear.

(10) See Catherine Gallagher on Hardy's anthropological method and Victorian anthropology's new vision of sexual and sacrificial primitive ritual. See also Nicole Loraux's Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman on the sacrifice of virgins and the suicide of wives in ancient tragedy.

(11) In Hardy's manuscript only, Jude exclaims: "When men of a later age look back upon the barbarism, cruelty, and superstition of the times in which we have the unhappiness to live, it will appear more clearly to them than it does to us that the irksomeness of life is less owing to its natural conditions, though they are bad enough, than to those artificial compulsions arranged for our well-being, which have no root in the nature of things!" (415). See Patricia Ingham's "Explanatory Notes" in the Oxford World's Classics edition of Jude for such textual variants.


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Author:Lempert, Manya
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2017

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