Writing yesterday about Tess of the d’Urbervilles at its wildest, I stopped before using the scene with this line: “But there was another hour’s work before the layer of live rats at the base of the stack would be reached; and [nice description of the moon]” (Ch. 48). I have not yet found a book blogger quoting this line. What novel were they reading?
I am hopping back to the Criticism in my outstanding Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. What drives Dorothy Van Ghent crazy (from her book The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)), the “elements resistant to aesthetic cohesion” – she is so polite – that most bothers her, are the narrator’s invocations of poems. Quotes from Wordsworth or Browning or Swinburne or whomever. Tess, though she is reduced to swede-grubbing, is not uneducated. She could handle the quotations. It is the surrounding lecture that “belongs to an intellectual battlefield alien from the novel’s imaginative concretions” (p. 428).
Tess and her family are moving – the subsequent scene, the description of the country-wide moving day, is outstanding – and they are singing a hymn that is sad but offers the hope of heaven. Tess has spent the length of the novel suffering, so she does not share their hope:
for to Tess, as to not a few millions of others, there was a ghastly satire in the poet’s lines–
Not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come. [“Ode. Intimations of Immortality,” ll. 63-4]
To her and her like, birth itself was an ordeal of degrading personal compulsion, whose gratuitousness nothing in the result seemed to justify, and at best could only palliate. (Ch. 51)
A classic statement of Hardyan pessimism. What needles Van Ghent is not just the intrusion of the philosophical statement, but the anti-novelistic introduction of the “millions” and “her like.” “[I]n what way do these statistical generalizations add to the already sufficient meaning of Tess’s situation?” (p. 429). The novel is about Tess, Tess, Tess. Any philosophical work needs to be done through her. If Wordsworth is helpful, show us Tess reading Wordsworth.
Not that the narrator needs Wordsworth. Nor does Tess. Much earlier in the novel, after Tess has suffered her second, I think, great trauma, she is recovering. She has resolved “to be useful again”; she has made some peace with an indifferent world.
The past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. (Ch. 14)
A little jolt there at the end. It is all pretty clearly Tess. Yet the narrator is not satisfied. She has not gone far enough for him.
She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly – the thought of the world’s concern at her situation [unmarried mother] – was founded on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought… Most of her misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.
I suppose it would be hard to find readers now who think badly of Tess because she had a child out of wedlock. The “conventional aspect” has changed a lot. But the narrator is after something else. This is the side that Van Ghent finds bullying. I do, too. I found myself fighting with the narrator a lot, and not with his artlessness, whatever that might mean. This structure, the narrator who tells the story but becomes frustrated that it does not say exactly what he wants it to say, is pretty interesting.
The narrator is fundamentally wrong. He mistakes the illusion. Tess was an existence, rather more than a passing thought, to me, while reading the novel.