Monday, October 3, 2016

What was comedy to them was tragedy to her - Tess versus McFate, round 2

Tess Durbeyfield is pursued in Tess of the d’Urbervilles by three men, Angel Clare, Devil d’Urberville, and an unnamed narrator who represents, or is, or thinks he is, Destiny, or Aubrey McFate, as Humbert Humbert calls him in Lolita.

An innocent amateur genealogist tells Tess’s father that the Durbeyfields “derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville,” a Norman knight.  The d’Urbervilles are gone, dead, but through a long series of small and large incidents, beginning with her father having a drink or two or three to celebrate his nobility, Tess’s life is ruined.  Tess has the worst luck, again and again.  At first she does not understand that Fate has it in for her:

Tess Durbeyfield did not divine…  that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama – one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray* in the spectrum of her young life.  (Ch. 4)

That’s Devil d’Urberville standing there emitting smoke.  Tess hardly would know any of that, would she, since she literally just met the fellow.  But McFate knows, and needs to tell me he knows.

Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all [meaning Angel Clare, who will pop up later].

The narrator frequently interrupts to say how characters made the wrong decision.  He berates Angel Clare at the end of Chapter 39 for his treatment of Tess – and it would be hard to find a reader who disagrees with the narrator – but what can you do, “this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings.”

McFate is at his cruelest in Chapter 44, part of Tess’s long walk, where after a series of pathetic setbacks the narrator says “she went her way without knowing that the greatest misfortune of her life was this feminine loss of courage at the last and critical moment…” [emphasis mine].  Yes, Tess could have been happy – relieved from her suffering, allowed a more ordinary life – if only – there are a lot of “if only”s, many branches to the story that get lopped off.

The narrator is openly in conflict with Tess.  Much earlier in the novel, Tess declared that she refused to study history, because history is the study of Fate, and she would rather not know:

“Because what’s the use of learning that I am one of a long row only – finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that’s all.  The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands’ and thousands’, and that your coming life and doings’ll be like thousands’ and thousands’.”  (Ch. 19)

She will embrace the illusion of her existence, the illusion of her will, no matter how often the narrator insists it is an illusion, no matter if he is right.  Perhaps this is why Tess feels so alive compared to the other characters in the novel – compared to most characters in most novels.  The illusion fights back against the illusionist.  She is the predecessor of Professor Pnin, who ends up fleeing his own novel to escape the cruel narrator.  Tess figures out how to escape her novel, too.

My title is from Chapter 29, just barely nudged out of context, and a good description of how I read Tess – I’m one of “them.”

* See end of Stonehenge scene, Ch. 58.  Note for next time – keep track of sun references.


  1. Interesting parallel between Tess and Nabokov - not a combination that springs naturally to mind! Don't forget, along with the sun refs, the pheasants...

  2. I wanted to use Nabokov to give a clear signal about what I was doing here. Most readers, judging from book blogs, do not seem to think the novel has a narrator. They do not seem to think it is written in prose, or written at all.

    I count two pheasants, Ch. 41, that scene, Tess sleeping amidst the pheasants, and the hilarious bit in Ch. 13 where Hardy puts Tess in an allegorical painting, "standing under a pheasant-laden bough" - and there are people who attach the word "realism" to Hardy! "Pheasant-laden bough"! But those poor pheasants pay for it in the end.

  3. Does your wide ranging reading include Flannery O'Connor? If so, perhaps this new venture will interest you:
    All the best from the Gulf coast . . .

  4. I'm going to come back to these postings in about a month after I've re-read Tess to prepare for my seminar. I can only hope that I'll have some trenchant observation to make about your focus/fixation on the narrator, which has almost wholly escaped me in my previous readings, because I'm always so focused on how Nature overwhelms Hardy's characters. But maybe that's because Nature is controlled by a vengeful narrative force. I'll let you know what I think. Meanwhile, Adam Bede is working on his father's coffin, reminding me of As I Lay Dying. I would never have otherwise linked Eliot and Faulkner--ever.

  5. Yes! That's the giant hole in the argument, the argument that in a novel is by definition circular. "Look, reader, Tess cannot resist Fate!" "Wait, pal, that's not Fate - that's you. You're the one making Tess suffer!"

    It has sure been a long time since I read O'Connor, and the 1950s seems a thousand years from what I have been reading. I guess it is really more like fifty, but boy did things change fast.

  6. "A vengeful narrative force", I feel tempted to rename my blog to that. Unamuno got a lot of mileage out of the author/fate dictating a character's destiny conumdrum in Niebla.

  7. I could have used Bend Sinister, too, where the story becomes so cruel that the narrator has to look away. It becomes a common enough idea.