Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Significant Moment

Choose a novel or short story in which there is a moment of significance for one of the characters.

Explain briefly what the significant moment is and discuss, with reference to appropriate techniques, its significance to the text as a whole.

The rape of Tess Durbeyfield is the keystone, around which all of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel (“Tess of the d’Urbervilles”) is built. In this single scene, the reader sees Alec d’Urberville’s naked lust and Tess’s own passivity in extremis. The scene also allows Hardy to reflect on the morality of religion and nature, and all of these ideas are expanded in the novel which follows.

In the darkness on The Chase, Tess, sleeping, appears only as a “pale nebulousness” – too shrouded in the fog to be visible. The setting is appropriate, hiding the terrible crime carried out by the nouveau-rich Alec on the peasant girl Tess. Hardy goes to great lengths to show that Tess was not culpable of her violation, indicating that she was “sleeping”. However, some critics seize upon the idea of “eyelashes whereupon tears lingered” as evidence that Tess was conscious and thus somehow consented to her brutal loss of virginity. The symbolism of “linger[ing]” “tears” is clear, as all that follows for Tess is sadness and misery.

During this significant moment, Hardy takes time to pass comment on the dominant Christianity of his age. While Tess, an innocent in all ways, is raped, he asks, “Where was her guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith?” The rhetorical questions make clear that no god was going to save Tess, despite how much she believed in him. Hardy was clearly excoriating a faith which promises salvation to the poor, while sitting idly by while they must suffer. This contrasts with the rabbits and birds on The Chase while the rape occurs. We are told that “above them rose primaeval oaks and yews in which were poised gentle roosting birds… and around them the hoppings of rabbits and hares.” This is important because, unlike Christianity, nature makes no promises of salvation. The natural world carries on “roosting” and “hopping” while Tess suffers, because Hardy believes suffering is a part of nature. There is no god for animals to believe in, or be deluded by.

Alec d’Urberville’s characterisation is at time that of a comical villain – at Flintcombe Ash he appears out of the fire, wielding a pitch-fork in a less than subtle symbolism – but he is a deeply unpleasant character. His crass attempts at seducing Tess had begun as soon as they met, with him addressing her as “my big beauty” and drawing attention to her “best assets”, before moving on to forcing her to take a strawberry in her mouth from him – a Freudian symbol which would have had the Victorian readership passing out with outrage. The rape, however, pushes Alec into another character, as his obsession grows. He is only able to get Tess out of his mind by converting to Angel Clare’s father’s church. Tess is appalled by this false piety, accusing him of taking his “fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted!” The convenient arrival of faith is consequently proven to be utterly superficial when he re-begins his stalking of Tess, before finally winning her as a lover when her spirit is finally broken.

On her own journey after the rape, Tess becomes ever-more associated with the natural world. Angel considers her a “Demeter”, a goddess of the forest, and Hardy often refers to her as a “cat” or some other creature completely at one with the natural world. This reaches its most dramatic presentation when Tess is returning from visiting Angel’s parents and discovers a clutch of pheasants, half dead following a shooting drive. The metaphor is clear as Tess understands their only escape from pain is if she “kills them tenderly”. Nature does not provide relief from suffering, except through death, and so as the representation of nature that Hardy portrays, Tess understands that her only escape will also be through death. Fittingly, from this point on, Tess accepts her fate, rejoins Alec, murders him and then offers herself up for arrest. She stops fighting the powerful figures and forces around her.

Pivotal in Hardy’s story, the rape of Tess is both a climax and a beginning. It is the high-point of Alec’s pursuit of her, but also the start of Tess’s real suffering. By incorporating criticism of Christianity, and showing an indifferent natural world, Hardy is also able to address larger issues which are expanded as the novel continues to its bitter end.