Who Hanged Tess

Published:  12:00 AM, 02 February 2017

Angel Clair or Alec D'Urbervilles?

Angel Clair or Alec D'Urbervilles? The characters of the TV Mini-Series (2008) based on the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) is one of the masterpieces by Thomas Hardy (1840 - 1928) in the history of English fiction. Some of his other great novels are Jude the Obscure (1896), Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)   and   The Return of the Native (1878). It is needless to say that Thomas Hardy is recognized as a romantic novelist who operated as the bridging hand between the end of the Romantic/Victorian age and the Modern era represented by the novelists like James Joyce and Marcel Proust.

In the romantic love tragedy Tess of the D'Urbervilles we see that Tess was hanged in the last scene as she killed Alec D'Urberville, who defiled her by forcefully impregnating her and consequently driving her plain life into deeper complicacies. After the death of Tess' illegitimate son 'Sorrow' by Alec, Tess fell in love with Angel Clair who was her close colleague at the Dairy farm at Talbothays.  Immediately before her marriage with Angel, she earnestly tried to share her ill past with him but Angel did not care to give any chance. Even the small confessional note that Tess wrote to him and pressed through under the door did not reach him as it slipped under the carpet. So remaining all ignorant of Tess' ignoble past, Angel married her but later he completely discarded her as she divulged the disgraceful episode committed by Alec. In the next event Angel runs away to Brazil where he decided to establish himself. Then Tess fell into a wretched condition. As Alec then attempted to subjugate her by providing some assistance against Tess' sanction, she killed him. In the next phase Angel returned home and took Tess into hiding. But they were caught by law-enforcing hand and Tess was imprisoned, tried and finally executed.

Now out of the facts in the novel we assert that Alec D'Urberville was the root villain who not only murdered Tess' virginity but instigated series of events that worsened Tess' path. We know well that Tess never liked or loved his rapacious and villainous gestures. After Tess' marriage with Angel when he decided to run away to Brazil, Alec attempted to seduce Tess: sometimes he proposed her that he would provide protection to her parents and family. But Tess could never trust him. We are not surprised to see that Tess could not trust Alec even after he had become a preacher in the role of a Church minister. His multiplicity of devious intentions invariably aimed at selfish sexual pleasure that he attempted to satisfy with Tess. It was Alec who poisoned Tess' mind by giving a fallacious impression about Angel that he would never return to take Tess back.  In the last event Tess murdered Alec only because she turned revengeful against him who burned her life all the way. There are facts and things in the life of Tess caused by both Angel and Alec; it is, therefore a curious search as to who was responsible for Tess' death by execution - Angel Clair or Alec D'Urberville.

If we consider how far Angel Clair was responsible for hanging Tess, we go a long way. Although Angel Clair was a moderately educated, sensible and considerate individual, but he was stubborn and obstinate by character. His blind and boundless neglect threw Tess into miserable plight. He did not let Tess any chance to share her ignoble past with Alec who forcefully fathered "Sorrow"; Tess had no grain of blame in it. Angel should have allowed Tess to tell the crucial episode that might surely change the courses of events in Tess' life otherwise. Angel committed the next offense by treating Tess mercilessly after their marriage and leaving for Brazil leaving Tess in utter incertitude. As he married Tess despite his parents' objection (they preferred Miss Mercy Chant), it was his responsibility to maintain Tess' affairs, but he direly ignored his responsibilities and ran to Brazil. He did not show any consideration towards helpless Tess who declared that she would slave him only if he would keep her at his household. She said: "I will obey you like your wretched slave even if you (your order is to lie down and die." Not only that, even she persuaded him not to marry her at all, because she considered herself unfit to be his wife.  But Angel married her and dashed away to Brazil sending Tess to her parents' place. Angel returned only because his mission did not succeed and his health was not going well. He paid no value to Tess' honest confession of a past in which she was all innocent but it might create suspicion in anyone's mind. She honestly wanted to dispel any such chance and pave her way with Angel to a happy future. It was, therefore a great offence and blunder on Angel's part to discard Tess' honest gesture. Angel was a liberal and compromising soul: he preferred liberal occupation of farming to joining the clergy as his other two brothers followed. But his treatment with Tess after their marriage shows that he lacked proper consideration of things. He could not pardon Tess' unintentional fault with Alec whereas Tess forgave his (Angel's) similar violation with a woman in London.

In this context, we may add that Angel' parents who stood against the marriage did not pay any care towards Tess even when she fell in acute financial crisis. Their utter indifference no doubt aggravated Tess' misery. Of course Tess never approached them for any help. She was so much sensitive and sensible that she did not consider it fit to do so; she preferred fighting against poverty to seeking such help where she did not have any recognized position. 

 Although Angel behaved with Tess in a reverse fashion, after his return from Brazil, but it was of no substantial benefit for Tess. So his noble mentality with which he advanced to save Tess from the murder charge of Alec could not bring any positive effect. He ran into hide-outs with Tess but finally was caught. The last efforts that Angel made to stand by Tess proved futile because Tess' life had already taken the road to ruin. It will not be an unacceptable comment if we say that Angel acted quite selfishly from the point of his marriage with Tess. But we find him quite an ideal and romantic lover in the earlier phase when he passionately fell in her love: once he called her the "Artemis" and the "Demetas" the Greek Goddesses the connotation of which Tess failed to understand. During that phase of love, Angel appeared a wonderful fellow whom any girl in love would trust.

In fine, we may say that Alec's brutality and rapacity and Angel's merciless indifference were the blatantly responsible factors in between of which Tess got terribly sandwiched. Both the two operated as catalyst agents in leading Tess' life into hanging.  But beyond these human agents there worked another pernicious agent that operated from invisible sector: it was the cruel hand of poverty that crushed Tess' family. We know her father was a humble coachman that was the only source of financial support, but the family fell into a wretched situation when the horse "Prince" died in a collision with a mail car. (We know that Thomas Hardy elaborated the destruction of peasantry in England at the advent of industrialization through the death of "Prince" by the mail-coach the symbol of  mechanical industrialization.) Tess' poverty was her greatest weakness against which the wealthy people like Alec or Angel availed opportunity to exploit their personal (sexual) benefit: we might also add that Tess' extra-ordinary physical beauty was her enemy that hindered her way from the very beginning. She went to join the job of caring the fouls at Alec's house at Trantridge against her will. And she fell a prey of the rapacious look of Alec there. She tried many times to avoid Alec but he forced her to submit because she was poor but beautiful.

We can also recall that some social codes and customs of the time were responsible for Tess' tragedy. Tess and Angel could obtain divorce for each other as they could not match well after their marriage. But it was a Christian society where divorce was not allowed. It is also to be noted that Angel's parents added fuel to the flame by asking their son to get a girl who above all should be "an Ideal Christian".

Their choice was Mercy Chant not Tess. Angel strongly advocated in Tess' favor but to no avail so their marriage was not welcome to the family which frustrated Angel too.  So Tess' bundle of virtues could not win their support: her virtuous family background, her physical beauty and her unquestionable chastity, her superb dairy skill --- nothing could protect her life in the adverse social set up of Wessex the location of which was the romantic fictional territory for the romantic poet-novelist Thomas Hardy.                 


The writer is a Professor of the Department of English, Daffodil International University, Dhaka

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