TO WHAT EXTENT IS TESS A VICTIM, A CREATURE CAUGHT IN A TRAP?
Tess Durbeyfield is a victim of external and uncomprehended forces.
Passive and yielding, unsuspicious and fundamentally pure, she suffers a
weakness of will and reason, struggling against a fate that is too strong
for her. Tess is the easiest victim of circumstance, society and male
idealism, who fights the hardest fight yet is destroyed by her ravaging
self-destructive sense of guilt, life denial and the cruelty of two men.
It is primarily the death of the horse, Prince, the Durbeyfield's
main source of livelihood, that commences the web of circumstance that
envelops Tess. Tess views herself as the cause of her families economic
downfall, however she also believes that she is parallel to a murderess.
The imagery at this point in the novel shows how distraught and guilt
ridden Tess is as she places her hand upon Prince's wound in a futile
attempt to prevent the blood loss that cannot be prevented. This imagery
is equivalent to a photographic proof - a lead-up to the events that will
shape Tess's life and the inevitable "evil" that also, like the crimson
blood that spouts from Prince's wound, cannot be stopped. The symbolic
fact that Tess perceives herself to be comparable to a murderess is an
insight into the murder that she will eventually commit and is also a
reference to the level of guilt that now consumes her. "Nobody blamed Tess
as she blamed herself... she regarded herself in the light of a
Her parents, aware of her beauty,view Tess as an opportunity for future
wealth and coupled with the unfortunate circumstance of Prince's death
urge Tess to venture from the 'engirdled and secluded region' of Marlott
to seek financial assistance from the D'urberville's in nearby Trantridge
. It is here that she first encounters the sexually dominating and
somewhat demonic Alec D'urberville, whom she is later to fall victim to.
Alec's first words to Tess , "Well, my Beauty, what can I do for you?"
indicate that his first impression of Tess is only one of sexual
magnetism. Alec then proceeds to charm Tess by pushing strawberries into
her mouth and pressing roses into her bosom. These fruits of love are an
indication of Alec's lust and sexual desire for Tess as he preys upon her
purity and rural innocence. Tess unwillingly becomes a victim to Alec's
inhumane,violent and aggressive sexual advances as Alec, always the master
of opportunities, takes advantage of her whilst alone in the woods and
rapes her. Tess has fallen subject to the crueller side of human nature as
Alec seizes upon her vulnerability.
After this sexual violation and corruption of innocence, Tess flees home
and although she has escaped the trap of the sexually rapacious Alec for
the time being,her circumstance is similar to that of a wounded animal -
her blood of innocence has been released. At this time Hardy gives
reference to Shakespeare's 'The Rape of Lucrece' -'where the serpent
hisses the sweet birds sing' suggesting that Alec was equivalent to Satan
tempting Eve. Tess is undoubtedly a victim and her lack of understanding
over such matters only increases the guilt that already embodies her. To
add further to her shame she chances upon a holy man who paints exerts
from the bible around the countryside. In red accusatory letters she reads
"THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT" and is horrified to think how relevant
it is to her recent misfortunes. Tess at this stage is a victim to her own
self - conscience and she becomes a recluse trapped within her home - away
from the society that has unjustfully condemned her whilst in reality she
has broken no law of nature.
Returning to work in the field, Tess witnesses the rabbits forced further
to shelter as the corn rows in which they dwell are reaped and the
harvesters kill every one of them with sticks and stones. This is symbolic
of Tess's own situation as she is being separated little by little from
family and friends and from her childhood innocence ,it is suggestive of
the loneliness she now feels. The baby she has baptised as Sorrow dies,
his name being an indication of the anguish that has taken place within
Tess due to the circumstances of his conceival and it also epitomises what
is to follow through the events of her own sorrowful life.
In an attempt to start her life anew, Tess decides to move away from the
seclusion of Marlott to Talbothays - where no one will know of her past.
Although filled with natural optimism, Tess's past has already begun to
weave the fatalistic web that will trap her like a fly and from which the
ravenous spider of chaotic doom will draw all of her life's animation out.
Talbothay's Dairy is the phase of Tess's life in which she experiences her
only period of sheer happiness, although at times this is tinctured by
mental hesitations as to her purity and righteousness. Here we can see in
an abstracted form the way society has entrapped Tess by its assertions of
what is supposedly morally correct.
'Like a fascinated bird' Tess is drawn into the wild and overgrown garden
by the sound of Angel Clare's harp - playing. We gain here, a sense of
Tess's affinity within the natural environment as she proceeds as
stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth. Hardy has likened
Tess to an animal and this is symbolic also of the eminent disaster to
follow. Tess is trapped once again - although on this occasion she is
bound to Angel by ideological fetters . Tess is transformed in Angel's
sight '... a visionary essence of woman - a whole sex condensed into one
typical form'. Tess's material, physical relationship with Alec has been
replaced by a spiritual, idealised one with Angel. She has now become a
victim of Angel's idealisation as her individuality is becoming further
suppressed by his imaginative and ethereal reasonings. As the spring
season progresses so does Angel and Tess's romance and eventually she
succumbs to Angel's charms.
After failing to tell Angel of her past, she writes him a letter which is
placed beneath his door. In a cruel twist of fate , the letter slides
beneath the mat and there it remains - unread. Tess and Angel's marriage
is marred by ill - omen. Hardy gives reference to the gnats that know
nothing of their brief glorification - as Tess herself cannot fathom the
potent fatalism that will cause her such sorrow. Hardy's continual use of
ill -omen gives the impression of the extent of Tess's victimisation to
fate; the D'urberville coach and the crow of the cock symbolising the
death of their relationship.
On their honeymoon, traditionally a joyous occasion, Tess confides in
Angel the nature of her past. Prior to this confession, Tess is horrified
by the portraits she sees hanging on the walls. Angel beholds a similar
quality within Tess - an arrogance and ferocity which is the truth linked
to her past. On hearing of Tess's unfortunate past, Angel withdraws from
reality by refusing to admit that she is the woman that he loved. 'You
were one person; now you are another'
Angel's departure to Brazil leaves Tess almost as a widow . Angel 's
physical rejection of Tess has subjected her to the cruelty of love, a
victim once again - she is broken both spiritually and emotionally. It is
at this point in the novel that she begins to understand that her beauty
is part of the cause of her destruction. In answer to this she dons her
oldest field gown, covers half her face with a handkerchief, and snips off
her eyebrows to "keep off these casual lovers". Tess has realised that
part of the victimisation she has undergone is because of her beauty,
although this realisation has come too late to save her from Alec's
lustful actions and Angel's idealised ones. Tess seeks shelter one night
beneath some bushes to hide from a lustful man and awakens to find
pheasants left half - dead by a shooting party. All of these birds are
writhing in agony apart from those which have been unable to bear any more
and have died through the night. Tess reprimands herself for feeling
self-pity; 'I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding' - and although she is
not physically marred by the events that have so irrevocably altered her
life , emotionally and spiritually she is exhausted.
The potent tragedy of Tess's life is that her decisions have always been
made with good and pure intentions but have resulted in damaging
consequences.Tess is undoubtedly a victim as misery punctuates her life.
She is a victim of circumstance in that her individuality makes little
difference to her fate, she is a victim of society in the sense that she
is a scapegoat of narrow - mindedness and she is a victim of male ideology
on the grounds that her powers of will and reason are undermined by her
sensuality. Tess herself sums up her own blighted life best; 'Once a
victim, always a victim - that's the law!'
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