A PURE WOMAN SITS UP IN A COFFIN
A moment of vision faithfully commented on.
Content warning: This essay contains discussion of rape.
In Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, after Tess tells her new husband that she is not a virgin and he rejects her, Thomas Hardy describes a scene in which the husband sleepwalks, carrying Tess through a field, over a river, to an abandoned stone coffin outside of a run down Abbey. He lays her in the coffin and falls to the ground asleep. Then Tess sits up in the coffin. This scene is one of Hardy's “moments of vision,” a moment that Virginia Woolf described as a passage in which both author and reader seem “to be suddenly and without their own consent lifted up and swept onwards.” It is perhaps vain to attempt to discern the meaning of this passage. Hardy himself, who stated in the explanatory note of the novel that “novels are impressions, not arguments,” might deplore such an effort — but I am the reader, and as Woolf also wrote about reading him, “it is for the reader, steeped in the impression, to supply the comment.” 1
In order to probe the deeper meaning, it is first necessary to trace Hardy's steps as he carries Tess to that coffin. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a novel about a pure woman whose purity is abused and mocked by an unjust world until it tramples her for sport. Even at the beginning of the novel when she is still a young country girl with little experience, Tess is the moral center of her family. When she comes home and discovers that her father has gone to drink a few hours before he is to take a load of beehives on an overnight journey by horse, it is Tess who rebukes her mother for letting him go. Joan Durbeyfield, convicted by her daughter's rebuke, goes to fetch the father but ends up staying at the bar, and Tess is forced to fetch both parents and help carry her drunk father home. At this as in many later points in the story, Tess's purity is abused by society and “Nature's holy plan” — Her father is too drunk to wake, and Tess is forced to make the journey with her brother. They both fall asleep, the horse is killed in an accident, and Tess is pushed by her family and her own guilt to call on a wealthy family that has assumed the name of the Durbeyfields' long dead relatives, the D'Urbervilles. This is the inciting incident of the novel, and it is here the theme is introduced in earnest. Who is made to pay for the dissipation and pride of the family's father? It's purest member.
When Tess arrives at the D'Urberville estate she exclaims “I thought we were an old family, but this is all new!” In fact the D'Urbervilles that Tess is induced to claim kin with have falsely assumed the D'Urberville name. A rich merchant looking to settle down and blend in as a county man in the South of England had used his fortune to fabricate a family tree that connected him to the ancient family line. Here again we see that society values money and appearance more than true integrity. Tess, a true descendant of the D'Urbervilles by blood, reaps no benefit, while the sham descendants enjoy all the good standing and honor. It is at this point that we are introduced to Alec D'Urberville, most generously described as a well-to-do degenerate. Struck by Tess's “luxuriance of aspect” and innocent nature, he engineers her hiring and constantly stalks and teases her without her consent. He takes advantage of his position as a privileged man and her employer to coerce Tess, and one night when Tess is very tired and vulnerable, he rapes her.
This crucial event is not narrated in detail. Hardy is purposely vague. Whether or not this is because he had to satisfy a publisher's or an artist's prerogative is not relevant. There is more than enough to infer what happens: Hardy asks why her guardian angel is absent, why Alec is allowed to trace such a course pattern on Tess's skin, and reckons that this could have been a retribution for Tess's ancestors who may have “dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time.” In spite of this some readers may still be tempted to ask whether it was actually a rape. After all, Tess did not kick and scream or cry out. But all doubts can be extinguished with a single question: Did Tess consent to sex? No. She never even consented to a flirtatious word. The closest we get to the moment is an exchange with Alec in which Tess says, “I didn't understand your meaning until too late.” Alec replies that that's what every woman says, to which Tess answers, “Did it ever strike you that what every woman says some women may feel?” Through Alec, Hardy shows just how little society values the word of the woman compared to that of the man, and though I sit here typing this essay over a century later I am sad to say that scant progress has been made in this regard.
When she realizes she is pregnant Tess resolves to return home. Once again, Tess's purity is abused by society because she does not accept Alec's professions of love or offers of money. The pregnancy would compromise her position at the D'Urberville estate, and more importantly it would not be right. She does not love Alec and she never did. To accept his “love” now would be to lie, so she leaves to have the child. While she waits Tess takes long walks in the woods, and on these walks Hardy comments that “she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.” Nature recognizes Tess's purity, even if society does not.
After she has the baby Tess is able to feel something of the purity that Hardy sees in her. She takes a job threshing, and realizes that her lot as a mother is not so distressing; what makes it distressing is society's view of her. But then the baby falls ill, and here perhaps more than anywhere else, Tess's purity is made to burn through the pages against society's corruption. Tess's father refuses to send for the parson on account of the “smudge which Tess had set” upon his nobility. He locks the door, and Tess is left to pass the night with her dying infant. Tess is frantic not just for her child's life but for his soul. He has not been baptized, and the girl-mother's head runs wild with the tortures the baby might suffer in hell according to the doctrines taught in the church of her time — so she baptizes him.
In this scene Tess is transfigured into a saint. This is another moment of vision, one in which Hardy almost seems to forget that Tess is a fictional character and not a real human being. He describes the airy note which Tess's voice took on “when her heart was in her speech, and which will never be forgotten by those who knew her.” Her face has a touch of dignity which is “almost regal”, and to her siblings, whom Tess awakens to witness and affirm the baptism with their little “Amens”, she does not look like “Sissy”, but “a being large, towering and awful, a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common.” Yet in the morning the well-named infant Sorrow is dead, and Tess goes to ask the parson about his soul. She asks whether the baptism is just the same to God, and the parson says it is, but when asked if it would secure a Christian burial he cannot “for certain reasons.” Once again society refuses to recognize Tess's purity, and she is forced to bury her baby with criminals and drunkards. Only Hardy continues to gaze at Tess where society turns away: after the burial she erects a homemade cross and brings flowers in a marmalade jar.
Wanting to leave home and start a new life, Tess jumps at an offer to work on a dairy farm distant enough from home that no one would know of her past. It goes well, and Tess passes what is probably the happiest summer of her life. She makes friends with the other milkmaids, learns the trade well, and enjoys belonging to the community at Talbothay's dairy. She also falls in love with Angel Clare, a gentle and philosophical man who turns out to be as fulfilling as a sack of wet sandwiches. Tess vows not to love him, but she cannot prevent the attraction, and she is thwarted again and again in her attempts both to tell Angel about her past and to ward off his affection for her. Just after they are married, Angel tells Tess about his sexual encounter with an older woman of the world. Tess is almost happy to forgive him as she tells him about Alec, but the double standard strikes her again, and Angel does not forgive her. Like the rest of society he sees Tess only for what she is not, forgetting that “the defective can be more than the entire.”
Angel's subconscious is not so easily duped, and after the two go to sleep he wakes and carries Tess from her bed into the night. He calls her his darling, laments her death, and kisses her before he lays her in the coffin. Whether or not Hardy intended it, this moment of vision is a metaphor for the entire novel. Hardy, lamenting Tess's fate, nevertheless carries her tenderly throughout the pages of the book, showering her with affection and attention even as society casts her off, so that after she is dead in the coffin she sits up in the mind of the reader and lives on. Perhaps Hardy himself, like Angel, did it in a state of unconscious compassion. Either way the effect is achieved unmistakably.
I first read Tess of the D'Urbervilles in High School for an AP Literature class. It was my first experience with Thomas Hardy and I forgot nearly every detail of the plot, but I never forgot Tess herself. Hardy left her impression on my memory, so much so that when I saw a copy at a used book sale over five years later I decided to buy it, and years after that I suggested to my wife that she should read it because “I remember kind of liking it.” Now, having re-read it as an older man without the joy-killing obligation of having to read for class, I have realized that my memory is proof of my thesis. Hardy killed Tess in the novel, but she sat up in the coffin and lived on in my mind.
In the novel society abuses and tries to pretend Tess does not exist, but I never forgot her. Her far reaching personality imbues the pages with a “burning sensibility.” I can see her, cheeks red with cold as she trudges over the snow to a miserable job, smiling ironically with Marion and blowing a kiss to her feckless husband in the direction she imagines him to be; or wandering among “lonely hills and dales,” “her flexuous figure” mingling with nature as she ponders her lot; or milking dexterously with the other maids as flies buzz and the cow's chew and slap their tails. To borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf, she has taken on a “more than mortal size” in my memory. Hardy, in carrying Tess to her doom, has drawn an inverted relationship between Tess's standing in society and her standing with the reader. As society crushes her lower and lower, her memory rises higher and higher, so that she is soon as high as the black flag of the tower that announces her death. And so carried in the reader's mind, after she is dead and the book is closed, she then sits up.
1 Both quotes are from an essay Virginia Woolf published shortly after Thomas Hardy's death, titled The Novels of Thomas Hardy.
First, thank you for reading! To echo a sentiment from Thomas Hardy, I greatly regret that I will never be able to meet many of you in person and shake your hands, but perhaps we can virtually shake hands. It is a poor substitute, but it will have to do in this strange world.
Send me a kind word or a cup of coffee: