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Thread: Who was Tess, really?

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    Who was Tess, really?

    Hardy may have crafted the Tess character to make a statement about unjust social standards in his time, but he made the character so appealing many readers might feel the novel was really about her. Upon the novel's ending, readers might well wonder who Tess really was, what was her reality, her meaning in her time and her meaning to contemporary readers.

    On the one hand Tess wants to be known as just Tess, a young woman of the impoverished Wessex laboring class. On the other hand she can seem to be something closer to an earth goddess such as Artemis or Demeter. Following the heart wrenching final chapter in which she's executed, it might seem to some readers that her death left a spiritual emptiness in her society no one else could fill. Either she was a spiritual essence or she symbolized one.

    I hope Tess readers will offer their thoughts here.

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    MANICHAEAN MANICHAEAN's Avatar
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    Interesting the point you made about the "earth goddess." This comes through in a lot of Hardy's writing, especially in " The Return of the Native,"

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    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Tess, the sacrificial lamb slain on the timeless altar of societal injustice.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Giles Winterbourne from The Woodlanders is a similar character to Tess. I read somewhere, probably in a student notes booklet, that he represented a wood god. He was very attuned to nature and had a way with planting trees so that they always took root. Nevertheless, I am not sure I buy the pagan god/goddess bit. Both Tess and Giles seem very Christian to me. What with all those farmyard animals and woodland creatures as examples, why are neither of them more interested in the procreative act themselves? It is rather the wealthy characters with book knowledge, who are often atheist, who were not brought up working on the land, who are more interested in sex. Giles and Tess are very chaste. Maybe there is an element of mystery religion in both books. Both books have a touch of John Barleycorn about them.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Regarding viewing Tess and Giles and very chaste, might it be that both were behaving with respect for the social norms of their Victorian time? Tess, of course, would have been regarded as singularly unchaste by by those in her time aware of her "blemishes." Readers today, made sympathetic to her behavior through Hardy's sympathetic narrative, probably consider her highly virtuous. In our time a woman's virginity is considered somewhat unusual, quite the opposite from Tess' time. Moreover, as a popular novelist of his time, it probably would have been impossible for Hardy to craft sympathetic protagonists as sexually liberated.

    If Giles' sexual urges seem notably unexpressed in "Woodlanders", some may have taken that only to mean he refused to press sex on Grace due to their circumstances. Otherwise, Hardy left us uncertain what Giles sexual experience had been. In his travels beyond Little Hintock, who knows what he did in his leisure.

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    Don't forget to add spoiler warnings for those enjoying Hardy's tragedies for the first time.

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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Yes, definitely. There is some kind of 'natural' earth truth in Hardy's works (I've read so far) that goes beyond the truths most Victorian writers write about.
    I think what happened after what happened in the woods (I won't say what that is), was particularly conflicting with Victorian ideas and that's why the novel caused outrage. She wasn't pure at that point, but she was not treated with contempt by the author of the novel. Cue confusion. I think the novel caused outrage because as a reader, you cannot help feeling that the treatment she receives from society is unjust, but at the same time contemporary readers were programmed to think different. So that caused conflict and instead of learning from it, they just dismissed to novel altogether.

    There is an earthiness that goes deeper than the Victorian morals, hence why some of Hardy's books were called 'Godless'. I know Jude was called that. I'm not sure Tess was but it wasn't terribly different in that respect.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'me ne se vide ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scne VII)

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    Who was Tess? If we were to ask the characters in the novel who knew her, this is what we'd learn. To Angel, she's an idealized image of woman in nature, a pagan earth goddess, but if not that she's a selfish deceiver. To Alec she's a physically appealing sex object with an unconquerable spirit. To Farmer Groby she's a pretentious slut. To Joan, her mother, she's an unfathomed mystery. To Hardy she was pure because her intentions were virtuous and altruistic.

    It might be that what's fundamentally heart wrenching in Tess' life is that in her world she was really nothing. The only people who took note of her demise were Angel and Liza-Lu who paused a moment to stare at the indifferently flapping black pennant signalling her successful hanging, and then walked away to pursue the rest of their lives. Nothing is changed. In Hardy's poem, Tess' Lament, Tess wishes to be forgotten and her life a blot. That wish was granted.

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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Hello Maple,

    Could you please put a spoiler alert (SPOILER ALERT [...] SPOILER OVER or something like that) after 'paused' and until the end of the second paragraph. That would be kinder to those who haven't read it yet and who might not want to know how things end.

    Those are interesting observations.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'me ne se vide ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scne VII)

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    I agree about the 'goddess' aspect. Many of Hardy's heroines are 'goddesses'.

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    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    For me, Tess is the well-meaning human - essentially beautiful - laid bare and impotent in the face of less than kind fellow humans and an appallingly indifferent universe. She is not so much a goddess as god-forsaken.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gladys View Post
    For me, Tess is the well-meaning human - essentially beautiful - laid bare and impotent in the face of less than kind fellow humans and an appallingly indifferent universe. She is not so much a goddess as god-forsaken.
    She does have a great spiritual quality though. Humble milkmaid though she may be, one feels that she is something more than that. Of course Hardy gives her a noble line and then undermines it, but you feel that she does have a sort of nobility through her tragicness. What happens to her is unfortunate and sad but she raises it to the level of ill-fated tragedy.

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    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Nobility in the face of all-consuming tragedy is Tess. Her end, for me, is worse than King Lear and Cordelia's.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gladys View Post
    Nobility in the face of all-consuming tragedy is Tess. Her end, for me, is worse than King Lear and Cordelia's.
    Well, in Lear, it's Gloucester I feel most sorry for.

    I know some people don't like Tess and think she's weak but she has her dignity and she stands up for herself. She could have just blamed herself for the rape but she tells her mother very directly that if the mother had taught her about men and their 'desires' and if the mother had not pimped her out, she would still be pure.

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    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kelby_lake View Post
    Well, in Lear, it's Gloucester I feel most sorry for.
    Spare a thought for Albany, unlucky in love.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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