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Thread: The Consequences of Uncompromising Virtue

  1. #1
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    The Consequences of Uncompromising Virtue

    When people dear to us experience misfortune, we may offer them sympathy even as we might be thinking their misfortune was partly their own fault. The Tess novel is largely about a wonderful girl we may come to care a lot about who suffers great hardships. We're led to believe these misfortunes were all the fault of others. Hardy's brilliant writing contributes to the understanding that all of Tess' troubles are the result of bad luck, social injustice and a cruel fate. Tess' miseries and how she bears them seem to exalt her to sympathetic readers.

    But, what if Tess' choices made at least some of her hardships likely? Perhaps the most prominent of all Tess' qualities is her uncompromising virtue, a choice. All choices have consequences, including doing the honorable thing. Tess knew she risked everything in her wedding night confession, but she chose to do it because she preferred to risk her happiness and fulfillment rather than compromise her sense of honor. Her choice not only had devastating results for her, it also made Angel miserable. Most of us regardless of how honorable we imagine ourselves, temper our honesty an ethical behavior somewhat to assure our well-being. We all tell white lies, partial truths rather than the whole truth and justify it all thinking if there's no real harm done there's no foul. Tess won't compromise her virtuous conduct to her well-being, and the result is her misery. She bears it so stoically it seems she takes her hardships as if they're due. But these hardships don't result from any compromise she's made with virtue. Rather, her hardships result from not compromising her virtue.

    One moral of this novel might be that to survive satisfactorily in her world (and ours) requires some balance between virtue and personal well-being. Perhaps Tess would have done better to move a little towards Joan's example. Both she and Angel might've been happier for the difference.
    Last edited by Maple; 02-24-2014 at 12:29 PM. Reason: clarity

  2. #2
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    The thing is, Tess had nothing to be ashamed of. She was taken advantage of by a man when she was young (well she still is) and naive about men; it wasn't her fault. Of course cynically she could have just lied but in doing so she would be blaming herself for the situation with Alec. And she believed that by admitting his sexual history, Angel would accept hers. Her problem is that she naively believes the best of people even though actually it's not an unreasonable thing.

    What Hardy is criticising is the sort of false virtues that Angel and other characters have. Tess is driven back to Alec because he has no virtues at all. Tess's virtues are real virtues and yet they only serve to cause her miserable because others won't accept them.

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    Kelby, yes, Tess had nothing to be ashamed of, but that's not the thing that concerns me here. Noble as Tess' reasons were to make a full "confession" to Angel and as willing as she was to endure the consequences, she doesn't seem to have given sufficient thought to the misery she might inflict on Angel. Where Tess bears hardship and misery admirably, she had no basis to believe Angel could do the same.

    Once individuals are married the suffering of either party affects the other. To willingly risk her own unhappiness with a confession before marriage is one thing, but another after marriage. Sexual blemishes revealed before marriage may be appropriate, but after marriage one has to consider the affect on the partner. Many marriage counselors today advise against revealing infidelity unless the revelation can be assured to benefit the marriage rather than harm it. Without such consideration, a confession can be considered selfish: a selfish effort by the guilty partner to feel better about themselves at the cost of the innocent partner.

    Of course, Angel also confessed and he's also wrong for the same reasons. However, Angel's blemish was generally forgiven in Victorian society and Angel had no good reason to think his confession would cause Tess misery. Besides, in context of the novel, who really cares about Angel? His character is only superficially attractive while substantively ordinary and inferior to Tess'.
    Last edited by Maple; 02-26-2014 at 11:43 AM. Reason: diction

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