Tess of the D'Urbervilles & the Tragic Protest Against God

January 01, 2017 1 Comment

Tess of the D'Urbervilles & the Tragic Protest Against God

As a genre Tragedy is designed as a literary form of protest against God. Why does calamity happen to human beings?

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy presents a tragic heroine whose innocence and goodness is pulled apart by the selfishness of her two lovers—Alec D’Urberville and Angel Claire. By the time Tess takes to Alec with a knife and murders him, the reader is ready to forgive her. But can we forgive God, or whatever deity oversaw the destruction of so fine a character as Tess? At the scene of her ravishment by Alec, the narrator inquires:

…might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Elijah (the Tishbite) teased the prophets of Baal because their god did not act; now Hardy himself asks—where was the Christian deity while this good and pure, sleeping maiden was being impregnated by her stalker? The import of his words is unmistakeable: traditional theological and philosophical explanations won’t suffice to explain why Tess was defiled and ultimately destroyed.

Rather, Hardy finds the common explanation to be the only acceptable one:

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: ‘It was to be’. There lay the pity of it.

The fatalism of the simple folk is a more serviceable account than the theological one. It is not by accident that the word ‘pity’ is used here. Hardy is evoking the Aristotelian notion of pathos (‘pity’) as if to point to the actual character and what has happened to her and to say, this is a truly pitiable occurrence—and no traditionally theological understanding (for Hardy) makes moral sense. Tess the innocent suffers, and for no reason. At the end of the novel, at the moment of Tess’s execution, Hardy will opine:

‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals…had ended his sport with Tess.

The tragic spirit is also present in the book of Job. We are presented with a human character tormented as the result of a heavenly bargain between God and Satan. But that is not disclosed to him. He just suffers, and wonders why:

Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression?

The groan of human bewilderment at the ways of God is expressed in terms just as powerful as Hardy’s. There is in Job, however, not so much an answer that tidies everything up, but a response. God answers Job ‘out of the whirlwind’.

In what follows we have some of the most beautiful poetry in all of literature, as the Lord relentlessly impresses on Job the point: did you—do you—have the sovereign power of the creator over the world? Do you really, then, understand anything?

That is to say: Job, you experience your life as tragic because you cannot see the full story. You cannot see to the end of the matter. You don’t know: but your ignorance need not leave you in despair, because you know that my character is both powerful and tender. You are in the hands of the maker of the sea-serpent and the ostrich. Both the terrible and the comical creatures are God’s doing. Tragedy is a bewildering experience in the middle of time; but (says Job):

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth … then in the flesh I shall see God…

1 Response

Roger Kojecky
Roger Kojecky

February 28, 2017

And if you’d like to join a seminar discussing this and similar topics at the UK Christian Literary Studies Group, then see http://www.clsg.org/html/conference.html

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