Phase 6, Chapters 45-52
Phase the Sixth: The Convert
It has been four years since Tess has last seen Alec, and she is shocked and horrified when she sees him preaching in the barn. She runs away but Alec, just as shocked, runs after her. He has suffered since the death of his mother and thanks to Reverend Clare he has been converted and feels he must save her. Tess is speechless, attacks him for ruining women’s lives and doesn’t for a moment believe his conversion is authentic. Referring to her errant husband Angel, she tells him she knows a truly good man. Alec makes her swear on a stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand, rumored to be an evil omen, that she will never tempt him. She swears before learning it is “a thing of ill omen” and leaves in anger (353). To soothe his nerves, Alec re-reads a letter from Reverend Clare congratulating him on his conversion.
Once again smitten, Alec begins to hound Tess: “sight of you has waked up my love” (358). At Flintcomb-Ash, he begs her to marry him and go with him as a missionary. Tess replies that she is already married, and he leaves but returns at Candlemas to beg for mercy. She responds that she does not believe in God. He belittles Angel for abandoning her.
In March, the mean-spirited Farmer Groby picks Tess to be on the thresher-machine, a physically taxing job usually assigned to men. Tess is completely exhausted when, yet once again, Alec approaches her and begs Tess to leave the farm. He feels a husband’s responsibility for her, especially since she told him about the death of their child, and he castigates Angel for leaving her penniless. Tess slaps his face with a work glove and draws blood. No longer a preacher, he says he is her real husband and will not give up.
Just as he promised, Alec returns and begs to help her and her family. She finds herself wavering and writes passionately to Angel, assuring him of her undying love and begging him to either return or to send for her so she can avoid the temptation of turning to Alec.
Angel’s parents send the letter to their son in Brazil. His worried mother takes out her sorrow on Reverend Clare for not insisting that Angel attend Cambridge like his brothers. However, Reverend Clare feels no such regret but is saddened by the situation. A more mature Angel, who has forgiven Tess and regrets his hasty actions, is ready to come home, especially when an older man he admires tells him before he dies that he was wrong to abandon her. Meanwhile, Tess’s sister Liza Lu arrives at Flintcomb-Ash to tell Tess that their mother has taken ill and to return home.
Back in Marlott, Tess takes over the household duties and grows food for the family on a piece of community land. One evening Alec yet again approaches, disguised as a farmer. He compares her to Eve in the garden and himself to “the Other one,” or the tempting snake (393). He begs her once again to allow him to help her and, although she is tempted, she refuses, and he leaves in anger. Tess’s father dies, and the family faces eviction. Also, the neighbors are upset because “the village had to be kept pure” (397).
As the family packs, Alec tells Tess about an ancient murder that occurred in the d’Urberville Coach and how the ancestors hear the coach when death approaches. He wants to take Tess to his garden home, arrange for the children to go to school and place Mrs. Durbeyfield tending the fowls in Tess’s old job. Tess knows that would solve the family’s problems but still manages to refuse him. By now Tess is angry at Angel and writes him a letter saying that she will never forgive him.
The Durbeyfields leave Marlott and set off by wagon to rented rooms in Kingsbere. They meet Marian and Izz who are also “house-ridding” and moving to a new farm. At Kingsbere, the family learns they have lost their rooms and are forced to sleep in the churchyard near the d’Urberville family burial vault. Alec finds Tess lying on a tomb and once more offers help. Rejected, he leaves warning her that he will teach her to be civil. Marian and Izz send an anonymous note to Angel telling warning him to return to Tess.
Loyalty is one of Tess’s greatest virtues but it is misplaced. Indeed, she is loyal to everyone but herself, and this is a key determining factor in her downfall. She blames herself for the accident involving Prince and feels obliged to provide another horse for the family. She fails to blame her father for getting drunk and not taking the wagon to market himself. She remains entirely loyal to Angel, taking on the whole brunt of their troubles, defending his behavior to the death, suffering for years at menial work, barely surviving. Despite her family’s ill treatment of her, Tess gives them the last of her money and shoulders the entire responsibility when the father dies. It is only when they no longer have a roof that she finally submits and promises to love Alec. And, while she still loves Angel, she listens to Alec and believes he will never return to her.
Angel’s journey to Brazil could be interpreted as metaphorical. Away from Tess and the British society that molded his beliefs, he can grow to maturity. When he leaves, he is an adolescent who views the world in black and white, and right and wrong, with nothing in between. Since Tess didn’t tell him about Alec, his pride is hurt, he is unable to forgive her and so he has to leave. However, in time, especially when he encounters an older and more mature man in Brazil, he learns that he is guilty of abandoning her. Earnestly, he hopes for her forgiveness, and in this he finally becomes equal to Tess. In a sense, Angel undergoes a form of conversion and tosses away his earlier notions of mystical religion in favor of rationality and maturity. His conversion occurs simultaneously with that of Alec d’Urberville, who leaves his selfish self behind to be replaced, albeit temporarily, with a man of the cloth bent on saving others.
But this man of the cloth is a sham. Hardy compares him with “the Other,” otherwise known as Satan, who tempts Eve in the garden paradise. And, just as he did years before, Alec seduces Tess. However, Alec appears to love Tess, who has some kind of hold on him. Why else the transformation into a man of God when she leaves, and why else the return to the man-of-old upon her return?
Throughout the novel, Hardy paints a picture of, as the title denotes, “a pure woman,” and the tenuous position of such a woman, without a man’s protection, in nineteenth-century Britain. Because of her fall from maidenhood Tess can only live as a man’s mistress but never as his wife. Alec no doubt wanted Tess to remain with him, but he never asked her to marry him. Hardy provides no explanation for this because to his readers it would not be credible for a lower-class servant to marry an upper-class man with a noble name, even though that name is a sham. The upper-class Angel can marry Tess, but he has to justify this decision by pointing out how virtuous she is and how she will benefit him monetarily in his future as a farmer. Tess, however, is never Angel’s wife in the physical sense of the word until the end of the novel. when the couple lives outside society’s boundaries in the woods.
Despite all the maneuverings of his characters, Hardy holds fast to his idea that fate ultimately controls all. Tess attempts to get Angel’s attention by visiting his parents to ask for help and support. However, fate would have it that Angel’s brothers just happen to be talking of their errant brother’s marriage and they pass a veiled Tess. Had Tess spoken to the Clare family, chances are that she never would have encountered Alec, and certainly, if she had, not had the necessity to return to him in desperation. Hardy would thus have us believe that the course of our life, and thus our decisions, is predestined.