«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
In his novels Hardy is concerned with exploring the nature of human life, recording what he has observed and attempting to explain why things are as they are. An investigation into this exploration reveals that Hardy seeks the solution to the reason why the universe operates according to what he calls the law. Hardy differentiates between the Old Testament Law, laws of society and the Law of Nature “based on the scientific laws of determinism which state that all men are subject to the laws of nature which operate unequivocally on the human ” race regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty (Davis 108). All these laws are yardsticks for exploring the nature of sin and guilt, the consequence of sin and possibilities for atonement for sin. Hardy does not offer any clear cut definitions of these laws, rather he Stotko 19 shows how they operate in the lives of his characters and in so doing questions their validity or the perception of their application in differing circumstances.
The Old Testament law links sin with blood and states that atonement for sin requires sacrifice and the shedding of blood (Book of Leviticus). The first reference in the Bible of a sacrifice made to God is Abel’s offering of the firstling of his flock (Genesis 4:3). Significantly, Abel’s sacrifice which involves the shedding of blood is accepted by God, but Cain’s offering of fruit is not. The themes of blood and atonement can be traced as a linear progression from the very beginning of Tess right to the end. The D’Urberville blood line and Tess’s family’s connection to this blood line form the basis of the plot. John Durbyfield’s drunken celebration at discovering his link to the old family results directly in Tess’s first mistake which sets into motion a sequence of events that ultimately lead to her death. Tess’s gloomy destiny begins with the fatal injury of the Durbyfield’s horse due to Tess’s fatigue. Tess actively tries to reverse the misfortune and save the horse but she fails and is left stained with blood. “In her despair Tess sprang forward and put her hand on the hole. She became splashed with crimson drops” (Tess 72). This blood functions as a symbol and a prophecy of Tess’s future.
In Old Testament atonement rituals, blood is sprinkled as a form of atonement for sin (Leviticus 4:6). Innocent Tess bearing the blots of Prince’s blood on her body bring to mind these sacrificial rituals and presage the role Tess is to assume as the sacrificial victim laid out on the altar at Stonehenge.
Tess views herself as guilty for the death of Prince, therefore she agrees to go to the d’Urbervilles to seek employment although her instinct is against it. “ Well, as I killed the horse mother,’ she said mournfully, I suppose I ought to do something’” ( ess 77). Tess T is sent to Trantridge Poultry Farm in virginal white suggestive of Keats’s “still unravished bride of quietness” in a pastoral setting. Her journey is a sacrificial one. Her first encounter with Alec is symbolically linked to the temptation of Eve by Satan in the Garden of Eden where she eats the fruit he offers her. On her way home a thorn on a rose he has put on her breast pricks her, drawing blood. Tess immediately reads this as an omen. Hardy carefully weaves symbols of colour to prepare us for the seduction and to emphasise its significance in Tess’s life: Alec is described as “the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her life” (Tess 85), his home “the Lodge in the Chase” is crimson and the house is of a rich red colour.
Hardy links the blood line aspect of sin to the Old Testament law that the sins of the fathers be visited on the next generation by suggesting, albeit sarcastically, that Tess’s fate at the hands of Alec may be a form of retribution for the sins of her ancestors (Tess 129), who had probably ravished innocent peasant girls. Furthermore, throughout the novel omens and signs connect her act of homicide to a family curse. In an authorial comment Hardy protests against the unfairness of this law: “to visit the sins of the fathers may be a morality good enough for divinities, but it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter” (Tess 129), but nevertheless his fiction implies that Biblical laws influence his art and shape the path of his characters’ existence on earth.
Keats “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.
Stotko 20 Hardy traces these ancient Biblical principles in the events in his novels and the narrator’s comments often serve to criticise, question or even invert the principle in operation.
In the seduction Tess is clearly a victim and therefore the action does not in Hardy’s view constitute a sin. However, the suffering it results in complies with the law as laid out in Leviticus 5.15 which requires a sacrifice from a person who sins out of ignorance, “and if a soul sin [...] though he wist it not, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity.” Therefore, despite the fact that Hardy exonerates Tess, showing that she is effectively abducted and taken advantage of while she is asleep, she is guilty under the law and must suffer the consequences.
While Hardy’s later novels display a commonality with the Biblical law of sin and punishment, his attitude towards the relentless law appears to be far from neutral. Intrusive authorial commentary expresses grave cynicism and anger at his incomprehension of a fallen world and the God that created it, rather than a total rejection or merely ambivalence in a belief in God at all. The seduction scene in Tess exemplifies the case in point. Here Hardy does not deny or question the existence of God, rather he questions why Providence does not intervene, but allows the seduction to take place. He asks “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” at that critical moment in her life and “where was the providence of her simple faith?” (129). The descriptions of Tess are tender; she is as a gossamer thread, hopelessly fragile as a creation, yet unprotected and vulnerable in the hands of Fate. Hardy cynically maintains that Providence must have been sleeping or otherwise occupied. The narrator responds with anger that it should be possible that Tess, the incarnation of innocence and purity, so deserving of protection, not destruction, should suffer such a dire fate which irrevocably sets in motion the wheels of her destiny: to be an unmarried mother, to lose the man she loves on her wedding night and ultimately to murder Alec and to die by hanging. There is no mercy, goodness or benevolence in this concept of Providence.
The notion that God is uncaring and neutral towards man is reflected in the comment on Tess’s fate at the hands of Alec. The reader is told: “Tess — and how many more — might ironically have said to God: thou hast counselled a better course than thou hast permitted” (Tess 162). The almost reverent description of Tess at her most vulnerable pitted against an uncaring and merciless Providence can be seen as a powerful expression of Hardy’s bitterness towards God. This aggressive anti-religious sentiment did not go unnoticed by contemporary critics: Edmund Gosse asks the question: “What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” (Hands 108) and G.K. Chesterton maintained that Hardy combined a disbelief in God with a hatred of him for not existing (Lance 8). These comments reflect Hardy’s emotional attitude towards God and Christian doctrine and illustrate that his religious views shape his creative energy.
The theme of an ancestral bloodline connected to a curse and sin and atonement is also explored in Jude. Jude ponders about his affection for Sue and concludes “in a family like his own where marriage usually meant a tragic sadness, marriage with a blood relation Stotko 21 would duplicate the adverse conditions, and a tragic sadness might be intensified to a tragic horror” (Jude 96). Hardy sets the scene for tragedy on the basis of an ancestral curse. The “tragic horror” takes the form of murder and, as in Tess, is rooted in sexual “sin”. Jude’s son murders Sue’s children and then hangs himself. Uncharacteristically, Sue interprets this horrific deed in terms of sin and atonement. She believes that the death of her children is a punishment for her adultery and says to Jude: “ Arabella’s child killing mine was a judgement — the right slaying the wrong’” (Jude 368). She then insists on returning to her husband because in her mind her children died to teach her that living with Jude was sinful: “ My children are — dead — and it is right that they should be! They were sin-begotten. They were sacrificed to teach me how to live! Their death was the first stage of my purification’” (Jude 383). It is ironic that in the face of the horrifying deaths of her children, Hardy’s archetypal “modern woman”, well read in philosophy and overtly antireligious, resorts to religion of a most orthodox type to make sense of her life. Accordingly, her life choices from that point on are determined along extreme evangelical lines and she undertakes to bear the consequences of her iniquity by sacrificing her love for Jude and sacrificing her body to her husband Phillotson for whom she has an intense physical aversion.
Jude “who has long abandoned his faith” is scandalised by this development in Sue.
He sees their separation as “acting by the letter” of the law and declares that “ The letter killeth!’” (Jude 409). Through Jude’s response to Sue’s new found faith Hardy condemns the negative self-destructive effect that her belief in sin and atonement exerts on her life. Sue seeks forgiveness for her sin through suffering and self-sacrifice but Arabella’s final comment in reply to Mrs Edlin’s comment “ ’tis to be believed she’s found forgiveness somewhere’” (Jude 431), expresses Hardy’s cynicism concerning the concepts of forgiveness and salvation and emphasises the assertion that only death brings peace: “ She may swear on her knees to that holy cross upon her necklace until she’s hoarse, but it won’t be true! She’s never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again until she is as he is now’” (Jude 431).
Salvation and Conversion According to Davis (104), after sin and atonement, the second principle central to Christian doctrine is that Fallen man requires saving. According to the Bible, God set up a means to liberate man from the burden of sin. In the Old Testament, forgiveness of sin is achieved through blood sacrifice and offerings while the New Testament teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary replaces that blood sacrifice and that under the new dispensation, forgiveness and therefore salvation, is attained by faith in Jesus. Hardy’s fiction appears to uphold the principle that the world is fallen and contaminated by sin for which atonement is required. The crucial point indicating a probable deviation of Hardy’s beliefs from Christian dogma is that while Christianity offers a way out of a cursed existence for humankind by means of salvation, Hardy’s universe remains firmly entrenched in the curse of sin because he has lost his belief that God is good and merciful and sent His son to save the world from damnation. The stumbling block for Hardy is the miraculous and redemptive theolatry. Deborah Collins in Thomas Hardy and his God: A Liturgy of Unbelief, Pinion in A Stotko 22 Hardy Companion and Timothy Hands in Thomas Hardy:Distracted Preacher? outline in detail Hardy’s loss of faith in God as a benevolent loving Being and in the supernatural aspect of Christian teachings. This loss of faith, especially in the doctrine of salvation, necessarily results in a rejection of any hope of humankind rising above its gloomy destiny in this vale of sorrows. In Hardy’s world there is no means by which damnation and doom can be avoided.
The removal of salvation from Christian doctrine renders it impotent as a tool for humankind to engage with and implement as a means of solving the difficulties of life.
Hardy’s rendition of the baptism scene in Tess (156-159) examines the doctrine of salvation from the perspective of the believer and shows it to be a disillusioning myth. It is worthy of note that although Tess accepts her own fate in this world with resignation and displays no regard for her own salvation in the world here-after, she desperately tries to protect her child from the spiritual consequences of his illegitimacy. Her passionate belief in the necessity of baptism for her baby’s salvation reflects her attachment to the traditional religious dogma she was brought up in. She feels that it is her moral duty to secure salvation for her child by performing the ritual herself as her father will not allow a clergyman in the house. This naive faith is fated to suffer a severe blow at the hands of the clergyman when Tess seeks validation for the baptism from the church. She appeals to the clergyman to face her “ as you yourself to me myself’” undermining the artificial church structures and reducing the issue to purely human and natural terms. On these terms the vicar is inclined to agree with Tess that the baptism is acceptable, but officially he has to deny the baby a Christian burial. Her sincerity appeals to the vicar’s nobler instincts or rather those which have survived a decade of endeavouring to “graft technical belief on actual scepticism” (Tess 159).
Hardy levels severe criticism at the hypocrisy of a man who plays an important role in the church and society, one that is obviously incompatible with his personal beliefs. Tess performs the baptismal rite with great sincerity and an overwhelming desire to save her child from damnation while the lacklustre clergyman, who has the power bestowed upon him by the church to perform the rite, possesses no faith and views the act as the exercise of a trade.