«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
The stark contrast between the two dramatizes the enormous gap that separates genuine (if misplaced) faith and the empty form embodied by institutionalised religion. Religious rites are established to perform a function in society. In this case, the baptism is seen by Tess as a cleansing of her sin which is being visited on her child and as a reversal of the curse of the fallen world, so that her baby can be committed back to the earth in a state of innocence. Yet the church has become so enmeshed in social rules and doctrines that it cannot and will not perform these rites so vitally important to Tess. With scathing irony Hardy demonstrates that the young, frightened, “fallen” Tess is more able and worthy to perform the rite than the church representative. But underlying the whole issue is Hardy’s cynicism concerning salvation. Hardy shows baptism and salvation to be merely artificial constructs without any place in reality. The faith in these constructs by the believer, in this case Tess, is rendered futile by the fact that it is not backed up by the very institution that teaches them.
Stotko 23 Hardy’s interest in the concept of adult baptism by immersion as opposed to infant baptism originated in his discussions with a Baptist colleague at the office (Hands 81), and is well documented in A Laodicean. His detailed presentations of theological arguments with regards to adult baptism in this novel are criticised as excessive and irrelevant by critics such as Lance (154), but they serve a twofold purpose. Firstly, they illustrate his intense mental preoccupation with Christian dogma and secondly, as Hands succinctly puts it, “Hardy uses his novels as vehicles for the rejection of the doctrines of his youth” (84).
Paula Power arrives at a Baptist chapel for the purpose of getting baptised. Her father, a devout Baptist, builds the chapel and insists that Paula be baptised. Hardy investigates adult baptism from three perspectives: Somerset, the agnostic outsider whose role is that of a neutral spectator, the Baptist minister and his congregation who have a strong desire for the rite to be consummated, and the emotionally charged Paula, the central figure faced with a choice between complying with her late father’s death bed wish, or refusing in order to follow her instinct. Paula is a symbol of modernity. She is a wealthy, foreign, single woman of independent means who can afford both socially and financially to do as she pleases. Unlike most Victorian women, her choices are not limited by social norms. This is an important factor because it allows Hardy to explore attitudes towards religion in a vacuum, so to speak, uninfluenced by external factors.
On the question of baptism, Paula feels obliged to obey her father’s wishes as a dutiful daughter. However, ultimately, she does not allow this sense of duty to overrule her personal feeling of what is wrong or right. Somerset notices that she has a copy of Baptist Magazine and “Wardlaw on Infant Baptism” on a chair in her bedroom (A Laodecian 40).
Evidently, she reads up on the matter and wishes to make an informed decision and not allow emotions to determine her choice. Miss De Stancy clarifies Paula’s position when Somerset judgementally notes that she should have known her own mind before going to the chapel to undergo the ceremony. She declares, “ Paula’s own mind had nothing to do with it! [...] It was all undertaken by her from a mistaken sense of duty.’” Paula tries over a period of time to pluck up the courage to go through with it. Confronted with the reality at last, she backs out, which, it must be noted, required a great deal of courage to do in the face of expectation of the minister and the entire congregation. A strong sense of irony underlies Miss De Stancy’s explanation of her refusal: “ She would not submit to the rite when it came to the point. The water looked so cold and dark and fearful, she said, that she could not do it to save her life,’” (A Laodecian 36). Instinctively Paula shies away, following her emotions and not her sense of social propriety. According to Christian doctrine, a believer gets baptised to profess her faith which results in salvation and eternal life. Yet Paula will not do it “to save her life”. Hardy is punning on the spiritual meaning of Charlotte’s words and expressing his own disapproval of the practice.
Hardy raises the issue of baptism, not infant baptism which is entirely passive, but adult baptism which requires personal conviction and courage to make a public profession of faith. Paula’s public rejection of the rite is a statement of her modernity, mental liberty and Stotko 24 freedom to act according to her wishes. However, Somerset observes that her strength and resolution were not an “unassisted gift of nature” but that wealth and position contributed to this freedom. Furthermore, he notes that social pressure would have swayed her had she not had “something extraneous to her mental self” in the form of wealth and position “to fall back on” (A Laodecian 19). In other words, wealth and position and social independence buy her freedom. Paula, in line with the newness and change of the industrial age that was fast eclipsing the old order, chooses to reject religion, a bastion of the past, and break away from the teaching of her youth. Her decision is clear, unclouded by extenuating circumstances unlike characters in Hardy’s later fiction whose lives and fates are determined by external factors. They lack the freedom of choice and action that Hardy allows Paula. The harsh, bitter realism that pervades his mature novels indicates that Hardy possibly no longer entertains the idea that free will is an option for humanity.
Adult conversion, a prerequisite to adult baptism, is a theme that Hardy explores in various novels. In Tess, the candidate takes the very unlikely form of the archetypal villain, Alec d’Urberville. The fact that Hardy devotes the entire sixth phase of the novel to conversion, and entitles it “The Convert,” demonstrates the importance he attaches to this evangelical principle. Moreover, the process of conversion and its consequences are meticulously outlined on three separate occasions. The prelude of the conversion is described to Tess by Angel. Despite his own refusal to believe in conversion, he has the highest regard for his father who preaches repentance to Alec in the face of severe verbal abuse. Tess hears the entire story in detail from Alec himself via a sermon he preaches and yet again from him on a personal level face to face. He acknowledges his sinful nature and testifies to the radical change that God has worked in his life through the work of old Mr Clare.
His conversion provides a forum for the causes and effects of adult conversion to be scrutinised.
A balanced examination of conversion is achieved by looking at it from two opposing points of view: the subjective view of the convert himself, and the sceptical view of Tess who has known Alec at his worst and cannot bring herself to believe in this “new” man. This deep scepticism is emphasised by the omniscient narrator. There is a strong resistance against accepting that such a radical transformation could be genuine or lasting. The descriptions are scathing, stressing the aggressive unnatural aspect of conversion: “animalism had become fanaticism, Paganism Paulinism”, Alec exudes “the rude energy of a theolatry that was almost ferocious” (Tess 425). The main point Hardy makes as a narrator is that such a conversion is more than a paradox: it is a falsification that goes against the hereditary genetic make up of a man like d’Urberville.
Hardy’s fiction illustrates the contention that it is impossible for a man to rise above his biological inheritance. The spiritual is merely a façade erected in an attempt to initiate such a rise, but its failure is inevitable. The biological factors in the form of Nature will ultimately conquer all others. In Hardy’s universe, these inherited biological factors are linked to universal Natural laws that can be equated to fate. Alec’s facial features display his Stotko 25 hereditary evil nature. “The former curves of sensuousness were now modulated to lines of devotional passion. The lip shades that had meant seductiveness were now made to express supplication” (Tess 425). Religion briefly mutates them but they revert back at the slightest provocation. Tess inherited a whole genetic line of decadence and decay presented in the novel in the form of omens and curses. The native purity and innocent beauty of this “fresh and virginal daughter of Nature” (Tess 192) cannot reverse the relentless natural forces that govern the fate of a decaying hereditary blood line. Hardy’s rejection of the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith removes any possibility of amelioration of the human condition.
His characters have no choice. They are entrapped in the course that Fate allots them.
People are sinful and born into a cursed world. This is their inheritance. Neither villains like Alec nor innocents like Tess can escape this inheritance. Scientific laws of determinism and Biblical laws are no respecters of persons. As Tess points out, “ the sun do shine on the just and the unjust alike ’” (Tess 199).
The narrator’s scepticism concerning Alec’s conversion is echoed by Tess. She is horrified to hear the words of the gospel emerge from the mouth of a devil. Her response is, “ Out upon such — I don’t believe in you. I hate it!’” ( Tess 429). She despises those who have their fill of pleasure in this world at the expense of others and then conveniently convert when they have had enough. But the most significant comment is the reason she gives Alec for refusing to believe in the sincerity and validity of the conversion. It is that “ a better man than you does not believe in such’” (Tess 429). This remark prefigures others that lead to Tess’s exposition of Angel’s theories. In effect, by means of Angel’s teaching, Tess reverses Alec’s conversion. She is the agent of subversion both by her physical beauty (which is irresistible to Alec and a force far superior in strength to his new faith), and the agnostic ideas she propagates. Hardy’s opposition to the evangelical principle of conversion can be deduced from his fiction which demonstrates that spiritual conversion of the Wesleyan sort cannot be lasting. Tess calls the conversion a “flash” that Alec “feels” and is convinced it will be short-lived. Hardy portrays conversion as an emotional experience and not a spiritual one.
Its nature is shown to be temporary and not eternal.
Hardy’s fiction demonstrates that man is incapable of rising above the animalism of his sinful human condition to purity on a spiritual plane which contrasts with the evangelical view that repentance can change lives. Alec’s conversion differs sharply from George Eliot’s representation of the dissenter doctrine that even a criminal facing hanging has a chance for eternal life: when Dinah visits Hettty Sorrel in prison she shows her the Evangelical way past human misery to peace. Dickens, too, in Dombey and Son espouses the view that
forgiveness, reconciliation and personal reform are possible in even the hardest of hearts:
Dombey converts from a cruel, unfeeling man to a gentle, loving grandfather, and, on a more specifically religious level, on her deathbed, Alice Marwood has Harriet Carker read to her from the Bible about the ministry of Jesus. This destitute, fallen woman can relate to Jesus as a saviour and find forgiveness and peace in death because of this belief. Hardy’s treatment of this theme in his fiction contradicts this view as it consistently demonstrates that Stotko 26 the amelioration of a person’s character or condition through an acceptance of God’s mercy is based on a myth. In his fiction it seems evident that the course of life is determined by external forces.
Hardy uses Alec’s conversion as a vehicle to examine various theological issues where Alec ironically represents the Church while Tess represents unbelievers. Alec, in his new role as an evangelical, states that he cannot accept that “ you can have an ethical system without any dogma’” (Tess 456). Tess replies: “ Why, you can have the religion of loving-kindness and purity at least, if you can’t have — what do you call it — dogma.’” Alec maintains that it is pointless to lead a good moral life if there is no God to reward or punish.
Alec expresses the concept that casts fear into religious doubters. This fear is based on the premiss that if God is removed from the equation of human existence then anarchy would result since human beings only behave morally as a means to escape hell fire. However, Tess’s life is a testimony of her belief in loving-kindness. She is prepared to make enormous personal sacrifices to protect her family from poverty. She wishes to do the right thing for its own sake, not in response to fear of punishment. Yet in Hardy’s doomed fictional world, her charitable nature is denied the reward that Christianity would have afforded it.
Another example of such a short-lived conversion is that of Arabella in Jude. Like Alec, a death is the factor which drives her into the arms of the evangelical church. The parallel between Arabella and Alec extends further. Both are essentially animalistic and are slaves to their physical desires. They are the incarnation of the absence of spirituality.
Therefore, it is incongruous to associate them with the spiritual or to take seriously any assertion on their part that they have embraced the spiritual simply because it is in total opposition to their nature. Arabella is described as “a complete and substantial female animal — no more, no less” (Jude 41), and we first meet her in the act of flinging a pig’s pizzle at Jude. It appears nothing short of ludicrous to place such a woman in a spiritual context.
Arabella’s short-lived “conversion” seriously undermines the concept taught by the New Testament, that it is possible for people to deny their genetic identity and radically change their nature so that they can become “new creatures” by means of supernatural influence.
Arabella says, “ I must be as I was born’” ( ude 331). Like Alec, she abandons her new found J spirituality to pursue her former lover. The carnal is more powerful than any attempt at spirituality.