«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
Hardy’s novels indicate that despite the confusion of doubt and belief that prevails, on the issue of conversion and baptism, his views are unambiguous. His fiction demonstrates that human beings are governed by naturalistic forces which overshadow any attempt at spirituality be it by supernatural intervention in the conversion experience or formally by means of ritual in the form of baptism, infant or adult. Realism denies man’s desire to secure a manifestation of spirituality. Conversion is merely an emotional experience that is as transient as any mood swing and baptism is a ritual which derives its meaning not from any inherent value, but from the value or lack thereof imposed on it either by the candidate Stotko 27 personally, in an adult baptism, as in the case of Paula, or the parent in the case of pædobaptism, as seen in Tess.
In lieu of a religious solution to the evil in the world, Hardy professes a belief in “evolutionary meliorism” which he explains as being “loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces […] happen to be in equilibrium.” This “evolutionary meliorism” is to be “the first step to the soul’s betterment and the body’s also” (“Apology to Late Lyrics” CP 557). Yet, even a cursory examination of the characters in his mature fiction suggests that he rejects the possibility that the human condition can be ameliorated and regenerated by the positive actions of characters, or that characters can evolve into better human beings through their deeds and moral choices as has been shown in the characters created by Dickens, Eliot and Gaskell. Hardy’s protagonists are not given a free will. Their fate is determined by cruel laws of the universe against which they are defenceless. Loving-kindness is a weak and ineffectual weapon that has no power to influence what fate decrees. Consequently, his later novels, specifically Tess, Jude and The Return of the Native develop into a type of anti-Bildungsroman: instead of characters beginning as flawed creatures and experiencing hardships in order to build their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, Hardy’s characters begin at a point of relative strength which erodes as their lives progress until they are utterly annihilated.
Tess’s spiritual decline from faith to unbelief illustrates this point. She is raised in the Christian ethic and is accustomed to going to church on Sunday. As a young girl, she imbibes and automatically accepts the church’s teachings and displays a belief in Providence.
But as her life unfolds in a sequel of evil events, her faith takes on a moribund character. She returns to Marlott after the seduction deflowered, pregnant and deeply depressed. On her way she encounters the sign painter whose bright red proclamation of her guilt “Thy damnation slumbereth not” (Tess 138) deeply affects Tess. At this stage Tess’s religious perception is one of overwhelming guilt. Tess reacts by seeking a means to alleviate her guilt and an escape from damnation. Assuming the sign painter to be a guide on spiritual issues and desperately seeking consolation Tess asks if guilt remains even if “ the sin was not your own seeking’” (Tess 138). She receives no comfort. Tess’s response is prophetic. It also summarises the essence of the effect of the Mosaic Law expressed in the New Testament as “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6 23): “ I think they (the texts) are horrible,’ said Tess Crushing! Killing!’” Since Hardy as the author does not allow the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, her case is in effect hopeless and doomed.
Hardy’s sign painter speaks “in a trade voice” (Tess 138) undermining the man’s assertion that he believes what he writes and is later echoed in the metaphor used to describe the vicar who refuses Tess’s baby a Christian burial. Both men represent religious stereotypes whose trade is to use their tools to accuse and condemn souls. The sign painter incident illustrates that contrary to its alleged purpose of regeneration and salvation, evangelical fanaticism can act as an agent of destruction. The signs are painted in vermillion Stotko 28 which is significant as it links in with the theme of blood, sacrifice and atonement. The authorial comment expresses contempt for this type of evangelism: “Some people might have cried ‘Alas poor Theology!’ at the hideous defacement — the last grotesque phase of a creed which had served humankind well in its time” (Tess 138). Furthermore, this comment suggests that religion has evolved to a point of extinction and has become obsolete in a Darwinian world determined by the principle of the survival of the fittest. Religion in that form does not deserve to survive as indeed it does not for Tess or Jude.
Still clinging to the religion she is familiar with, Tess arrives home and after a while of isolation, seeking comfort, she chooses to go to church because she “liked the chanting- such as it was — and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn” (Tess 143). Tess identifies especially with the music and she feels as if it will “drag her heart out of her bosom.” These church rites form an important part of Tess’s religious and emotional consciousness at this stage of her life. Tess’s affinity to church liturgy and music reflects Hardy’s own, as Hands and Jêdrzejwski both document through biographical evidence and letters. However, Hardy immediately undercuts these sentiments by harshly pointing out that there is form only and no power in the religion of the established church. The congregation “rested three-quarters of a minute on their foreheads as if they were praying, though they were not; then sat up and turned around” (Tess 144). They then proceed to whisper about Tess. Filled with shame she concludes that she can never return to church. She enters the church seeking reassurance and leaves bereft. Religion is the source of Tess’s guilt and mental agony and she seeks alleviation in the church that forms her religious beliefs. Hardy criticises the fact that the established Church’s hypocrisy and enslavement to dogmas and man-made rules and regulations eclipse its true purpose, which is to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation.
The church’s inability to meet Tess’s spiritual need causes the erosion of her faith.
At this time of Tess’s nocturnal wanderings, shunning society, Hardy describes her relationship with God as a feeling “of irremedial grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not definitely class as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other” (Tess 145). Her religious sensitivity is essentially one of sadness that she should be covered in guilt and shame before God, although her consciousness of the identity of this God is vague and undefined. It is remarkable that her concept of God is indistinct but her perception of sin is so clear as to be almost tangible. This is possibly the result of the kind of religious teaching she experienced as a child which is described as including “curious details of torment” (Tess 156), causing Tess to visualise the devil tossing her illegitimate unsaved baby about on a pitchfork. Tess even comes to regard her beauty as a sin “and there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong” (Tess 430). This feeling induces Tess to “mercilessly nip her eyebrows off” (Tess 391). The same excessive sense of guilt persecutes Sue Bridehead and produces aggressive self-destructive tendencies: “ Self renunciation - that’s everything! I cannot humiliate myself enough. I should like to prick myself all over with pins and bleed out Stotko 29 the badness that is in me’” (Jude 363). Both Tess and Sue succumb to an oppressive consciousness of sin. Their extreme sensitivity to their own “sinfulness” amounts to a tragic flaw. It is the driving force behind their actions and leads to misery for Sue and destruction for Tess.
The Church’s refusal to allow Sorrow a Christian burial is a turning point for Tess.
She finally turns her back on the church as an institution. Tess finds herself drifting further and further away from the God she believed in as a child. A short-lived revival of her Christian religious heritage occurs on her way to Talbothays. She feels exhilarated and joyful at being able to start her life afresh and commences singing to express her emotions.
Significantly, as yet not weaned from the faith she is raised in, she chooses a hymn.
However, she discovers that she doesn’t “quite know the Lord yet” (Tess 171). She has a sense that there is something missing. Hardy offers an interesting commentary on this incident. He declares “probably the half unconscious rhapsody was a Fetishistic utterance in a Monotheistic setting” (Tess 171). He explains that women like Tess, who are children of Nature, retain Pagan fantasy in their souls which eclipses institutionalised religion that has been taught them. In other words, Tess has an inherent desire to express the mysticism in her soul and she falls back on the religious experiences of her childhood in order to do so, but in reality religion does not reflect the true source of that desire which is essentially naturalistic.
Nevertheless, the narrator concludes: “It was enough” (Tess 171). At this junction, Tess’s spiritual needs are still perceived to be met by the religious practices of her youth.
Tess goes to Talbothays where she meets Angel Clare. By this time she is fertile ground for his agnostic ideas. Tess’s spirituality is inextricably intertwined with Angel’s. His influence extinguishes her previous religious heritage. It is significant that the first words Angel hears Tess utter are of a spiritual nature. She is explaining how she sometimes feels as if her soul leaves her body. Likewise the first words Tess hears Angel say relate to religion. His words are a commentary on a story he has just heard that illustrates the tendency of rural folk to combine folklore, superstition and Christianity. In this curious story Hardy describes a man defending himself from an enraged bull by playing a Nativity song on his fiddle, and in so doing fooling the bull into believing that it is Christmas so that the creature bends on its knees in a prayerful position, offering the man a means of escape. This expression of faith is cynically subverted by the narrator’s blunt ending of the story stating where the man is buried. By implication it stands to reason that his belief is buried with him which in turn is reinforced by Angel’s statement, “ It is a curious story; it carries us back to medieval times when faith was a living thing’” (Tess 180). Angel feels that faith has long been dead, a theme that recurs frequently in Hardy’s fiction and poetry. This prefigures the demise of Tess’s faith as a consequence of her allegiance to Angel.
Angel’s religious views are meticulously documented in the novel and are crucial to Tess’s spiritual journey. The fact that Hardy gives such detailed coverage of Angel’s religious views shows the level of importance he assigned to religion and moreover that he used his Stotko 30 works of fiction as a means of exploring different views and their effects on others and life in general (Tess 186).
Immediately after Tess meets Angel, he is placed by the narrator into his home context in order to elucidate his religious background and personal views. Angel is Hardy’s archetypal agnostic. Hardy deliberately juxtaposes Angel’s views with those of his Godfearing, parson father by means of a dialogue in order to optimise the contrast between them.
Angel shocks his father by refusing to follow family tradition and enter the church on doctrinal grounds. He finds he is unable to believe in a doctrine that preaches deliverance from or escape from damnation through God’s sacrifice, specifically, he cannot believe in the resurrection of Christ (Tess 186). It is curious that Angel, who insists that he argues theology from an intellectual viewpoint, maintains that he follows his instinct in matters of religion. He quotes Hebrews 12.27 to support his argument. This Biblical reference is extremely pertinent to the Victorian loss of faith experience. It states, “The removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken remain.” Angel, to use his own word, “reconstructs” this Biblical verse. It no longer refers, as in the original; to God’s shaking up of the earth so that the creation will be removed, leaving only the kingdom of heaven in existence. Angel imbues the verse with a modern interpretation that concludes that the shaking will topple the dogmas and doctrines of institutionalised religion leaving an unmiraculous, inexorable reality behind as “that which cannot be shaken” in the Darwinian sense: whatever is not fit to survive in the modern world will face extinction.
Having established Angel as a modern free thinker, the narrator proceeds to illustrate that Angel’s actions are diametrically opposed to his supposed principles. Hardy shows that like Tess, Angel is a product of his religious upbringing. Notwithstanding his liberal philosophies on an intellectual level, emotionally and instinctively he still clings to the Christian teachings of his youth. Once Angel is committed to marrying Tess, he is anxious to convince his parents of Tess’s suitability to be his wife on religious grounds. He pronounces her a good church-going Christian although personally he holds in ridicule the fact that she and the other milkmaids should subscribe to overtly Christian beliefs because it seems incongruous amidst their essentially naturalistic beliefs. He does not wish to disturb her Christian faith. To support this claim the narrator quotes some lines from Tennyson’s “In
Leave thou thy sister when she prays, Her early heaven, her happy views;