Experiencing Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

The Issues Raised.


 In my book, I wrote about experiencing Tess after many years of teaching and writing about it. Eventually I developed an approach that drew inspiration from the thinking of the American philosopher, John Dewey, especially his book entitled Art as Experience.

By foregrounding experience, which of course must mean primarily my own experience, I came to some highly debatable conclusions. As Professor Claire Seymour put it, in a review of the book in the Hardy Society Journal, Efron’s book “will delight, intrigue challenge and infuriate in equal measure…” I can imagine for example some readers being, if not infuriated, then at least quite displeased with my account of the final sentence of Hardy’s novel, where I felt baffled rather than enlightened. “As soon as they [Liza-Lu and Angel] had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.” My bafflement contrasts with the experience of an earlier reader of the novel, Ian Gregor, who found that sentence and indeed the several sentences leading up to the final one, rich with meaning. In my book, I say that by no means am I claiming that my experience is superior to Gregor’s: the aim of pragmatist criticism such as my own is not to eliminate all differences among the readers of a work. Working from the perspective of what we each actually experience, there are bound to be such differences. Indeed there should be, and we would be foolish to try to legislate against them.

Today, however, I want to take the discussion in the opposite direction: I want to develop the idea that we-- not just I-- can experience Hardy’s novel. “Having an experience,” in John Dewey’s sense, while it is not the easiest thing to do in a novel like Tess, is not so difficult that only a few elite readers can manage it. According to Dewey, the work of art is what the work does with and in experience. That is all it can be for any of us.

“Having an experience” sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but in Dewey’s sense it is not: for one thing, having any major experience will cause us to change. We won’t come away from it with exactly the same self we had before the experience occurred. And such change could well be painful, since it could involve ripping up old assumptions and what we had regarded as truths, to make way for new ones. Second, as we go through most of daily life, we are not delving very deeply, we are just recognizing things we encounter, but that just puts a sort of label on them. It does not involve delving in depth. For a novel like Tess, shallowness of response will not do. One of the controversial points I made in the book is that the many attempts by critics to find a key to the novel by compiling Hardy’s various references to the color red are merely having what Dewey calls, disparagingly,  “recognitions,” or denotative labeling, rather than perceptions that are felt and thought about. No experience is going on, in these comments about red, so far as I can tell, and in fact hardly anyone claims to have any. Critics just produce the pattern and believe that to be sufficient.

The best way to develop my idea of experiencing Tess is to just take up some of the major elements in having this experience. These elements are all different in what they ask of us, which is fortunate, because it will give us a variety of problems to be approached in a number of different ways. We won’t get stuck in any single method.

I will start with what is often a stumbling block, with what I will call the problem of sexual quality. This novel is centrally about sex. I don’t mean it’s about gender or Hardy’s masculine gaze, or anything of that kind, but about the sexual experiencing of the three main characters. Sex however has quality: it can be gratifying, it can be affectionate, it can be an expression of love, and it can be empty. It can express revulsion, as it does at the end of Jude. Hardy has his ways of signaling what the quality might be. When Alec says to Tess, “You don’t give me your mouth and kiss me back. You never willingly do that—you’ll never love me, I fear.” (p. 98), we know that something has been missing from the quality of their sexual embrace. To have the experience, we have to allow our imaginations to work on statements of this kind, and on any hints, allusions, or inferences that could bear on the problem of sexual quality. If we ignore these, we miss the novel.

We would also miss it if we try to downplay an extraordinary feature of this novel: and that is the way sexual love is placed within the context of Nature.  The quality of the wonderful chapters at Talbothays cannot be denied by anyone who wants to experience this novel. There are critics who find all sorts of flaws and detrimental aspects of Nature  in these chapters, and on paper, they sometimes sound quite convincing. But when I go back and re-read the chapters, these arguments simply fail to convince me. Nature in these chapters feels overwhelmingly rich and fertile. But can we experience this quality? I could find no better method than just letting my guard down and opening up to the beauty of Hardy’s prose. In my book, I said that the only method I could find for bringing out the qualities of Nature in these chapters was to quote from them extensively. The rest depends on us as readers being willing to respond.  On the last day I taught Tess, last December 8, I had assigned only one chapter, chapter 19, which begins “In general the cows were milked as they presented themselves, without fancy or choice.” The seminar had already read the entire novel weeks before, and this assignment was my farewell gesture. As we began discussing the chapter, one man—an osteopath friend of mine who likes to take courses in the English department-- said a few introductory words and then proceeded to read aloud from one of the Nature descriptions in the chapter. Now, I have been through this chapter many, many times, and I thought I knew it to the point of over-familiarity. But when Jim read this passage, which he did with a sense of its rhythm and of its lovely imagery, I was astonished to find that I was responding freshly, almost as if I had never heard this passage before. I was hearing Hardy the poet. The poetic quality of this novel, as Michael Irwin has said, is too often ignored by critics who are interested only in digging out the idea-content of the writing. But the ideas will never be enough. There is something in Talbothays to respond to.   If the reader can’t stop and take in the qualities of Nature in the dairy farm chapters, that reader cannot get near what this novel is doing with and in experience. And Nature is where the most moving passages of sexual love between Tess and Angel happen—an unfulfilled sexual love, but one that still feels full of promise. These two lovers are not living in some urban block of apartment buildings: they live here in Nature. That makes every difference in undergoing the felt quality of this novel.

Hardy’s imaginative grasp of Nature is not simple. But it is coherent. For a long time, readers and critics have been stopped from discussing Nature in this novel, partly because under the influence of post modernism, the whole idea of Nature has been deconstructed to the point where it means nothing. Hardy critics have written within a tradition first begun by Lionel Johnson, back in the 1890s. Johnson found Hardy saying all sorts of contradictory things about Nature in Tess. Linda Shires, who has written the  Introduction for the New Riverside edition, has belittled Hardy’s Nature passages as the narrator’s “lyrical effusions.” This sounds as if she is above it all.  Obviously, being above it all does not allow you to have the experience that is being offered. But if you consider all of the references to Nature in their different contexts, there is much to experience and you find almost no discrepancies. I used for understanding this problem a different feature of Dewey’s thought, an article he wrote entitled “Context and Thought.”  Dewey said there that the greatest single source of error in all intellectual work is that of ignoring context. To take a commonly cited example from Tess, we are sometimes told that Nature at Talbothays is built up as a life-affirming force, but that then Hardy turns about and shows us Tess and Marion working at Flintcomb Ash, under a merciless winter sky that is not life-affirming at all. But just look at the contexts: at Talbothays there is a cooperative mood for work, even very hard work, among the laborers who work for Dairyman Dick, a good-natured and considerate boss. It is summer.  At Flintcomb Ash, they are exposed to the elements not because the elements are conspiring to make them suffer, but because the working conditions for laborers at that place force women to slave out of doors in winter.

Nature, as Raymond Williams has said in his book Keywords, is probably the most complex word in our language.  I have found that much of the printed comment on Nature in this novel is governed by the assumption that Hardy is a simple thinker who does not realize what he is getting into when he writes about Nature. One of the aims of my book is to reassert the position that Hardy is a very good creative thinker. I said: “Despite his various lapses, Hardy often is a penetrating thinker; he is a sociologist and philosopher and theorist of love relationships and nature poet, all in close relation to his story and especially to Tess herself.” He knows what kind of experiences he is “doing with and in” Nature in this novel.

Experiencing is the thing, but there are places in Tess that are well-known for being very difficult to know what we are to experience. The most notorious is the night scene in Sherwood Forest where Tess and Alec first make love. Was it rape or was it seduction? The problem seems to have baffled readers. In her introduction to the New Riverside edition, Linda Shires says that Tess is a woman who eventually returns to “her rapist”; but earlier she refers to the episode in the woods as a seduction, and in another place she just falls back on the quick-disposal term, “rape/seduction.” I think I have found a way to go beyond this impasse. To make any progress, I had to move away temporarily from my guiding term, experience, and take up another of John Dewey’s major emphatic terms, namely Inquiry. If we just read and re-read the scene between Alec and Tess in those dark woods, we will not get a satisfactory answer. But to even expect such an answer by continual re-sifting of one scene, when that scene is deliberately shielded from our perception by the author, is like waiting for a revelation to occur. What Dewey said was that when human beings need to find out anything about any problem that is truly a problem, they have only one way to go: they have to inquire. We cannot experience directly but we can reconstruct the situation indirectly so that it finally makes some sense.  That is why he wrote his revolutionary book, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. It is a 500 page job of continuous argument. Most of it is more complex than anything I can do or that I need to do in reading Tess.  But knowing the importance of Inquiry seems to have spurred me to try to perform such a task in this novel.

How can a novel contain an inquiry concerning a possible rape? It can, I proposed, by making it possible to examine the several places in the novel where this question is alluded to. The most important ones are those passages in the text where Tess and Alec themselves have dialogue concerning whatever had happened back in the early part of the story when Tess lived at Alec’s estate. They have some pretty heated talk about this later in the novel, but can we detect anything in their talk that could refer to a sexual assault? This is my Deweyan method of inquiry. It is augmented, it seems to me, by other passages.  There is one in which some women of Marlott talk about how a woman was heard sobbing one night in those woods. But this is inconclusive: there are a lot of reasons why a woman might sob. What that passage really achieves is showing us that in Marlott, the victim of rape is not blamed: she is seen correctly as a victim. And rape is not so vile a crime that it must go unmentioned: they are talking about it. More to the purpose are two other passages. In one, Tess whispers into her mother’s ear her account of what had happened between her and Alec. Her mother responds, and is not one bit pleased with what she has heard, but she does not respond as if she has heard anything about rape.  In the other, Tess makes her confession to Angel, without flinching. Most readers (in fact all readers that I know of) have ignored a key phrase of Hardy’s narration here: Tess’s confession included--and this wording is important to listen to—her “re-assertions and secondary explanations.” It is inconceivable that Tess omitted any mention of having been raped, if indeed that is what had occurred. But Angel shows no sign that he has heard her say anything of this sort. I find it very difficult to believe that he would not have reacted to the news of his wife having been raped. The point is, there is evidence to be weighed here, and when it is all taken into account, you can come up with, not the “truth,” a term that Dewey thinks should not be used very often, but with a conclusion that has what he calls “warranted assertability.” In other words, given our human fallibility, the uncertain circumstances involved in this inquiry, and our own intimate responses as we read this novel, it is still worth making an assertion, now, for our own benefit in experiencing -- that rape did or did not occur. Which would you find enough warrant to assert? I leave the question at this point, for today, although in my book I venture to warrant an assertion.

When I noticed that Tess gave a full account of the “re-assertions and secondary explanations” of what happened with Alec, I was telling you something about her mind. Not every person could have given such an account: it takes a thinking person to organize it and say it to the man she has just married. I do not think many Tess critics have taken up the topic of her capabilities as a thinker. I myself give more attention to her bodily presence in the novel, but I do show that there is much to be experienced concerning her mind. By that, I do not mean her strength as a person, her guilt feelings, or her femininity, but her powers of thinking. Dewey used a concept he called “body-mind,” under which it is possible to take up mind alone, temporarily as an aid to understanding, always knowing that mind and body are one. With this approach, I soon noticed that in the early chapters, Tess has a mind in which she thinks across the gender lines: she has thoughts that are usually considered products of the masculine brain. Recall, if you will, her understanding of “blighted” and healthy planets. From the perspective developed by many of the novel’s critics, Tess is nothing but Hardy’s idea of the female.  According to that stereotype, speculations about the quality of life on earth in comparison to what it might be like on other planets is not the kind of thinking a woman is supposed to have. But she has the capacity for this thinking; she does it.  Because of these and other supposedly “male” qualities of thought, I do not accept the view that Hardy has set Tess up as a merely female type.

From the experiential approach I have taken, all of Hardy’s narrative comments referring to Tess’s essentially female qualities are important only insofar as they enhance or interfere with experience. The mere fact that they are in the text should not stop us from reading for what we ourselves get from the experience. The comment so often quoted out of context, for example, of the field-woman, in contrast to her male counter-part, being absorbed into the surrounding earth: how does it affect our experiencing of Tess as a character? As near as I can make out, from my own re-reading of this novel over many years, it doesn’t. Tess is vividly described soon after this passage, not as a woman who has merged into the land, but as herself. If anything, the infamous comment about women’s merging sets Tess off all the more as an individual.  I find that there are a few places in the novel where Hardy’s gender bias does interfere with experiencing, but these are surprisingly few.

Tess is a thinker, and as the novel develops and she develops, she shows an extraordinary ethical intelligence. We hear it early on in her voice as she exclaims against her mother’s idea that her father had gone off to Rollover’s “to get up his strength.” “Get up his strength. Oh my God! Go to a public house to get up his strength! And you as well agreed as he, Mother!”     We experience her ethical intelligence when she gives her reasons for leaving Alec. We feel it, do we not, in the chapter in which she argues against the churchman who refuses to give her dead child a proper burial. These occurrences of her ethical intelligence have led me to focus on her most important statement she makes to Angel, just at the point where she begins to see that he will not forgive her: “I thought, Angel, that you loved me—me, my very self!…Having begun  to love you, I love you for ever--in all changes, in all disgraces, because you are yourself.”  The inclusion of “disgraces” is a surprising innovation in thought. I think that few couples are going to include that in their marriage vows. I doubt that Hardy ever said anything like it, in any of his other novels, or anywhere else. But Tess is saying what is necessary.  She has thought it. A person is their whole self, and that self is what that person’s mate loves. Even when—especially when—that person undergoes disgrace in matters of sexual conduct.

Such insights of hers are priceless. Should we credit them as one of the ways in which she is a “pure woman”?   Unfortunately, tragically even, Tess’s mind by this point in the novel has been deeply affected by her culture’s implantation of guilt feelings. She has tried to fight them off, but she cannot. Her mind often works by now against her own self, certainly against her body, inflicting her with self-denigrating thoughts. It also leads her to at least one ethically dubious action. I am thinking of her gratuitous act of mercy toward her three milkmaid friends, when she has Angel give each of them a kiss just before she rides off with him after the wedding ceremony. Hardy leaves no doubt that all three of these women are damaged by that tormenting experience. Up until then, they had found their way to resigning themselves to the fact that they would never have Angel as husband or as lover. They had made their peace with this, and had even attained a measure of dignity under their misfortune.  They have done this in spite of the nearly overwhelming sexual urges they have had to undergo while working at Talbothays with Angel close by.   Tess of course did not mean to hurt them by letting Angel kiss them. Consciously it was merely another expression of her guilt at having won him. But unconsciously it was an act of sadism. Without the infusion of guilt, she would never have done this.

Tess cannot be “pure” in the conventional senses of the word. She is shown here committing   a humanly damaging action. Inner compulsion drove her to it. But should we drop our interest in Tess being a “pure woman”? That would be too easy; that would be declining to take up one of the most important challenges that the novel puts before us. Although Hardy eventually regretted his decision to attach the subtitle, A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, he thought it was a vital element when he first wrote it. He even said, in a letter of January 1892, that this “second title” of the novel “is absolutely necessary to show its meaning.” In my book, I have a whole section in the last chapter titled “In What Senses Pure?”   The key term here is “senses,” the plural. There must be several senses of “pure woman” if we are ever going to come close to an understanding.  We should not look for one single meaning to fix upon Hardy’s term “pure woman.” I am pleased to see that David Musselwhite, in his difficult book, Social Transformation in Hardy’s Tragic Novels: Phantasms and Megamachines, using an approach that is very far from my own, also tries to understand “pure woman” in several different senses. It takes some experimental thinking to do this. As Dewey maintained, it is for good reason that the words experience and experiment are closely related.

I wrote that my thinking in this section is “unguarded:” I may sound naïve, and that is not a bad thing. I have been ridiculed for what I said there by a reviewer of my book, who found several of my comments on the subject of the pure woman, banal. He quoted, for example, this comment of mine: “Tess is purely herself, beyond the reach of the concept of sin.” I do not understand why that is to be considered a banality. But if we are going to take up the challenge of understanding how Tess can be pure, we will also have to take the risks of being misunderstood. An experiment involving our selves, with our thoughts on a fundamental quality, cannot be risk-free--no more risk free than experiencing Tess of the d’Urbervilles itself. As for banality, Dewey I think is right when he says that many such accusations are based on resentment against being brought face to face with meanings that are quite common. For Dewey, and for me, the more common an insight may be, the more widely shared it can be. That is part of Dewey’s faith in democracy. And Hardy’s novel has so much feeling and meaning that we can share.

To have the experience, in Dewey’s sense, we each will have to summon energy that is at a sufficient level and of a kind that fits what the work of art demands. Only through such response can we “take in” (his term, with the “take” in italics) what is actually there in the novel. The first requirement for doing that is emotional rather than analytic. Only through emotional involvement will an experience come to fruition. That is why I chose to emphasize the emotionally demanding parts of the novel. They are the parts that will spread their energy and bring form to the less moving passages. Chapter One of Tess is mildly amusing, until we read chapter Two, where Tess dances with the village girls and women, and Angel stops by and then leaves.  That makes chapter One a lot more emotional, retroactively, because we begin to feel what is at stake for the woman’s life in this story. That is the way emotion works in an aesthetic experience, as Dewey explains it in Art as Experience. The book was first given as a series of lectures 3 years after the death of Thomas Hardy. But for its discussion of emotion, one Dewey scholar (Thomas Alexander) has shown that very likely Dewey was still drawing from his articles, “Emotional Attitudes” and “The Significance of Emotions,” published in 1894 and 1895, not long after Hardy had published Tess.    

 In the workings of emotion, I think we all know where the core of this novel must be located: it is in the heart-rending marital struggle between Tess and Angel just after Tess’s confession. I found myself startled when Hardy tells me that the couple’s time in the house that was once a d’Urberville dwelling place has taken three days. In emotional intensity, it feels more like three weeks. I treat this entire section as primarily emotional in quality.  I expect you will agree that emotion is not one of the favorite focal points of today’s Hardy critics—whether the emotion is that of the characters, of Hardy the narrator, or of ourselves. Let me suggest what an unguarded emotional response to this novel might feel like. I will quote from a critical work published in 1922, by a critic who was interested in the formal qualities of novels. In fact he wrote a book called The Method of Henry James. His name was Joseph Warren Beach. His book on Hardy is titled The Technique of Thomas Hardy. But formalism did not stop this man from responding emotionally. He wrote that there are parts of Hardy’s story where the reader “can scarcely read for tears, and where he can scarcely read aloud for very shame of his choking voice.”  Certainly Tess and Angel in their tragic un-consummated marriage comprise one of those parts where we can be, indeed must be, overcome.  I have no use for those Hardy critics who try to finesse this section by claiming that Hardy is simultaneously creating a scene that calls for emotional response, and at the same time giving us ways to avoid that response by standing back from the struggles of the characters in some sort of narrative distance. What I tried to do in my book is to allow for a deeper understanding of the emotional event in all its grievousness and all its complexity. Whether I succeeded even partly, there or throughout my book, can be found out in only one way: by re-reading Tess.