When I read Hardy’s novels in high school I’m pretty sure I dismissed one of the themes all four novels I read had in common which struck me as mythological claptrap, particularly when expressed through words like “Hap,” “Doomsters,” or the far older “Fates”. This theme is clearly expressed in the poem “Hap:”
IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
I preferred to believe my future success, or failure, depended upon my own merits and not upon pure Chance, much less, Fate, sounded like Greek mythology to me. Older and wiser, I’m no longer quite so sure. No, I don’t believe in Greek Gods, but “crass casualty” has seemed to play a significant part in my life and probably in other’s lives as well.
I’d still like to believe that the mere whim of another person could not affect my fate as surely it did Tess’s future when the parson told her father of his “noble” heritage:
“Good night, Sir John,” said the parson.
The pedestrian, after another pace or two, halted, and turned round.
“Now, sir, begging your pardon; we met last market-day on this road about this time, and I said ‘Good night,’ and you made reply ‘_Good night, Sir John_,’ as now.”
“I did,” said the parson.
“And once before that–near a month ago.”
“I may have.”
“Then what might your meaning be in calling me ‘Sir John’ these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler?”
The parson rode a step or two nearer.
“It was only my whim,” he said; and, after a moment’s hesitation: “It was on account of a discovery I made some little time ago, whilst I was hunting up pedigrees for the new county history. I am Parson Tringham, the antiquary, of Stagfoot Lane. Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?”
“Never heard it before, sir!”
“Well it’s true. Throw up your chin a moment, so that I may catch the profile of your face better. Yes, that’s the d’Urberville nose and chin–a little debased. Your ancestor was one of the twelve knights who assisted the Lord of Estremavilla in Normandy in his conquest of Glamorganshire. Branches of your family held manors over all this part of England; their names appear in the Pipe Rolls in the time of King Stephen. In the reign of King John one of them was rich enough to give a manor to the Knights Hospitallers; and in Edward the Second’s time your forefather Brian was summoned to Westminster to attend the great Council there. You declined a little in Oliver Cromwell’s time, but to no serious extent, and in Charles the Second’s reign you were made Knights of the Royal Oak for your loyalty. Aye, there have been generations of Sir Johns among you, and if knighthood were hereditary, like a baronetcy, as it practically was in old times, when men were knighted from father to son, you would be Sir John now.”
“Ye don’t say so!”
“In short,” concluded the parson, decisively smacking his leg with his switch, “there’s hardly such another family in England.”
Many, if not all of us, have heard rumors about our family’s “noble” past, and it has had no effect on us, but the parson himself had doubts whether he should tell Jack Durbeyfield his family heritage. It quickly becomes clear he shouldn’t have because Jack immediately take on airs. In the end this “innocent” remark leads directly to Tess’s seduction when the family sends her to seek help from family members who (ironically, this is, after all, a Hardy novel) weren’t relatives at all.
Another chance incident, the death of the family’s only horse leads Tess to give in to her mother’s urgings that she appeal to rich relatives. Just before this accident Tess and her brother have this conversation:
“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound–a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on–a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
“‘Tis very unlucky that we didn’t pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of ’em!”
It is this unlucky accident that finally forces Tess to visit her rich “relatives” because she feels guilty about the death of their family’s main source of income even though she and her brother had undertaken the trip because their father was unable to get up after drinking too much the night before.
Right after Tess meets Alec d’Urberville, we read:
Thus the thing began. Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all respects–as nearly as humanity can supply the right and desired; yet to him who amongst her acquaintance might have approximated to this kind, she was but a transient impression, half forgotten.
In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say “See!” to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply “Here!” to a body’s cry of “Where?” till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome, outworn game. We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. Enough that in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange destinies.
One suspects the narrator’s not the only one who’s wondered about the vagaries of Love. Where would Country Music or the Blues be without such questioning? I doubt we’ve yet attained the “acme and summit of the human progress” where “these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along.”
Unfortunately, sometimes Hardy’s use of “chance,” or “coincidence” seems heavy handed, used more as a plot device than as a philosophical point of view. For instance, when Tess goes to Angel’s family to seek help she suddenly fears that condemnation and turns away:
Then she grieved for the beloved man whose conventional standard of judgement had caused her all these latter sorrows; and she went her way without knowing that the greatest misfortune of her life was this feminine loss of courage at the last and critical moment through her estimating her father-in-law by his sons. Her present condition was precisely one which would have enlisted the sympathies of old Mr and Mrs Clare. Their hearts went out of them at a bound towards extreme cases, when the subtle mental troubles of the less desperate among mankind failed to win their interest or regard. In jumping at Publicans and Sinners they would forget that a word might be said for the worries of Scribes and Pharisees; and this defect or limitation might have recommended their own daughter-in-law to them at this moment as a fairly choice sort of lost person for their love.
This scene reminded me of too many scenes in Return of the Native where Hardy focused on characters’ misunderstandings to the point that, for me, at least, it began to undermine the credibility of the story rather than highlighting the problems created by people who stereotype others or who jump to conclusions about others.
I’ll have to admit I’m irritated that Hardy felt it necessary to have Angel’s father convert Alec to Christianity, making Alec regret his past and seek out those he’s offended. This conversion seems to lead inevitably back to Tess and causing her willingness to hear Alec out. The irony is impossible to ignore, but the unlikelihood of the event stretches my willing suspension of disbelief further than it can go, undermines the plot, seems contrived — and ultimately seems unnecessary.
In the end, though, I’m still convinced by Hardy’s portrayal of Tess’ life. Seeing my own life in retrospect, mere chance can play havoc with the best of plans and shape our lives in ways we can never rationally anticipate.
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing.
The difficulty is in determining how much of what has happened to us is the result of pure chance and how much is determined by other factors. One suspects that Tess’ luck wouldn’t have had such disastrous results if it hadn’t been abetted by her station in life and by societal prejudices.