Hardy's Tess, and the Victorian age
In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, we gain insight into Hardy's view on religion as he uses his characters to make observations that may have been quite disconcerting to his Victorian readers. This is not to say that Hardy abandoned his views on religion, instead, he "became an agnostic, [and] he remained emotionally involved with the Church." Hardy's greatest dispute was with the dogma or beliefs of the church.
Hardy had once wanted to become a minister but abandoned that idea when he could no longer afford to attend the university. Robert Schweik, a Hardy critic, relates that Hardy became interested in religion on a personal level - that the subject of infant baptism particularly affected him. Hardy could see no harm in baptizing an infant if doing so makes the family of the child feel better about their child's salvation. This position is made clear in the scenes with Tess and Sorrow.
The scene is played out in Chapter 14 when Tess baptizes Sorrow. She learns that her own ceremony is the same as if it were performed in church; however, on the subject of a proper Christian burial, the local vicar replies, "Ah - that's another matter." In the true sense of charity, Hardy argues, Tess should have been allowed to bury Sorrow in a proper manner, not be relegated to the part of the cemetery that has unbaptized infants, drunks, and the damned. The burial is carried out under the cover of darkness, not during the daylight hours, to protect Tess and to shield her from the scorn of churchgoers. Hardy's point is that Sorrow's burial should have been treated as any other burial. The position of the church is too harsh, Hardy seems to argue, when Sorrow is christened in the proper manner, but is not given a proper Christian burial.
Also, the positioning of pagan and Christian rituals makes for an interesting look at the dichotomy that exists in the smaller rural areas. Some rituals, now obscured by the passage of time, were assimilated into Christian ceremony. The May Dance, for instance, in Chapter 1, celebrated the end of the winter and the beginning of summer. Druids and other pagans of the area would have celebrated that date with a ceremony of sorts. Also, Tess, before she is literally sacrificed for the good of society, journeys to Stonehenge, the temple of monoliths used for sun worship and possibly human sacrifice. Tess says to Angel about the pantheon, "And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home." Also, Hardy recollects the earlier ancient Greek tragedies by invoking the name of Aeschylus, the principal writer of Greek tragic drama, to close his work, not biblical or modern sagas, as we would have imagined a nineteenth-century writer to do.
Hardy quite possibly sees religion abandoning the people, with dogmas that do not mesh with a modern society. In Tess, with few exceptions, Hardy's portrayal of the "traditionally" religious people is not particularly complimentary. Take the casual remarks by Angel's brothers, Felix ("all Church") and Cuthbert ("all College"). They are quite involved in themselves, changing their beliefs and values to match the times. Both brothers are clerics without compassion, possibly in the same mold as the Vicar in Marlott.
If religion is as shallow as Hardy predicts, then the sign painter and his art are the worst form of shallowness. The sign painter who wanders the countryside uses the simplest texts he can find to put on his religious signs. When Tess asks if he believes in the text about "sin not your own seeking," he replies, "I cannot split hairs on the burning query." Essentially, he is not educated enough to think of a reasonable answer, and his perspective on religion is limited. Hardy saw this in the common folk he knew and was loathe to think that their religious beliefs were so shallow that they did not understand the deeper meanings of the texts they had read. Also, the sign painter saves the hottest sign messages for rural districts, where the ordinary folk would be frightened and cowed into submission. These seem to be "religious views on a poker chip" - philosophical entreaties to urge folks to turn to the Bible for aid. But these signs seem to miss the deeper meanings of the scriptures, which Tess seems to understand, not just the superficial meanings espoused by others. Likewise, Alec is the worst kind of convert, a sinner who renounces his former ways but becomes a sinner again at the slightest hint of temptation. The signs put up by the sign painter and Alec's conversion all point to a faith that is fleeting at best.
However, not all clergy are poor representations of religion, nor all believers false. Tess, for example, has an uncomplicated religion, a simpler and deeper understanding than her education would allow. She is as powerful as any clergyman when she baptizes Sorrow, but realistic when she realizes that she must pay for her sins when confronted by the police. Similarly, Angel's father, Reverend Clare is a good man, with good intentions, and a good message. He is part of the evangelical movement who practices what he preaches. He is described as Paulist or Pauliad, from Paul of Tarsus, who believed that salvation came through grace and belief, which came through emotional responses rather than intellectual ones. Thus we see Hardy from two separate perspectives, one who uses biblical allusion with the knowledge of a believer, but the skepticism of an outsider.
Hardy uses comparison throughout the novel to reveal character and theme. The most obvious comparison is between Angel and Alec. The juxtaposition of Angel, who represents the ideal love of Tess, is contrasted with Alec, who represents the sexual possession of Tess. Since neither character is a perfect personification of good or evil, Hardy has both men exhibit both passion and coldness when they interact with Tess. Angel is passionate about Tess and his love for her, while he coolly dismisses her after learning of her torrid past. Alec is at first cool in his treatment of Tess as a possession, a symptom of his class, and then he decides later that he cannot live without her.
Hardy's Tess is filled with these side-by-side comparisons. Peter J. Casagrande, in his book Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty, coins a new word "beaugly," a combination of the words "beautiful" and "ugly." He argues that the novel is chock-full of these comparisons: poor/rich, good/evil, Angel/brothers; Tess/her siblings; high class/low class, and past/present. Even the title of Casagrande's work, "Unorthodox Beauty," suggests a beauty that is does not conform to the standards by which other novels before or since Tess have been judged. Hardy himself points the out the rationale for his philosophy: "The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things." Another Hardy critic, Linda Shires, makes the observation that, Hardy's treatment of his characters is "blatantly non-stereotypical." Now we have a novel that challenges stereotypes and sets the tone for several other Hardy works.
The poor versus rich comparison should not escape modern readers. Alec's seemingly endless wealth contrasts with the Durbeyfield's abject poverty. Hardy uses this juxtaposition to demonstrate the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." However, even Hardy makes the point that at sometime in the distant past, just as Alec and his kind take advantage of Tess and her kind, the ancient d'Urbervilles had their way with the poor of their time: "Doubtless some of Tess d'Urbervilles mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time." But Hardy does not forgive the sins of the past or present saying, "To visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter." While not forgiving Alec for his misdeeds, Hardy does make some attempt to understand Alec's actions as a part of his class.
Also, Hardy attempts to comprehend good and evil. The poor down in Marlott have adapted a fatalistic attitude best represented by the saying, "It was to be." Tess questions the contrast between the forces that have dealt her a less than fair hand - "I shouldn't mind learning why - why the sun do shine on the just and unjust alike." Tess' query is one that has perplexed men since the dawn of time: why is there good and evil in the world? Hardy invokes the ancient Greek views on good and evil, along with the Torah and the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible, as well as Milton's view found in Paradise Lost in an attempt to understand what motivates men to perpetrate either good or bad.
Another contrast is found in the families themselves, the Durbeyfields and the Clares. The Durbeyfields, even though impoverished, have a closeness that binds them. Tess' weakness is her siblings and their well being. In fact, Alec uses his wile to tempt her, much like the character of Satan uses temptation in the Bible and in Milton's Paradise Lost. Hardy describes Tess' siblings as "six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield." Angel and his brothers, on the other hand, do not share the closeness that Tess' siblings share. Angel's brothers would find it difficult to aid each other, let alone others who might be in dire circumstances. Hardy comments "they [the needy] were to be tolerated rather than reckoned with and respected."
Hardy also contrasts the lifestyle of the farms where Tess works: Talbothays and Flintcomb-Ash. Hardy describes the Talbothays region in breathtaking terms of green valleys and abundant life. "The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor . . . The Froom waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist . . . ." Flintcomb-Ash, on the other hand, is described as "sublime in its dreariness." Marian, Tess' friend from Talbothays, calls the farm a "starve-acre place," not like the lush dairy at Talbothays. Hardy also sets up a contrast between the men who run each farm. Flintcomb has Farmer Groby, a mean-spirited man who demands that his workers work even harder. Mr. Crick from Talbothays uses humor and aplomb to motivate his workers.
These contrasts serve to reveal the nature of the people, places, and situations that Tess encounters. They also enable Hardy to make subtle and not-so-subtle observations about how people, both good and bad, interact act with and affect one another, for good or ill.