Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Thomas Hardy’s Reenactment of the Demeter-Persephone Myth

The classical myth of Persephone has been constantly reenacted throughout history, but Thomas Hardy’s lecture combines both traditional folklore and Victorian values. This scheme has led scholars to believe that Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) ultimately is a realistic novel, which could not be further from the truth, since the narrative offers a mythical reading of the adventure of the main character, Tess. Hardy draws great inspiration from Hellenic sources and characters which, in the end, serve as a canvas to explore his opinion on nineteenth-century philosophy and thought.

The use of myths in nineteenth-century literature was more than just an ornament and had an essential role to combat the two crises of the age: on the one hand, the crisis of faith which secularized society and dated back from the Enlightenment and, on the other hand, the cataclysm caused by empiricism, a philosophical theory which condemned humankind to skepticism and reduced human knowledge to sense perceptions, the only phenomena considered to be real non-subjective experiences. In this way, Victorian authors adopted a mythical approach to fiction “not to imitate the world but to reconstruct it conceptually” (Bonaparte, 1999, p. 417). Regarding the Persephone myth, it had acquired great popularity thanks to authors, such as Tennyson with his poem Demeter and Persephone or the Pre-Raphaelite painters who portrayed the myth on several occasions. Hardy was a true admirer of classical legacy and he reviewed carefully the mythological work of the nineteenth century, which led him to constantly include references to Greek gods, such as Dionysus or Apollo in his work (Bullen, 2019). In Ancient Greece, the Demeter-Persephone myth was used to explain the alternation and passing of the seasons during the year. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and the loving mother of Persephone who would be abducted by the king of the underworld, Hades. This event would mark the start of a relentless pursuit around the earth by Demeter to recover her adored daughter while refusing to make the harvest grow. In the end, Zeus forces Hades to return Persephone, but the wicked god serves her some pomegranate seeds which compel forever the young girl to spend half the year in the underworld. Consequently, Demeter only makes plants bloom and grow when she is with her daughter, and for the rest of the year, she allows nothing to develop (McGuire, 1966).

Figure 1. Proserpine (Roman name of Persephone). Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1874. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy presents the story of the young Tess Durbeyfield, which is a dramatic appropriation of the story of rapture and quest that is inherent to the myth. Despite not being the first Victorian writer to tackle this task, his perception excels at representing the feeling of lost innocence and youth which are “shackled by brutally unsympathetic male energies” (Radford, 2007, p. 92). The tragedy of Tess begins when her ignorant parents force her to request financial support from a local family with a noble surname, d’Urberville, after becoming bankrupt. Her parents firmly believe that Durbeyfield is a corruption of the original surname and that they also should have been part of the noble family in the past. However, not only do the d’Urbervilles disregard the petition for help but, Alec, the heir to the family, rapes Tess who ends up bearing his child. Apart from the resemblance between the novel and the myth, Hardy also divides the novels into phases which reminds of the moon symbolism in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, the source of the Greek myth (Rowan-Brooks, 2018). In the Hellenic Hymn, the sun and the moon are the first to hear Persephone’s laments when she is kidnapped. In the same way, when Tess is raped by Alec the moon is simply a helpless witness to the girl’s suffering: “With the setting of the moon the pale light lessened, and Tess became invisible as she fell into reverie upon the leaves where he had left her” (Hardy, 2005, p. 81). Despite not having records of Hardy’s reading of the Hymn to Demeter, he certainly had knowledge of it and, contrary to the empiricist movement, established “mythology not only as the only perspective appropriate for the modern world but as the natural point of view at all times, of the human mind.” (Bonaparte, 1999, p. 419).

Both in the myth and the novel, the young girl is the victim of an exchange arranged by their parents since Persephone is handed to Hades by Zeus and Tess is sent to her disastrous first encounter with Alec D’Urberville by her mother, Joan. However, Hardy performs a “casuistic revision” of the myth in which the mother, Demeter, does everything possible to recover the “ruptured symbiotic unity with Persephone” (Radford, 2007, p. 18). According to French philosopher Lucy Irigaray (1991), Persephone’s destiny is bound by male power and, thus, she is considered a piece of property that can be exchanged or delivered. In the same way, Demeter, who, as a woman, is considered to be another object, is not important enough to be asked about her daughter’s future. American classical scholar, Helene Foley (1994), also argues that the myth showcases the marital conventions in Ancient Greece where young girls had to leave their birthplace and be separated from their families to live with their husbands. Unlike Demeter, Joan Durbeyfield broadly exploits her daughter’s sense of obligation towards her family and, consequently, pushes her daughter into the patriarchal system represented in the character of Alec. Ultimately, her mother is responsible for removing her from her home and transforming her into a commodity (Radford, 2002).

Figure 2. Scene of Rape and Murder. Francisco Goya. 1812. https://www.wikiart.org/en/francisco-goya/scene-of-rape-and-murder-1812

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Alec d’Urberville represents a dual god according to his actions and Hardy’s portrayal. Alec is the heir to a family of great wealth amassed during the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to their well-off status, the family can purchase the ancient noble name of the d’Urbervilles whereas the true heirs live a miserable life (Bonaparte, 1999). On the one hand, his actions toward Tess during her first visit define him as Hades and foreshadow her abduction and undoing. For example, he forces Tess to eat the pomegranate in the form of a strawberry in their very first meeting which represents “a pre-sexual rite emphasizing Tess's nubility and Alec's lustful intentions” (McGuire, 1966, p. 24). As in the original story, Tess does not desire to be fed the strawberry by Alec and “would rather take it in” her “own hand.” (Hardy, 2005, p. 47). Nevertheless, he insists until he parts her lips to take it in, and “when she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them” in addition to adorning her hat with roses which echoes Persephone’s abduction while collecting flowers (Hardy, 2005, p. 47). The strawberries which Alec feeds Tess belong to ‘The British Queen’ kind which anticipates Tess’s “return near the end of the novel as Alec's Queen” (Radford, 2002, p. 206).

On the other hand, Alec can also be perceived as a Dionysian figure due to his subversion of conventional moral and ethical rules. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and often challenged social standards in addition to seducing women. In the novel, Hardy collects all these features in the opening of the tenth chapter and attributes them to Alec (Bullen, 2019). The author depicts the village of the d’Urbervilles, Trantridge, where they live in a manor house called ‘The Slopes’. The narrator affirms that “every village has its idiosyncrasy, its constitution, often its code of morality”, and, therefore, “Trantridge was marked, and was perhaps symptomatic of the choice spirit who ruled The Slopes in that vicinity.” (Hardy, 2005, p. 70). According to the description, Trantridge is defined by a choice spirit, Alec d’Urberville, who, as his mythological analog, is wild and sensual. Dionysus was an outsider among the Greek gods because he arrived at Thebes from Asia just like Alec feels as the other having come to Wessex from the North of England (Bullen, 2019).

Figure 3. Dionysus. Caravaggio. 1598. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bacchus-Caravaggio_(1598).jpg

Nevertheless, it is in The Chase scene where the mythological personalities of Alec combine since it is the moment when he rapes Tess and “begins the first phase of a hunt which persists to the last scene of the novel.” (Bullen, 2019, p. 9). ‘The Chase’ is the name of “one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primæval date” where there was still “Druidical mistletoe on aged oaks” (Hardy, 2005, p. 44). Hardy stresses the “sylvan antiquity” of the area and, thus, describes a mythical landscape where Tess’s virginity is going to be sacrificed. The course of events in this scene is characterized by conflicting forces, Dionysianism and Apollonianism which represent the duality of chaos and order. The former is responsible for the rawness and brutality of the sexual act whereas the second one softens the situation through the “natural, woodland setting” (Bullen, 2019, p. 10). According to Parker (1992, p. 276), The Chase scene stresses the eternality of the tensions between female and male forces since it dramatizes “the eternal pattern of the female fleeing from the male” although the woman always ends up “being caught”. As well as to Hades and Persephone, Tess and Alec seem involved in an eternal battle which ultimately reflects Hardy’s “pessimistic rendering” of the myth (Radford, 2002, p. 207).

Hardy is truly interested in the myth’s tragic consequences, which serve as a canvas for him to criticize the nineteenth-century crisis of faith and rationalism. The character who represents the modern and intellectual man is Angel Clare, Tess’s true love interest (Radford, 2002). Angel has often been portrayed as the hero of the narrative, but he rather is a “satiric portrait” of the rational man (Bonaparte, 1999, p. 425). He is the son of a clergyman but refuses to follow his father’s lessons because, as a modern man, he lives in a secular world and has lost his faith. He even argues with his father that “it might have resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilization” and, therefore, refuses any lesson that comes from Judeo-Christian thinking (Hardy, 2005, p. 175). Accordingly, Angel is a representation of Apollo, the Greek god of reason, although, for Hardy, this is not a positive sign since his view “of rationalism” was “no less malignant than theology and empiricism” (Bonaparte, 1999, p. 426).

Figure 4. The School of Athens. Rafael Sanzio. 1512. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_School_of_Athens

Angel is not able to transcend himself and reach the mythical truth which leads to him abandoning Tess when he discovers her sexual encounter with Alec. In the end, both Alec and Angel form a “malevolent symbiosis” with Tess as the “sacrificial victim” since Alec abuses her sexually, but it is Angel who ultimately rejects her forcing her to return to Alec (Kozicki, 1974, p. 158). When Angel returns to her, he is also the one who unwillingly leads her to murder Alec because he recognizes him as her “husband in Nature” (Hardy, 2005, p. 262). Finally, this leads to another ritual similar to the one in The Chase scene in which Angel and Tess, after Alec’s murder, escape to Stonehenge where the main character is finally arrested by the police which symbolizes her death (Radford, 2002).

In conclusion, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a highly symbolical novel which uses mythical scenery as a template to develop Hardy’s criticism of empiricism, rationalism and the crisis of faith. Just like Tess’s mother --due to her greed-- Angel is responsible for her final undoing because of his inability to go beyond the rational and material world. Both characters, representatives of the modern world, push Tess into Alec’s arms, representative of the primitive and ruthless world. The tensions embedded within the social system lead Tess to her downfall refusing “to offer any compensating vision of redemption” which “is underlined by Stonehenge, a forbidding image of stony circularity, a stark emblem of narrative closure.” (Radford, 2002, p. 207).

Bibliographical References

Bonaparte, F. (1999). The Deadly Misreading of Mythic Texts: Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 5(3), 415–431. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30222459

Bullen, J.B.. (2019). Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Apollo, Dionysus, and Stonehenge. FATHOM, 6, 1-15. 10.4000/fathom.888.

Foley H. P. (1994). The homeric hymn to Demeter: translation commentary and interpretative essays. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hardy, T. (2005). Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Irigaray, L. (1991). Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kozicki, H. (1974). Myths of redemption in Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles". Papers on Language and Literature, 10(2), 150-158. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/myths-redemption-hardys-tess-durbervilles/docview/1300132041/se-2

McGuire, J. (1966). The use of mythology in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. University of the Pacific, Thesis. https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/uop_etds/1611

Parker, L. (1992). “Pure Woman” and Tragic Heroine? Conflicting Myths in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Studies in the Novel, 24(3), 273–281.

Radford, A (2002). The Making of a Goddess: Hardy, Lawrence and Persephone. Connotations (12)2-3, 202-32.

Radford, A. (2007). The lost girls Demeter-Persephone and the literary imagination, 1850-1930. New York: Rodopi.

Rowan-Brooks, N. (2018). TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES: A study guide. The Thomas Hardy Yearbook, (46), 1-88. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/tess-durbervilles-study-guide/docview/2188890068/se-2

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