English Literature AS: ‘Tess’ and ‘Death’ Comparative Essay (2)

At the heart of the tragic experience is an overwhelming sense of shame

Shame is dependent on the expectation of the self, and society, with tragedy lying in the character’s ability to never accomplish their desires. Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the DUrbervilles and Willy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, can never transcend their shame, not because a prejudiced society limits them, but because they internalise such prejudice that confines them to their tragedy, evoking a sense of shame in never being able to reach their own expectation.

Tragedy lies within the downfall of the common man which, as Miller described, was the belief that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings are”. The same level of tragedy connoted in the two texts would debatably not be present if it wasn’t dependent on to cultural and gender expectations. For example, Robert Browning’s satirical poem, My Last Duchess, features a rich Duke boasting about the murder of his wife, as he remains untouched by shame and punishment. He is protected by privilege. Tess, however, remains victim to the shame projected upon her by the patriarchy. She survives the abuse inflicted on her throughout the novel by a society that doesn’t allow her to baptize her child, allow her to live without discrimination and escape male desires, but the tragedy occurs when Tess accepts and internalizes the misogyny projected onto her: “I shall not live for you to despise me… I am ready” (Chapter 59). Initially, Tess isn’t shamed by her appearance, as she values more than just her body as a tool for “happiness”. When she “mercilessly nipped her eyebrows off” in Chapter 42, she wasn’t afraid of losing her beauty, but exploited what defined her in the eyes of men, and inverted it, contrasting to Hardy’s own narrative that saw her as “a lesser creature” physically diminished by his language. Tess found pride in her appearance throughout the novel, utilizing her beauty for the aid of her family and manipulating male fantasy – in Chapter 2, she “was the only one who could boast” of the red ribbon in her hair, not being shamed by male sexualisation, but using it for her own advantage as a sign of proto-feminist power. Likewise, despite Tess’s pride initially originating in her difference (the red ribbon), her pride becomes a symbol of shame, reflected through her development throughout the novel from a “simple girl to complex woman” that brings “a note of tragedy at times into her voice” (Chapter 15). Her shame is thus founded in her womanhood, which transforms her from a “lesser creature” into a being that threatens patriarchal systems. Her body gains sexuality, and therefore power, meaning it can now be feared – it is no longer controlled by masculine rule. The 19th century society couldn’t understand how Tess could be a heterogeneous figure, fitting the dichotomy of both whore and virgin. From a modern perspective, whilst audiences may appreciate Hardy’s demonstration of women wronged by society, he validated this through sexual assault, raising questions over whether Tess would still be viewed the same if she chose to engage in sexual action, as if it devalues her character. She remains punished by lack of choice, invoking shame upon her victimhood.

Tess’s shame in womanhood becomes more pronounced through Hardy’s Biblical symbolism. Despite the author’s agnosticism and dislike of the religious institution, he depicts Alec as a Satan-like figure, and Tess, too, through the depiction of her “coiled up” hair in Chapter 55 alluding to the serpent imagery of Genesis. The similarities continue through Alec’s feeding of strawberries to Tess, reminiscent of the snake persuading Eve to eat the Garden of Eden’s fruit, inspiring Original Sin and bringing shame upon humanity. By Hardy representing Tess as Eve, the protagonist thus becomes a pinnacle of feminine shame and dishonor. Religion consumes Tess’ society the way capitalism permeates the Lomans’. Gender relation is inherent in Death of a Salesman through Miller’s symbolism of Linda’s stocking as an emblem of self-indulgence and household labor. This simplifies Linda’s love for Willy into a domestic, objectifying item, also demonstrating the assumed similarity between all women and their desires. Shame is found in an object typical of femininity, much like Desdemona’s handkerchief, Elizabeth Proctor’s poppet (doll) and Tess’s red ribbon, or even Sorrow, a physical burden and embodiment of her shame. Just as Tess finds disgrace in her appearance, inspiring her to create a different version of herself, Willy projects memories onto the present, creating an alternate reality that is more palatable. Shame is thus at the heart of the tragic experience for the common man (and woman), as Willy and Tess can never transcend their shame. It defines them until their deaths, which are caused by society’s inability to process actions deemed “shameful” despite modern audiences understanding the gendered victim-blaming of Tess’ arrest and Willy’s descent into mental illness.

Shame isn’t just evident in description, but dialogue. Hardy hints at Angel’s increasing influence over Tess when her own speech begins to shift towards a more elevated style that is reminiscent of the highly educated tones of the Clare family. This is noticed by Alec, who similarly adopts some of Angel’s more religious turns of phrase (Phase the Sixth), in sharp and often direct contrast to his more usual urban slang (“my pretty coz” – The Maiden). As Angel builds on Tess’s schooling, while her family and the other working women continue to use the dialect at home, the reader understands how Tess lives in two worlds and also how her shame isn’t noticeable in her own consciousness. There is a tragedy in this – Hardy creates dramatic irony as Tess hides her true self to elevate her status, much the same way Willy lives in two worlds to combat his shame in his unfulfilled life – Biff’s declaration that he’s “colour-blind” in Act 1 adds to the idea that Wily lives in a distorted world of his own. This conforms to the traditional tragic experience, as evidenced in pioneering texts like Othello the protagonist’s character changes throughout the play, as exploited by Iago’s manipulation. Act Four sees his language turn bestial and monstrous, conforming to the racial prejudice projected onto him and abandoning his valour infused blank verse demonstrated in the play’s beginning and instead reverting to short exclamation: “Is’t possible? – confess? – Hand-kerchief? – O devil!”

Alternatively, there is tragedy in shamelessness. Happy feels no shame in Willy’s actions throughout the play, even professing to “win [the dream] for him!” in the Requiem as dramatic irony and engaging in the same sexist behaviour throughout the play, referring to seducing women being like “bowling”. Likewise, while Alec repents for his “sins”, he never learns from his intended sexual abuse and twists Hardy’s natural presentation of Tess: her “dressing-gown of grey-white in… “half-mourning tints” shows a hyphen separation of words that mirror Tess’s blurring of identity, and the description of her “cable” hair “hanging on her shoulder” represents the mechanical nature of her body now that Alec has removed her pastoral nature so often linked with femininity. It also alludes to the beginning of the novel at chapter two, where the “red ribbon” restricted her as her hair confines her now, illustrating Alec’s manipulation of Tess into his own, perfected creature, shameless in the image he’s created. The narrative voice is then particularly relevant, as Hardy’s typically omniscient narrator removes itself from Tess’s perspective and instead sees through Angel’s eyes, representing his removed nature from his authorial creation – this character is now molded by Alec. He rarely exhibits any shame, although his behaviour is, to most readers, the most shameful, enforcing the novel’s overwhelming tragedy.

Shame permeates the texts as it is embodied through setting and colour. Tess’s close association with red is introduced from the novel’s beginning, evidenced through her red ribbon during the May-Day dance and Prince’s death. Red is often the color of shame, and Tess’ life is stained with it. As a result, she is blood-stained throughout, foreshadowing her tragedy and also demonstrating the visual component of shame. The red that surrounds her through the “red brick” of the D’Urberville house introduces the theme of shame being reflected in setting, and thus the “overwhelming” emotion being an effect of claustrophobia. This is further developed in Death of a Salesman, where the playwright describes the “towering, angular shapes” that box in the Loman household, creating an isolated, separate world – a place for Willy’s imagination to permeate. This emphasizes the “overwhelming” sense of shame that confines characters to their shame, so much so that it becomes alienating to the readers. This is executed in the play where staging is crucial in establishing a sense of shame. The play was originally called “The Inside of His Mind” that aimed for the stage to replicate Willy’s head as part of Miller’s Expressionist ideology. The stage allows various spaces to “become” another location through lack of walls, the oppressive apartment buildings crowding the house emphasizing Willy’s fear of the encroaching society and its consumerist competition.

Many critics would argue that Willy doesn’t even achieve a tragic experience, instead living the life of a “little salesman with a pathetic belief in his worthless son” as professed by J.C. Trewin. However, this criticism only supports Willy’s shameful character – Just as “Loman’s downfall threatens not a city like Oedipus, but only a single family”, as professed by Erkan, Willy didn’t hold a position of power to begin with, so he doesn’t even hold the traditional power of tragedy, once more bringing shame upon himself and his actions. Shame intrinsically links to the “impersonal and hierarchal” world of capitalism in Death of a Salesman (Cardullo) and the unfeeling religion in opposition with the natural world in Tess of the DUrbervilles, enforcing shame on anyone who cannot fulfil their societal potential and thus binding tragedy with social process.

Willy and Tess can never transcend their shame as it is defined by their uniting hamartia – their hubris. At the heart of tragedy is an overwhelming sense of shame, evidenced in two characters who cannot exceed their predestined tragic flaw. It is then not how the protagonist is viewed by society, but how they internalise such prejudice that confines them to their tragedy, evoking a sense of shame in never being able to transcend their fates, as archetypal of the tragic genre.

 

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