Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Chapter 11

Chapter 11 Summary

After a night at Chaseborough with Alec’s housekeeping staff, Alec ‘rescues’ Tess. Instead of returning directly to The Slopes, however, he takes an unusual path in the woods, hoping to take advantage of Tess in a vulnerable state. Alec eventually loses his way in the dense fog. He leaves Tess in the woods in a ”nest of leaves”, building on Tess’s depiction as an anthropomorphised figure, as he goes to find his way back to Trantridge. When Alec returns to Tess, he finds her asleep and rapes her, knowing he has worn down Tess’s defences since their meeting. There is ambiguity as to whether this is a rape scene or seduction, and Hardy muses that perhaps one of Tess’s distant knighted ancestors had “dealt the same wrong […] upon peasant girls of their time” (11.63), as if this is an inevitable fate for young women in Hardy’s England.

Setting

  • Chapter 11 is set entirely at night, in the darkness and fog of the forest. This provides a clear foreshadowing of danger for Tess – Alec has deliberately brought them into this setting in an attempt to “prolong their ride a little”.
  • “The Chase” echoes the relationship between Tess and Alec as it implied that this is where Alec’s chase for Tess comes to an end and he simply takes what he wants.
  • The chapter also contains an idealised landscape of the ancient woods at night, with mist floating ethereally. However, there is an ironic space between perception and reality. This is a desired landscape – but for Alec only. For Tess, it is threatening. As Hardy describes in Chapter 12, “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings”, referencing Garden of Eden and showing how ambiguous the landscape of desire is.
  • The power of nature: “Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around”. Yet, despite nature’s obvious power, it has failed to protect Tess.
  • The quote “a faint luminous fog… enveloped them” shows Hardy’s use of a semantic field of concealment/entrapment throughout the chapter. This shows how Tess’s body is constricted, not only by Alec, but by fate and nature, both being witnesses to her tragedy: “enveloped them”, “enclosed her waist”, “clasping his arm”, “letting me clasp you”, “wrapped in thick darkness” etc.
  • This also emphasises the chapter’s confined setting, much like how Shakespeare utilised Cyprus in Othello to represent claustrophobic pressures provoking an eventual catharsis.
  • The fog blurs the characters’ and the readers’ visions, which is reflective of Hardy’s ambiguity towards the rape/seduction. This pathetic fallacy describes the undefined attitudes towards the definition of rape in Victorian culture, but also the literary restraints on Hardy, who was censored in his serialised novel. ‘Tess’ was published by the British illustrated newspaper ‘The Graphic’ in 1891. Its editors were conservative and kept asking Hardy to tone down the more obviously sexual parts, even objecting to Angel carrying Tess over a flooded part of the road. A rape scene, consequently, would’ve been outrageous to the newspaper’s family audience.

Motif: Horses

  • Alec leaves Tess with his horse while he attempts to discover where they are. In Chapter Four, Tess experienced the death of Prince, who acted as a symbol of the d’Urberville family – he has a noble name but is reduced to menial labour in order to survive. Prince’s blood foreshadowed Tess’s role as a “murderess” and her tragic correlation with blood through the motific use of red: “she became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops.” However, the horse itself also becomes a symbol.
  • Much like Prince, Alec’s horse takes on a protective role in Chapter 11, (“it will be quite sufficient” – Alec), demonstrating the protection of nature. Yet, there is tragedy in this: Tess’s only protection is provided by the natural world, ineffective against the growing, industrial Victorian England. Once again, nature isn’t enough to save her, but merely a witness to the crimes committed against her.
  • Contextually, royal men used to be painted on horses in portraits as a display of power. Freud connoted horses with sex and virility, linking this to Alec’s frequent harassment of Tess: “Horses were the natural symbol of wild animals, which were powerful, vigorous and impulsive, so it was often revealed to the sexual desire of the man.”
  • “She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears”: The fact that Tess was asleep when Alec attacks her alludes to the death of Prince at the beginning of the novel. Both tragic events have come from the same circumstances – after Tess has fallen asleep. Her passivity is heightened.

Fate and Religion

  • Hardy reintroduces the concept that fate plays a significant part in how people’s lives turn out. He concludes: “It [the rape] was meant to be.” The ancient Greeks used fate as a guiding force in their classically tragic plays through archetypal characters called the ‘Fates’. However, the tragic theme of the predestined might not be down to godly forces, but through the inevitable fate that a young woman in Hardy’s patriarchal England would face.
  • Diverging perspective – At the end of the chapter, Hardy’s own voice comes through by using a first person narrative that unites the author and the readers to personalise Tess’s tragedy. Hardy’s authorial comments also engage with biblical theology, in an oppositional way. Despite his ambiguity towards the rape/seduction, Hardy’s perspective on “wronged women” and the failed Christian “analytical philosophy” imply that this is a severe tragedy, connoting rape and not a consensual act.
  • Hardy also makes use of rhetorical questions to critique Christian beliefs: “But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith?” This foreshadows the tragic irony of Tess meeting her “angel” – Angel Clare, who also fails to protect her from fate.

Intertextual Links

  • Hardy would not offend the sensibilities of his readers by including a sexually violent scene. Instead, like a Greek tragedy, the violence takes place off-stage. Indeed, all violence in the Greek theatre was played off-stage as witnessed in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Even when Oedipus blinds himself by gouging his eyes out, the audience doesn’t see the actual act on stage. Instead, they see the result of the action, as Hardy’s readers will in ‘Tess’. What the characters do or how they react is more important than the act.
  • Alec’s actions follow in the pattern of many English novels, from Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth century Pamela, through Dickens and George Eliot. His sexual predatory behaviour influences the narrative in the of seduction and/or rape, the birth of an illegitimate child, disgrace and death, a similar narrative to Hetty in Eliot’s Adam Bede.
  • The theme of appearance vs reality is present through the use of the distorting fog and an unreliable narrator, linking to the ambiguity between rape and seduction in McEwan’s Atonement.
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