Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is Angel Clare the real villain of Tess of the D’Urbervilles?

This is an issue that has been plaguing me since studying Tess at A Level. It is easy to blame Alec for Tess’ misfortunes and yet Angel’s actions are the ones that perhaps disappoint the modern reader the most. We expect more of him. Ultimately, Hardy seems to suggest, fault lies in the fates, the malevolent forces that govern the universe. Indeed, Tess’ misfortunes are amplified because of the sense of bad timing that pervades the novel.

The infamous ‘rape’ scene is surrounded, quite literally, by fog – a sort of moral nebulosity. Alec may have taken advantage of a situation but he is perhaps not the force of evil that he is often perceived as. The scene is tragic because of his lust for Tess, something that he does not seem capable of controlling, combined with her naivety. Fault also lies with Tess, and, perhaps as Clarence Darrow may say, ‘back of her’. Darrow’s argument for ‘hard determinism’ would absolve both characters of blame. It is clear to the reader that Tess’s parents, however inadvertently, are essentially pushing her into the jaws of the lion.

Tess, as an ‘untinctured vessel of emotion’, drowns herself in guilt following the death of the family’s horse, Prince. Yet, ‘in the Durbeyfield countenances, there was nothing of the red wrath that would have burnt upon the girl from parents more ambitious for her welfare. Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself’. Her parents are perhaps insensitive, naïve themselves, and thus incapable of making Tess aware of the world around her. Her father, though a good source of comedy, is vain and self-obsessed – drunk and immature but it is her mother who, as a viable source of wisdom, truly fails her. Following the fateful events of her time with Alec, Tess cries to her mother: ‘how could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house… why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way and you did not help me!’. Tess’ mother was obsessed with the thought of her daughter marrying a gentleman and restoring the good name of the family, that she failed to adequately protect her own child. She was selfish. So Tess is, in a sense, a victim of her upbringing. She is cast as a maternal figure, having to care for her siblings and this endows her with a sense of overwhelming responsibility – and pressure – for the family’s welfare. She is thus not exposed to aids such as books and learning and sheer life experience that may have better enabled her to handle men such as Alec.

Nevertheless, Angel takes advantage of Tess just as much as Alec does, though in a different way. Where Alec’s conquest is predominantly physical, Angel takes advantage of her emotional character, he is just as calculating. In a practical sense, he needs a wife who can assist him with his farming exploits in the colonies and he only takes notice of Tess when she speaks about the soul but is condescending when he speaks to her over such matters – (‘this hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so? All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet…’ and ‘my Tess has, no doubt, almost as many experiences as that wild convolvulus out there on the garden hedge, that opened itself this morning for the first time’) He makes assumptions about Tess’ innocence, and encourages a process of mutual idolization. He never gives Tess the chance to truly let him know her as he is too absorbed in his image of her as a pure, innocent child of nature. Tess, on the other hand, fuels his superiority complex by idolizing him as the height of intellect and goodness, making herself completely submissive to his wishes. To her ‘sublime trustfulness, he was all that goodness could be’ but just as with everyone else, Angel deserts her in the time when she needs him the most, leaving her susceptible to Alec’s advances. Angel’s imagination dominates him to the extent that upon the revelation of Tess’s past he can no longer accept her because she is now a completely different person. His rejection of what is real and physical, in favour of what is ethereal and spiritual makes it impossible for him to accept Tess’s history.

Even Tess is somewhat surprised by Angel’s character in these moments, appalled by ‘the determination revealed in the depths of this gentle being… the will to subdue the grosser to the subtler emotion, the substance to the conception, the flesh to the spirit’. Tess’s revelation may be a direct assault on his character and he may need time to adjust but his behaviour is perhaps too extreme and inhumane. Even when he realises it is possible for Tess to embody both the spiritual ideal and physical and real, he still manages to do so much too late. This is not really his fault, all the characters struggle against forces beyond their control and so can only be deplored to a certain extent. Nevertheless, Angel is the character that disappoints the reader the most because he is an educated young man who could really have saved Tess, yet fails to use his reason to do so. He may not be a villain but his behaviour, in our eyes, is unfair and falls short of the expectation imbued by his name and our initial impressions of him. 


  1. I wrote an essay for my English Literature A Level (we had to compare two books), which discussed whether Tess and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights were to blame for their own downfalls, or whether society/the individuals around them were (I even used the same "men-folk" quote as you!), and I totally agree with you; Angel is such a disappointment. I wanted to scream.
    Actually, I wanted to scream at all the characters in this book. To me, they all seemed completely incapable of seeing past their own selfish wants and desires, and were just a bit, well... dim. But although I think Angel is a complete tool, I'd have to say I don't agree with you, I don't think he's the real villain. After all, all women of that era were expected to be pure and 'untouched', and because Tess' case was so unfamiliar to the sheltered & privileged life Angel had led, could you entirely blame him for having so many misconceptions? Alec is an obvious villain to pick, of course, but beyond the blurry rape scene, he was very manipulative, devious and systematically sought Tess out. He knew what he was doing. But then again, Tess never helped herself.
    Oooh I don't know!!! That books stressed me out so much! My friend actually threw it across the room, she got so angry!!

  2. Tess is a very frustrating book and character in many ways. I find myself annoyed at her for being naive but ultimately I kind of blame her parents, the whole 'how was I to know' scene really resonated. Her father's immature and her mother fails to guide her. I agree that most of the characters are selfish in the way that they are motivated by the wrong things. For me, Angel is a hypocrite, perhaps not a villain, but he could have chosen differently. A lot of what Alec does is in some way encouraged by Tess, I don't think she's definitive enough in the way she deals with him, which again leads back to her parentage...