Phase Six: The Convert:
Alec d'Urberville appears with the same unpleasantness, but now has a neatly-trimmed mustache and a half-clerical dress. Alec has not been reformed, but rather transfigured, his passion for religious devotion instead of sensuality. Tess feels that this change is unnatural, although Christianity has a pattern of great sinners becoming great saints. Alec approaches her and tells her that his duty is to save, and there is no person to whom he has a greater duty than Tess. Tess asks him if he has saved himself, for charity begins at home. He says indifferent that he has done nothing and that no amount of contempt will equal what he has brought upon himself. Alec mentions Reverend Clare, who has been his religious inspiration since confronting Alec. She tells Alec that she does not believe his conversion, for a better man does not believe as much as Alec claims. Alec tells Tess that he should not look at her too often, for women's faces have too much power over him already. The two reach the point called Cross-in-Hand, named for a stone pillar that once stood there. Alec asks her who has taught her such proper English, and she claims that she has learned things in her troubles. She tells him about Sorrow, which shocks him. He asks Tess to swear on the Cross-in-Hand that she will never tempt him by her charms and ways. Upon leaving Tess, Alec opens a letter from Reverend Clare that expresses joy at Alec's conversion. Tess asks a shepherd the meaning of the Cross-in-Hand, and he says that it is no holy cross, but rather a medieval torture device and a place of ill omen.
The change in Alec d'Urberville is significant, yet Hardy almost immediately establishes that his great conversation is superficial. He remains the same hedonist as before, but has merely shifted his passion from sexuality to spirituality. This suggests that Alec may easily shift back to his former ways; he even admits as such when he tells Tess that he risks returning to his former lust when he looks at women's faces. However, the most prominent evidence that Alec remains little changed from his previous incarnation remains his assured belief that it is Tess who is responsible for Alec's sins and not Alec himself. Although he claims a duty and devotion to Tess, Alec essentially blames her for her own troubles, asking her never to tempt him again when she has done nothing to lure Alec or even show any interest for him.
Hardy takes a very critical view of religion in this chapter. He does not present Alec as atypical within Christian history. As Tess notes, the religion has a tradition of holding up its greatest sinners as its greatest saints, yet the evidence that Alec has truly mended his ways seems incredibly doubtful. Furthermore, Hardy presents Alec's attempt to save Tess's soul as intensely hypocritical. Hardy even connects Alec's religious conversion to the style of religion promoted by Reverend Clare, previously derided by Angel as archaic and dogmatic. Perhaps the most grotesque portrayal of religion in the chapter is the Cross-in-Hand; while both Alec and Tess assume that this landmark is a Christian cross, it in fact represents grotesque violence. The Cross-in-Hand thus symbolizes the lack of authenticity within Alec's conversion. This relic that Alec asks Tess to swear upon seems to represent Christian teachings, but in fact symbolizes violence and suffering akin to that Alec has inflicted upon Tess.
Several days pass since Tess's journey to Emminster. Tess sees a man approach as she works; it is not Farmer Groby, her employer, but rather Alec d'Urberville. Alec claims that he has a good reason for violating Tess's request that he not see her. He tells her that he now sees that she suffers from hard conditions, which she did not know earlier because he saw her in her best dress. He tells her that her case was the worst he was ever concerned in, and he had no idea of what resulted until their encounter days before. He takes blame for the ordeal, but says that it is a shame that parents bring up girls ignorant of the wicked. He tells her that he has lost his mother since Tess left Trantridge and he intends to devote himself to missionary work in Africa. He asks Tess if she will be his wife and accompany her. He tells Tess that his mother's dying wish was for Alec to be married, and he presents Tess with a marriage license. Tess admits to Alec that she is already married, and claims that she and Alec are now strangers. As Tess attempts to explain her situation, Alec calls her a deserted wife and he grabs her hand. She asks Alec to leave in the name of his own Christianity. Farmer Groby approaches Alec and Tess and asks what the commotion is, and Alec calls him a tyrant. When Farmer Groby leaves, Tess says that Farmer Groby will not hurt her, because he's not in love with her. That night, Tess writes a letter to Angel, concealing her hardships. Tess sees Alec again, and he remarks that Tess seems to have no religion, perhaps owing to him. She says that she believes in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, but she does not believe other details. Alec dismisses her opinions as merely those of her husband. He claims that Angel must be an infidel. Alec gives Tess a poster giving the time when he would preach, but claims that he would rather be with Tess. Alec claims that Tess has the means of his backsliding, and accuses her of tempting him.
Hardy makes very clear in this chapter that Alec d'Urberville has changed little since Tess left Trantridge Cross, as he continues to behave as before. He repeats many of the same actions that prefaced his seduction of Tess, following her and using his monetary influence as charity to endear himself to Tess in order to win her. Alec continues to evade responsibility for his actions; when he discusses what happened to Tess, he does not blame himself for seducing her, but blames mothers who do not warn their daughters that men can seduce. He also reiterates his claim that Tess has caused his sinfulness by tempting him, rather than accepting the blame for his weakness of morals.
Alec d'Urberville, rather than posing a threat to Tess's devotion to Angel Clare, instead bolsters her love for her husband. He reinforces Angel's purity of belief through contrast, while reminding Tess of their similarities of morals. Yet there remains an unfortunate similarity between Angel and Alec that Tess realizes during this chapter when she mentions that Farmer Groby cannot hurt Tess, for he does not love her. The one commonality that Angel and Alec have, despite their contrary natures, is that both inflict pain on Tess through love, whether expressed as an ideal or a physical act.
A man comes to see Tess, and her three companions watch. They do not recognize the man as Alec, however, for Alec does not appear as a ranting parson, as they have heard him described, but rather as a dandy. Alec has returned to his normal appearance, wearing fancy clothing once more and shaving off his beard. Alec claims that he has given up his preaching entirely. Alec tells Tess that he does not want her working at Flinctcomb-Ash. He derides Tess's husband, whose name he does not know, as a "mythological personage." Alec tells her that she should leave her husband forever, and Tess responds by slapping him with her leather glove, drawing blood. When he springs up at her, she tells him that he can whip her or crush her, and she will not cry out because she is always his victim. Alec tells her that he was her master once and will be her master again.
The full rejection of religion by Alec d'Urberville that Hardy has foreshadowed arrives in this chapter, revealing the superficiality of his religious conversion. Alec rejects Christianity as easily as he would reject a style of clothing; he signals this change of belief not by any overt behavior, but rather by adopting a more stylish appearance and rejecting the austere dress of a fundamentalist preacher. In contrast, while Alec shows a weakness and adaptability in his beliefs, Tess demonstrates her core of strength and fortitude. She takes physical action against Alec and refuses to flinch at the possibility that he may hurt her in return. Her claim that she will not cry out if Alec hurts her because she will always be her victim is ironic, for by confronting Alec in such a way she makes it very clear that she is far too strong to be the victim of Alec again.
Alec continues to visit Flintcomb-Ash to observe Tess. When he visits her again, he says that if he cannot legitimize their former relations, he can at least assist her. He says that although his religious mania is over, he retains a little good nature. He says that he will make her family comfortable if only she will show confidence in him. She tells him not to mention her siblings, and if he wants to help them, he should do so without telling her. After Alec leaves, Tess writes yet another letter to Angel, asking him to return to her. In this letter, she writes that she lives entirely for him and would be content to live with him as his servant if not as his wife.
Alec's offer to aid Tess is yet another example of his use of his financial resources to exert control over Tess, endearing himself to her by making himself essential for her survival. The significant difference in this offer to Tess is that it does not aid her, but rather her family. Hardy has established that the Durbeyfield family exerts a certain control over Tess, as when her parents goaded her into claiming kinship with the d'Urbervilles after Tess's mishap with the horse. While Tess can survive the physical hardship that she faces at Flintcomb-Ash, she finds it more difficult to allow her parents to suffer similar adversity. Tess's plea for Angel that he return to her is therefore her first sign of weakness with regard to Alec d'Urberville, who has found the one way to break down Tess's considerable defenses.
The Clares receive the letter that Tess wrote to Angel so that they may forward it to him. Mrs. Clare laments that Angel has been ill-used and should have been sent to Cambridge. The Clares blame themselves for Angel's marriage, for if Angel were not destined to be a farmer, he would have never been thrown in with an agricultural girl. During Angel's absence he had mentally aged a dozen years. Angel wonders whether he rejected Tess eternally and could no longer say that he would always reject her. Angel has grown to be Tess's advocate, remembering Izz Huett's words about her. Tess's sister, Liza-Lu, visits Tess at Flintcomb-Ash and tells her how both of their parents are ill and Joan may be dying.
Hardy removes the center of action from Tess in this chapter to give a brief account of Angel's recent actions and to suggest a change in Angel's behavior and attitudes. The obstacle to Angel reuniting with Tess becomes not whether or not Angel can accept Tess, but instead whether or not Angel believes that Tess will accept him if he were to return. Nevertheless, this foreshadows an eventual reunion between Tess and Angel, as he no longer feels the strong aversion to Tess that proved the cause of their separation.
When Hardy does give details concerning the title character, he continues the pattern of greater suffering that has marked Tess's life since her separation from Angel. The possible death of Joan Durbeyfield suggests an inevitable change in the dynamic between Tess and Alec; since it is Tess's devotion to her parents that causes her to weaken against Alec's demands, her fate is contingent upon what occurs to them.
Tess returns home to find a neighbor who has been caring for Joan Durbeyfield. John tells Tess that he is thinking of asking local antiquarians to subscribe to a fund to maintain him as a part of local history. He says that such societies keep local bones, and living remains should be far more interesting. Alec finds Tess in Marlott. He asks Tess if her engagement at Flintcomb-Ash has ended, and mocks the idea that she might join her husband. Tess replies that she has no husband. Alec tells her that he has sent her something that should have arrived at her house, and insists that he will help her in spite of herself. When Tess returns home, she finds that her father has died.
The death of John Durbeyfield is an ironic reversal of fortune for the Durbeyfield family, for it is Joan, who makes a sudden recovery, whose health seemed most in danger. This plot point is particularly ironic when considered in reference to his final conversation with his daughter in which he notes that local antiquarians support old bones of d'Urbervilles, and might do so for living descendants from that family. Durbeyfield therefore holds his final hopes on his worth as a d'Urberville. Although he notes the discrepancy between antiquarians supporting artifacts but not living remains, he does not find the irony in this predicament; instead, he holds to the same system of values that prizes the antique and the established over the modern. It is John Durbeyfield's reliance on his history as a d'Urberville that proves his most significant flaw, one with tragic consequences for his family.
Alec's attempts to help Tess appear more sinister in this chapter, for Alec uses them more explicitly as a means for domination. Alec approaches his efforts to aid Tess as if his kindness must be inflicted upon her; he essentially states that he will help her whether she likes her or not. This once again reinforces that, even when Alec appears ready to aid Tess, he in fact proves dangerous to her, a fact that Tess rightfully realizes.
Over the preceding generation, the class of skilled laborers in Marlott had largely left, leaving only tenant farmers. Those who were not employed as farmers were largely forced to seek refuge. Upon John Durbeyfield's death, the Durbeyfield's lease of their home is not renewed and the family is forced to find accommodations elsewhere. Tess believes that their lease is not renewed because of her reappearance in Marlott, a reminder of the family's questionable morals. Alec tells Tess the full legend of the d'Urberville coach. According to family legend, a d'Urberville abducted a beautiful woman who tried to escape from his coach and, in a struggle, he killed her. Tess admits that she is the reason that her family must leave their home, for she is not a proper woman. She tells Alec that they will go to Kingsbere, where they have lodgings. Alec offers his house at Trantridge and tells Tess that her husband will never return to her. Tess says that, if her circumstances with Alec would change, her mother would be homeless again. He offers a guarantee in writing against that occurring. Tess says that she can have money from her father-in-law if she were to ask, but Alec retorts that he knows that she will never ask. Tess writes to Angel again, asking why he has treated her so monstrously and vowing to forget him because of the injustice she has received at his hands. Tess and her family remain in their home for the last night, and Joan sees a man at the window. Tess says that it is not her husband, and once they reach Kingsbere she will tell her mother everything. Tess worries that Alec is her husband in a very physical sense.
Tess once again shoulders the burden of her family's troubles in this chapter, as the disreputable status of her family for which she is partially to blame causes Joan Durbeyfield to lose the lease to the family house after John Durbeyfield's death. This returns to the theme of Tess's inability to escape her past, yet darkens this theme by showing that Tess's actions have determined the fate of her family. This turn of events seems particularly tragic, for the dutiful Tess has always taken responsibility when her family has faced hardship, yet always blames herself. Here Tess actually is the reason for her family's hardship. The recurrence of past sins is also evident in this chapter in Tess's worry that Alec is her husband in a more physical sense than Angel, a worry that also illustrates the differences between the carnal, physical Alec and the spiritual, intellectual Angel.
The explanation of the d'Urberville coach foreshadows a tragic end to Tess Durbeyfield and neatly parallels the events of Tess's seduction by Alec. The legend posits that a beautiful woman falls victim to a villainous d'Urberville while traveling, recalling Alec's repeated attempts to seduce Tess while traveling by coach. However, at this point the conflict between Alec and Tess has not yet reached the point of serious violence.
The offer that Alec d'Urberville makes guaranteeing that he help the Durbeyfield family is perhaps the one act of charity that Tess finds difficult to reject, for in this situation she condemns her family to the same suffering she has felt. However, this does not necessarily indicate that Alec's offer is pure; rather, it remains tainted by its actual intent, for like the others it is merely a means for him to secure Tess as his own once more.
Tess and her family leave Marlott, and on their journey she sees Marian and Izz, who have left the hard life at Flintcomb-Ash. When the family reach their destination, the innkeeper tells them that they have no lodgings there, for he received their request too late. The family instead stays in the d'Urberville Aisle church where the family vault is located. Alec d'Urberville finds Tess there. Marian and Izz discuss Angel; Marian thinks that they will never have Angel no matter what, and they should try to mend his situation with Tess. They write to Angel that he should look to his wife if he loves her as she loves him.
The Durbeyfield family, driven from their home and having no lodgings, find themselves in the crypt of the family from which they are descended. This symbolizes the final descent of the d'Urbervilles, as the last remaining members of the family take residence with the remains of the dead nobility. Nevertheless, the actions of Izz Huett and Marian to repair the marriage between Angel Clare and Tess may signal a turning point in the novel. This action reinforces the love that Tess has for Angel, for if she cared for him less, both girls would attempt to pursue Angel for themselves. By behaving selflessly, Marian and Izz demonstrate an equal selflessness within Tess.