Chapter 12

Synopsis of chapter 12

The second phase begins with Tess's journey home some weeks later. This time she is walking, carrying her bags, having slipped away from 'The Slopes' unannounced. Alec catches up with her in his gig and gives her a lift most of the rest of the way. Tess emphasises she does not love him, and is adamant about leaving. Alec promises her help, especially if she should find herself pregnant. This she refuses.

As Alec is getting too pressing, Tess asks to be set down and continues the remaining distance on foot. She is overtaken by a religious sign writer who paints condemnatory religious texts on suitable surfaces. Tess feels duly condemned for her 'affair' with Alec, then rejects the Christian belief lying behind the texts.

Her mother is surprised to see her, and condemns Tess, too, but for not getting Alec to promise marriage. Tess flares up, accusing her mother of not having warned her about the dangers associated with men. In the end, her mother accepts the situation fatalistically.

Commentary on chapter 12

her face was set: perhaps an echo of, where Jesus sets his face towards his suffering and eventual death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). See, for instance, Isaiah 53:7 and Jesus' prayer in Matthew 26:36-46.

the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing: a direct quotation from Shakespeare's long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, ll.869-72, in which Lucrece kills herself after being raped by the Roman king.

More on serpent: Indirectly, it is a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-6). In the apparent paradise of 'The Slopes', Alec is the serpent, tempting Tess to her fall. The novel echoes Milton's seventeenth century poem Paradise Lost in many ways, and the nature of the fall (see Chs 19, 20, 27 for further references to Eden).

in the cause of her confidence, her sorrow lay: as with parts of the body, the Victorians were also very modest about mentioning pregnancy. Hardy uses this to his advantage in his evasive, ambiguous language. We ask: how certain is Tess that she really is pregnant?

to the uttermost farthing: Although Alec appears irreligious, his language has biblical echoes, here.

Thy damnation slumbereth not: A misquotation. The Bible actually has 'Their damnation...' The quotation is from the King James Version of the Bible, (2 Peter 2:3), referring to those who prophesy and teach about God falsely. Tess unfortunately does not know the context, so accepts the painter's version.

the last grotesque phase....: perhaps Hardy's most obvious rejection of Christianity in the book. 'Creed' may refer to Christianity as a whole, or it may just apply to the painter's version of it. Hardy is critical about religion's role in the past, as well as trying to be prophetic of its future.

Thou shalt not commit: although the phrase is unfinished, this is interpreted as the seventh commandment (Exodus 20:1-17 ), forbidding adultery. The way Tess accepts the application suggests she does not see herself as simply raped and left, but as having entered into a liaison with Alec.

I'm not of his persuasion now: refers to his denomination. Mr Clare is an Anglican; the painter thus is probably a Methodist (see Different religious approaches in Tess of the d'Urbervilles), but there were smaller sects as well.

he was dust and ashes to her: another Biblical echo, the phrase usually referring to repentance and turning away from false pleasures. See Job 42:6.


The time is some six weeks after the previous chapter's events. By creating this time gap, Hardy is hinting that some sort of relationship existed for a short time between Tess and Alec. In that time they have clearly become disaffected with each other. The autumn season could thus be seen as symbolic of something that fades and withers, rather than as a time of fruition.


The journey is a return journey, and poses no danger for Tess. This time, Alec's pursuit is easily held off. The bigger threat is from the sign-painter, representing the condemnation Tess feels. Unlike the prodigal son, she is definitely not welcomed home (Luke 15:11-32).


propinquity: nearness

Sabbath: Sunday

a marble term: a statue or bust of a god

application: how the texts are relevant to the reader

Investigating chapter 12

  • Look at the journey home.
    • Gather up words of ascent and descent.
    • How does Hardy characterise this journey.
    • How does it compare with previous journeys?
  • List the colours mentioned.
    • Can you see any significant patterns?
  • Why is the landscape 'terribly' beautiful to Tess?
  • How does Hardy describe Tess's behaviour and attitude when she meets Alec again?
    • What are the biggest differences from her previous encounters?
  • Do we get any clues to the sort of relationship Tess and Alec had over the past few weeks?
  • Look at the condemnation and blame Tess is given.
    • How much is given by people and how much is self-condemnation?
      • Which is worse for Tess?
  • How does Tess defend herself from others' condemnation?
    • Are we sympathetic to her reasons?
  • What is the significance of her mother's final remark?
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