Chapter 49

Synopsis of chapter 49

Tess's letter to Angel is forwarded to him in Brazil by his father. It occasions a conversation between the parents about whether they should have sent Angel to Cambridge after all. At least then, he would not have tried to be a farmer and married a farm girl.

Meanwhile, Angel is on his way to the Brazilian coast, labouring through the jungle. The immigrants have had a disastrous time and many have died. Angel himself has been rethinking his actions, and when he tells an acquaintance about his marriage, the man plainly tells him he judged wrongly. Angel wonders, though, why Tess has not written, having forgotten he had told her not to.

Tess is expecting a response to her letter and prepares herself for Angel's return. Her sister Liza-Lu finds her with the news that their mother is very ill, perhaps dying. Tess decides to finish her contract with the farm and sets off home.

Commentary on chapter 49

The reader has already had the experience of finding one of Tess's letters not reaching Angel (Ch 33). It thus seems more than possible this one will not reach its destination, not least because it could well miss Angel as he is making his way home. In the first version of the story, Mr. Clare did not even send the letter but put it in a drawer.

The main movement of the chapter, however, is Angel's own purgatorial experiences in Brazil. These lead him to re-evaluate all his and Tess's actions. He now sees how wrong he was, but of course, it may well be too late. Hardy also brings out the cruelty of nature in his descriptions of Brazil. This reinforces his comments on the cruelty of life in general. We are more than ever aware of the pressures on Tess with the news of impending disaster for her family.

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of AbrahamAbraham might have mourned....: The story in Genesis 22:1-14 is of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son on a mountain top. Hardy imagines Abraham's feelings. It is not clear whether the reader is meant to remember that the story turns out well.

old systems of mysticism....morality: Angel had discarded belief in the supernatural elements of Christianity but retained a traditionally narrow and legalistic set of moral views, which he now realises also needs re-evaluating.

general principles...particular instances: any moral system must balance general moral principles with particular instances where they might prove difficult or even impossible to apply. Angel's immaturity and inexperience have not taught him this up till now.

the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim....: quoting from Judges 8:1-3, where Gideon suggests that the opportunity for the tribe of Ephraim to pick over (glean) the spoils of battle would be worth more than anything they could have acquired from the original battle (the Ephraimites had not been summoned to fight and thought they had lost out by this). Hardy's knowledge of such obscure passages from the Bible suggests how well he still knew it, and is prepared to exploit it for his own purposes.

'Cupid's Gardens'.....: Hardy lists a number of popular folk songs


For the significance and date of Old Lady Day, see notes in Ch 42.

Liza-Lu was the next oldest girl in Tess's family. It is nearly four years since she was mentioned, so she is presumably some sixteen or seventeen years old now.


cynic: someone who believes human virtues are motivated purely by self-interest

drave: toil

leaded: coffins lined with lead

withy: woven with willow branches

Investigating chapter 49

  • What more does the chapter tell us about the relationship of Angel's parents with him?
  • In what ways does Angel go through a purgatorial experience whilst in Brazil?
    • Is his suffering and re-education in any way comparable to Tess's?
    • Does the reader at any time get the experience of this change being too late?
  • Explain 'not among things done but among things willed'.
  • Look at the paragraph beginning 'But the reasoning is somewhat musty....'.
    • Is this Hardy's commentary or Angel's thinking?
      • Whose voice is it?
      • If it is Hardy's, what does it say about Hardy's philosophy of life?
      • What would this suggest about the outcome of the novel?
  • Explain the distinction Angel makes between the 'political value' and the 'imaginative value' of Tess's family line.
  • Hardy is fond of personifying time.
    • How would you explain 'So does Time ruthlessly destroy his own romances'?
  • In what ways does Tess rehearsing the folk-songs evoke pathos?
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