The role of a subtext

A subtext is a text the writer keeps in mind throughout the creative process and which often helps determine the course of his or her writing. Sometimes, the author argues with a subtext, or uses its patterns or themes. Often the clues to a subtext are quotation, allusion or parallels too obvious to be co-incidental.

Subtexts in Tess

Hardy's main subtexts in Tess are:

  • The Bible
  • John Milton's Paradise Lost
  • John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

It should be noted all three subtexts would be well known to his readership. Above all, all three subtexts are Christian. Although there are also many allusions to Shakespeare and to classical mythology, none of these references form any consistent pattern, but are merely used to make a point in passing.

Given Hardy's early Christian faith and study of it as a young man, followed by his rejection of Christianity, it is logical to expect Hardy's use of these subtexts would be adversarial in some way. In fact, there are two main ways in which his use the works:

The Bible

Hardy quotes the Bible some 125 times. Some quotations are random, but many form various patterns, as we would expect in a subtext.

Mr Clare's faith

Hardy engages directly with Mr Clare's beliefs, which are grounded on the writings of Paul in the New Testament (Tess, ch 18, 25, 26, 39). Paul taught that people could only be saved from the consequences of sin, by having faith that Jesus Christ had rescued them. Hardy respects Mr Clare as a person. He sees him as consistent in his belief and an example of true Christian charity based on 1 Corinthians 13:2-8, giving him many Bible quotations as part of his character. However:

  • He uses Angel to voice arguments against the views of Paul
  • He uses the same Pauline texts in the testimony of a character we distrust – Alec (ch 44, 45). The reader finds Alec's use of biblical quotation odd, partly because it is inauthentic, partly because it is hard to believe that any convert would learn the Bible quite so quickly (Ch 46, 47).

Hardy's perspective

  • Hardy's (and Angel's) view seems to endorse just the moral teachings of Christ and look at his example of how to live the good life. This is in line with many Victorian agnostics, who wished also to eliminate the miraculous and supernatural aspects of Christianity (Ch 18)
  • Elsewhere, Hardy's authorial comments engage with biblical theology in an adversarial way (e.g. Ch 11)
  • Hardy uses the Bible to promote his own views, especially in connection with the suffering and injustice in the world:
    • When Tess asks in Ch 19 about the sun shining on the just and unjust, she uses a Bible verse that originally referred to God's mercy and grace to refer instead to the world's injustice
    • Hardy quotes a number of times from the book of Job, which deals extensively with suffering, as well as from the gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and suffering.

Church of England teaching

Hardy deals with the Bible indirectly through his use of phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, whose language and theology echo the Authorised Version of the Bible. In Ch 14, where Tess baptises her baby, Hardy's comments suggests his profound disagreement with the sentiments expressed in the Prayer Book, and thus with Church of England doctrine.

Biblical images

The greatest use of the Bible in the novel is as a source of imagery or proverbial sayings, in the same way as Hardy uses Shakespeare:

  • Angel sees Tess as 'the Magdalene' referring to one of Jesus' female followers, Mary Magdalene (Ch 20).
  • Hardy often picks such allusions with an ironic reference - Mary is commonly thought to have fallen into sexual sin before meeting Jesus. Angel knows this of Mary, yet does not believe it of Tess, whilst Victorian readers would have done, despite the fact that it could be argued that Tess was raped and therefore not a willing participant in the relationship.

Paradise Lost

John Milton's Paradise Lost was one of the standard classics that would have been read and taught to many educated readers of Hardy's novels. It re-tells the Genesis account of the creation of the world, the fall of Satan and his demons from heaven to hell, and his successful temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (or Paradise), known as the Fall of humankind. The Fall leads to a loss of fellowship between humans and God, but closes with God promising Adam and Eve they still have a future and a hope as they leave Eden hand in hand. (See Big ideas from the Bible: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam')

Parallels between Tess and Genesis

  • Hardy's interest in Tess is centred round the loss of happiness from pastoral innocence, due to (sexual) temptation; a continuing Garden of Eden
  • The Eden imagery is particularly strong in his description of Talbothays, whose fertility and harmony are constantly emphasized
  • Hardy makes Tess and Angel see each other as a new Adam and Eve in their newfound love (Ch 20, 27)
  • However, as we connect to the subtext, the reader knows there will be loss of fellowship and loss of Eden (Ch 55), which creates dramatic tension and irony
  • The final note of leaving paradise hand-in-hand is ironically given to Angel and Liza-Lu (Ch 59).

Hardy also deconstructs the Eden imagery in Ch 19:

  • He describes the garden with apple-trees as disused, foul-smelling and overgrown
  • Angel's harp playing is far from perfect
  • The white stains turn to red (see Colour symbolism).

As for Satan, Alec at various times fulfils this role of tempter under the disguise of the serpent (Ch 12, 50). But at other times, Hardy seems to suggest that there is little need for an external ‘devil' when human beings create their own evil.

The Pilgrim's Progress


The notion of pilgrims and pilgrimage runs throughout the novel (see Tess as secular pilgrim; Journeys [in Parallels and repetitions]). To Hardy's readership, such references would instantly have summoned up John Bunyan's great seventeenth century allegory (written whilst in Bedford prison for his non-conformist Christian beliefs). This was required reading for most Victorian children, and often the only reading allowed on a Sunday.

Most Victorians did not themselves go on pilgrimages, but the idea was very familiar because of this one text. (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the other great English work on pilgrimage would not have been nearly so well known.)

Hardy's use of The Pilgrim's Progress in Tess

Hardy echoes Bunyan's text several times which his readers would have picked up on:

  • In Ch 12, Tess stops at a stile by a meadow, where she meets the sign painter. To Tess he becomes something of a 'hinderer'. Bunyan's pilgrim, Christian, was tempted over a stile, to cross Bypath meadow, which led him to Giant Despair's castle and captivity. The sign-painter is a typical allegorical figure, one who would be seen as a 'helper' in Bunyan's story. Crossing stiles is therefore dangerous!
  • In Ch 19, Hardy makes more explicit references to the 'Valley of Humiliation' down into which 'the unhappy pilgrim' has to go
  • Hardy's use of symbolic geography is very similar to the allegorical landscapes that Bunyan uses, based on his native Bedfordshire (see Geographical symbolism)
  • Tess is allowed to reach her 'heavenly city', but it is defined in terms of erotic human love. The hope of life after death is denied her since she agrees with Angel's unbelief (Ch 58). Her bliss, therefore, is temporal and temporary, cut short in the very earthly city of Wintonchester.
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