Alec can be seen in a number of ways. The following are helpful perspectives:

  • The characterisation of Alec
  • Alec as the villain of popular melodrama
  • Alec the new convert
  • Alec the charlatan.

The characterisation of Alec

Hardy's methods of characterising Alec d'Urberville are far less varied compared to those he uses with either Angel or Tess:

  • Alec appears not to have an inner life, apart from a brief period of conversion, so few thoughts are recorded in the novel
  • Hardy does signal his extroverted, superficial personality through clothes and such symbols as his cigars, whose glow in the dark is patently phallic in reference
  • He is associated with animals, especially horses, over which he demonstrates mastery
  • He often appears as a spot on the horizon, menacingly approaching and growing larger (e.g. Ch 46)
  • For much of the novel he is a two dimensional character, remaining much the same, with predictable actions and words.

A contrast to Angel

Although Alec and Angel are kept physically separate throughout the novel, Hardy compares and contrasts the two regarding:

  • Physical appearance
  • Sensuality
  • Coarseness / delicacy
  • Religious jargon – Alec's register as a Christian convert is similar to the way in which Angel speaks when trying to defend himself or to be clever with Tess
  • Their identities as outsiders who are rootless, living on the margins of society ('The Slopes' has symbolic meaning)
  • Their modernity (see Modernity) - with Alec, modernism is reduced to fashion, the ostentatious use of money to seem 'with it'.

Ironically, Hardy uses Alec to point out Angel's dereliction of duty as a husband, and his failure to appreciate Tess as a lover.

Alec as the villain of popular melodrama

Alec is obviously a sexual predator (see Sexual predation) who is heartless, egocentric and vain. As such, he fits the stereotype made popular by Victorian melodrama, of the villainous outsider who seeks the ruin of an innocent for his own pleasure. His stylish clothes, the driving of a fast carriage and the smoking of a cigar (Ch 10) are typical melodramatic signifiers.

Yet in Hardy's earlier drafts of the novel, Alec is less corrupt than in later versions, tricking Tess into a fake marriage for example (whereas in the finished novel he simply rapes her). There are also moments when he seems to really love Tess, and his offers to help are as genuine as his selfish nature is capable of. With Hardy's revisions, he became more stereotypically the sexual predator and the dandy, a counterpoint to Tess's purity. As such, no sensitive reader can seriously mourn his death or feel that he deserves any better.

Alec the new convert

The one interesting complexity in Alec's portrayal is the anomaly of him becoming a Christian convert, with the intentional irony of making him particularly Mr Clare's convert. Thus we have a reversal of roles:

  • Angel becomes the prodigal in his father's eyes, whilst Alec becomes the true son
  • There is a mention of Mr Clare sending him to Cambridge instead of Angel
  • There is also talk of his being a missionary, whilst Angel goes abroad in a purely secular capacity.

Yet Hardy seems more interested in the irony of the situation created than in tracing a complex psychological series of moves and this is why he fails to convince all his readers over this part of the plot.

Hardy makes the depth of conversion much shallower in his revisions of the novel so that Alec's sexuality wins out over his spirituality very quickly. Tess has helped 'convert' him back away from faith just as Angel has 'converted' her. She even repeats Angel's arguments, not realizing how such a move can only do her harm.

Alec the charlatan

This is shown through Alec's:

  • Dandyism, that is to say in his conscious self-image as an idle and dissolute young man
More on dandyism: The 1890s was a great period of dandyism. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest dates from the decade.
  • Use of money to buy influence over Tess and her family, under the guise of helping them
  • Use of disguises and tricks
  • Name, which harks back to a false past - Mr Stokes has exploited it for his own prestige and pride (in contrast to Angel's father, who humbly honours the past for its wisdom). Alec himself sees this fake name as a joke and will not pretend anything with Tess
  • 'Honesty in dishonesty', typical of a 'villain' and contrasting with Tess's inherent sense of honesty and pride

Alec's entire exploitation of Tess may have something to do with the false being jealous of the true and desiring to subvert it.

It could be argued that Alec's conversion is fake. Hardy suggests in Ch 45 it is somehow not real, not fitting his features. However, just as his love for Tess is genuine as far as he is capable, so his conversion can be regarded as genuine, but lacking substance.

See also: Sexual predation; Modernity

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