What is meant by ‘modernity'?

Hardy was as aware of modernity as he was of the past. For him, modernity is not the same as the present. It is more an attitude of mind than a time; a milieu in which some people live. In some people, modernity means no more than being in the fashion. But this very superficiality is also one of the marks of modernity, according to Hardy. In Tess, both Alec and Angel are 'modern', but in different ways.

More on modern characters in Hardy's novel: Hardy's novels often have 'modern' people in them such as:
  • Fitzpiers and Mrs Charmond in The Woodlanders
  • Eustacia in The Return of the Native
  • Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.
More on Hardy's own attitudes:  Hardy's own life suggests he had a foot in two camps:
  • The traditional and the modern
  • Dorset and London
  • Reviving old customs and cosmopolitan travel

Alec's modernity

There are various signifiers of Alec's modernity:

  • Fashionable dress – Alec is a dandy, with his cigars and gigs (the equivalent of the latest sports car to-day)
  • He is a nouveau-riche, having acquired some education, some taste
  • He lacks any depth
  • His natural abode is the resort, Sandbourne, the epitome of modernism, lacking any connection with the ancient countryside around it. Hardy likens it to Nineveh, whose wickedness and cruelty were renowned
  • Like Nineveh, superficiality characterizes Alec's repentance (see Ch 55 for references to the book of Jonah and Nineveh).

False and parasitic

The mark of modernity is falsity:

  • Alec is a fake
  • His family name is brazenly false, with its fake coat of arms and history (Ch 5)
  • Such pretence gives Alec an advantage over naïve traditionalists and he is able to do great harm
  • His conversion proves a fake and he soon reverts back to type
  • His trick on Tess in the d'Urberville vault is cruel and heartless (Ch 52).

The Stoke-d'Urbervilles are parasites:

  • The cottage in which Tess tends birds was once a working family's cottage. They may have been expelled to make way for Mrs d'Urbervilles hobby: poultry
  • Alec's mother is playing at being a farmer. Economically, she contributes little to the rural economy
  • Alec exploits his employees, especially the single girls. He has a bad influence over the whole area (Ch 10).

Angel's modernity

If Alec's modernity is one-dimensional, Angel's is altogether more complex, even if just as harmful:

  • Angel is not consciously false, as Alec is
  • His falsity arises more from inconsistency, which can be remedied
  • He has managed to throw off old ways of believing, but not old systems of morality
  • His new beliefs are as dogmatically held as the rest of his family adheres to their traditional beliefs
  • He has not learned human relationships along with new ideas.

In a way, Tess is a projection of Angel's idealism:

  • He ‘constructs' her as he goes along, so lessening her reality
  • Tess reacts by becoming a passive object of this idealisation in the same way as she did with Alec.

Angel is best described by the old-fashioned term, priggishness. He is self-consciously superior to the traditionalists, looking down on them patronisingly, without being able to contribute anything of worth. At first, he appears like a drifter, as Fitzpiers is in The Woodlanders, more or less playing at being a farmer, rather as Fitzpiers plays at being a doctor.

Life is not earnest or even real for Angel at times. However, in going to the primitive backwoods of Brazil, he does learn that life is hard and you cannot play at farming without it costing a great deal. Yet, even on his return, suitably repentant, he is still naïve, optimistic and complacent. Many people feel Hardy lets him off lightly with offering him Liza-Lu as a substitute wife at the end.

'The ache of modernism'

One of the most interesting discussions about modernism occurs in Ch 19. Hardy suggests that what Angel thinks of as modern ideas are actually ancient human perceptions about life. Thus Tess's pessimistic idea that she lives on a ‘blighted planet' (Ch 4), is both very old and yet 'modern'. Modern philosophy, in its rejection of Christianity, saw little hope of happiness or salvation anywhere else, except in a naïve evolutionism that Hardy rejected.

More on Ch 19: It is significant that Ch 19 also deals in unrealities:
  • Tess is sensuously overwhelmed by Angel's (rather poor) attempts at music-making in an overgrown little garden, regarding him as an 'intelligence' rather than as a person
  • Later, he regards Tess as a goddess figure.

'The ache of modernism' is thus:

  • An emptiness at the heart of 'modernity'
  • A rootlessness
  • An inability to find a real identity
  • The masks and disguises put on by those following modernism
  • The realisation on Hardy's part that this may be the cost of rejecting traditional Christian beliefs is part of his pessimism
  • Ironically, Tess's much more pagan pessimism is more akin to this modern angst than Angel's superficial pot-pourri of new ideas.

Related themes: Patterns of the past

See also: Characterisation: Angel; Alec

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