Chapter 46

Synopsis of chapter 46

Alec visits Tess twice, despite her request that he should not. The first time, she is working on the farm. Alec proposes marriage as a way of settling his debt to her. Tess is forced to admit she is already married, and then has to defend Angel for having left her to fend for herself.

The second visit is when Tess is alone in her room, the others having gone to a hiring fair. It appears that Alec is losing his Christian faith, for he should have been preaching instead of visiting her. However, he has become infatuated again with Tess and this seems the primary reason for his backsliding. Alec listens to Tess's own reasons for having ceased to believe in God, and she repeats several arguments against Christianity she has learned from Angel. Mainly, however, she has become an unbeliever simply because Angel was. Her arguments seem to push Alec further away from his recent convictions and glimpses of his old behaviour are seen.

Commentary on chapter 46


Alec's conversion and backsliding open up a whole slew of ironic situations, one of Hardy's specialities in plotting. The ironies were what he called 'satires of circumstances' and one of his major volumes of poetry had this as its title.

More about satires of circumstance: Hardy creates ironies in his plotting by making the very opposite of what they intend or wish for, happen to his characters. In Ch 46, Hardy draws together a whole series of such circumstances:
  • Seeking to be secure, Tess finds herself in a very vulnerable situation again
  • Wanting Alec to absent himself, she unwittingly attracts him
  • Though desiring moral uprightness, Tess becomes the cause of Alec's backsliding
  • The man Tess does put her faith in is proving faithless
  • The husband who should protect her is unable to defend her
  • Ironically, Tess's lack of belief in God holds firm, while the strong convictions of Angel and Alec actually lead them into faithlessness.

Such circumstances display what critics perceive as Hardy's innate pessimism as well as his ironic sense of the world.

A crisis of faith

The chapter, together with the previous one, begins to shape Alec into a more complex figure than that of the stock villain of the earlier chapters. We see an apparently genuine crisis of conscience, though Hardy's later revisions tend to make Alec's original conversion more superficial than in the earliest version of the story.

Backsliding and losing one's faith were a common plot element in Victorian fiction:

  • Sometimes, beliefs were retained but there developed a loss of motivation to practise them
  • Sometimes, conventional beliefs were themselves rejected.
  • Hardy does not present any of the arguments against Christianity that Tess and Angel hold:
  • The most the reader can make out is that Tess is a deist. Deism a belief popular in the eighteenth century; that God created the world but takes no further part in running it
  • The primary reason for Alec's backsliding is emotional, not rational. Whichever reasons Tess presented, the effect on him would have been the same.

In this, Hardy shows himself very different from the other great Victorian novelist of faith and doubt, George Eliot, who often repeated such arguments in full (e.g. Maggie's debates with Phillip in The Mill on the Floss).

Further commentary

‘in such dangerous ignorance… may set for them': there are several Old Testament references to the nets of the wicked; see Psalms 31:4.

'the unbelieving husband is sanctified...': 1 Corinthians 7:14. Paul is giving reasons for not divorcing an unbelieving partner when one becomes converted. Ironically, Angel has already 'departed', but not for the good reasons Paul gives.

the Candlemas Fair: 2 February. Candlemas was the Feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary after which the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple (Luke 2:22). In country areas, it was taken as a holiday for the purposes of going to a 'hiring fair' to be hired if one wanted to leave one's present employment on Lady Day.

the Sermon on the Mount: part of Jesus' teaching, as set out in Luke 6:20-49. The ethical part of Jesus' teaching is often retained by those who reject the supernatural and miraculous account of his ministry.

a merciless polemical syllogism: Brief and often simplistic arguments that a speaker is convinced will disprove his/her opponent's case.

the Dictionnaire philosophique....: The French eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire wrote his Dictionnaire philosophique to propound his deistic views and attack Christianity. T.H.Huxley was a contemporary scientist whose Collected Essays (1894) did much the same thing from a more evolutionary and agnostic point of view. Both professed great respect for the man Jesus Christ but rejected the system and institutions of Christianity.

like the devils I believe and tremble: referring to James 2:19, suggesting Alec's backsliding so far is in practice not in belief.

I worshipped on the mountains...: Judges 3:7 among many other Old Testament texts refers to the 'groves' of pagan worship, probably poles to represent tree-trunks and associated with fertility rites. Confusingly, these are sometimes also referred to as 'high places' which need to be distinguished from the mountain tops on which God was often met with and worshipped (See Exodus 4:27; Joshua 8:30). It is notable how much Scripture Alec has learned in so short a time as a convert.

'servants of corruption....': 2 Peter 2:19-20. It has been pointed out that the previous verse (2 Peter 2:18) applies equally well to Alec.

‘…mouth since Eve's': Alec likens Tess to Eve here; appropriately, since he is becoming like the serpent in Eden to her.

you dear damned witch of Babylon: Throughout the Bible, Israel's old enemy, Babylon was associated with decadence and evil, personified as a whore who tempted righteous Israel to desert God and worship false gods; yet the irony here is that Alec is seeking to desert his values, rather than being enticed away from them by Tess. He is blaming Tess for his backsliding.


compunction: remorse

gins: snares

wales: vertical ribs (as in a sweater, or cloth)

Investigating chapter 46

  • Look at the paragraph beginning 'For hours nothing relieved...'
    • What characterises agricultural labour here?
    • How does this work compare to that at Talbothays?
    • Are such differences symbolic in any way?
  • How is Alec's approach described?
    • What effect does such a description achieve?
  • In what ways does Alec's proposal of marriage seem incongruous? (If you have read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, you may like to compare St.John River's proposal to Jane.)
  • What is the nature of Tess's ‘faith'?
    • Would you say the naivety in her belief in Angel is a strength or a weakness?
  • How does Hardy present Tess as being pure at this stage?
    • How much of her situation is down to her naïveté?
  • List the words and phrases by which Alec seeks to excuse his behaviour.
    • In what ways could it be said that he is victimising Tess?
  • Are you convinced by Hardy's explanation at the end of the chapter concerning the shallowness of Alec's conversion?
    • Give your reasons.
  • What seem to you the main ironies of the chapter?
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