Chapter 47

Synopsis of chapter 47

Stream thresher, photo by Thomas Weise, available through Creative CommonsTess is involved with threshing; her particular task involves standing on a steam-driven mechanical thresher, supplying a man with unbound sheaves of wheat. Alec re-appears, dressed in his old dandy fashion. He offers Tess help to escape her present drudgery, but at the price of taking her husband's place. He confirms to Tess he has abandoned his Christian lifestyle. When Tess rejects his offer and draws blood by striking him with her leather gauntlet he becomes angry and resentful. He claims he will again be her master, and that if anyone is her husband, it is himself.

Commentary on chapter 47

The description of threshing by machine reminds us of the reaping in Ch 14. The image of the trapped victim returns, as does the deadening effect of mechanical labour. The repetitive wearying toil of much agricultural work is nowhere better portrayed than here, and again forms a sharp contrast to Talbothays, where the individual relationship of worker to animal in producing food was portrayed. This is more like an assembly line. Hardy stresses the engine driver has no connection at all with the farm or its workers. His only connection is with the machine.

History seems to be repeating itself in that Alec finds Tess when she is most exposed and tired, as he did when he first seduced her in Ch 11.

the red tyrant: Farmer Groby is willing to hire a steam-driven machine. As Hardy shows, the mechanisation of farming changed the traditional rhythms of work, but it was very piecemeal (see Agricultural and social conditions). The colour red is associated with Tess throughout the novel.

a creature from Tophet: A reference to Jeremiah 7:31-32, where the prophet condemns a place outside Jerusalem where ritual pagan child sacrifice was made. In later literature, it depicted hell, which was seen as a place of fire, smoke and cacophony.

the primum mobile of this little world: in Greek philosophy, the 'first mover' set the outer sphere surrounding the stars and causing all the movements in space, although it does not itself change or move.

He was in, but not of it: Hardy ironically echoes Biblical phrases found in John 17:11.

his Plutonic master: Pluto was the god of the underworld in classical mythology. The grime, noise and fire of the machine are reminiscent of hell.

lunch...dinner-time: in the agricultural day, breakfast was taken early; lunch was at mid-morning; and dinner at one or two o'clock.

the seven thunders themselves: these are secret revelations or messages about the end times in Revelation 10:1-3.

hag-rode: a popular superstition that whilst someone was asleep, witches would ride them like a horse. Such a victim would therefore look pretty exhausted the next day.

Hymenaeus and Alexander: In 1 Timothy 1:19-20, Paul refers to two backsliders who have been 'delivered unto Satan'. It is not clear what sort of discipline this involved, but the parallels with Alec are near enough, and this represents another line of hell-imagery.

bachelor-apostle: a reference to the Apostle Paul who did not marry. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, 1 Corinthians 7:32-33, he wishes other people could remain unmarried as himself.

let go the plough: echoing Luke 9:62, another reference to falling away. Alec, having learned so much Scripture, is now misquoting it cynically for his own benefit.

an ethical system without any dogma: one of the enterprises of the Victorian doubters was to claim that religious belief was not needed to uphold a moral system. George Eliot and Matthew Arnold, among other writers, argued for this. If Hardy believed this, too, he never showed any characters upholding it consistently in his novels.

'And she shall follow after her lover...': Hosea 2:7, where Hosea, an Old Testament prophet known for his faithfulness, speaks of his unfaithful wife, who seeks new sexual experiences outside of her marriage until realising that she is better off with her husband. Again, this is a cynical misquotation, as Alec cannot possibly be like the faithful prophet Hosea, even if he does see himself as her 'first husband'.

the recrudescence of a trick...were not unpractised: a reference to Tess's ancestors who might well have struck another knight with a glove to provoke a quarrel or a challenge to fight.


aborigines: original inhabitants of a region

apostate: someone who rejects their faith

autochthonous: native, local

court-paying: courting

denizens: inhabitants

fancy-man: a man who is loved or, in slang terms, a man who lives on the earnings of prostitutes; a pimp

pellucid: extremely clear

skimmer-cake: a type of pancake

stooded: bogged-down

Weltlust: love of the world

Investigating chapter 47

  • Go through the chapter picking out images or references to hell or the underworld.
    • How does this tie up with Ch 43 and its discussion of 'places of testing'?
    • In what ways could Alec be seen as devilish?
  • List Alec's arguments that he is indeed Tess's first husband.
    • How valid do you consider them?
    • How do the arguments add to Tess's torment?
  • Look closely at the way Tess is made to take the blame by Alec.
    • What does this show about him?
    • In general, how has Alec deteriorated from the previous chapters of this phase?
  • In what ways does the chapter promote the view of Tess as a victim?
    • Consider particularly Tess's vulnerability, her lack of protection, and her exposure.
    • Collect images of entrapment.
  • Look at Hardy's explanations of why Tess is unable to argue with Alec.
    • Is he being fair to her, or is there a hint of male chauvinism?
  • How does Hardy portray nature and agriculture in this chapter?
    • How does this compare with the Talbothays chapters?
    • What do you think Hardy is conveying by juxtaposing two such different accounts?
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