Tess as a secular pilgrim

Many of Hardy's main characters are rootless, yet definitely seeking some goal in their life, usually defined in terms of personal happiness or fulfilment. This has given rise to the notion of their being secular pilgrims.

Pilgrimage and The Pilgrim's Progress

A pilgrim is someone who is on a journey to a sacred destination. It is a religious mission, to achieve spiritual blessing or enlightenment. In Britain, the great subtext for this in Victorian times was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a two-part allegory of the journeys of Christian and Christiana, his wife, to the Heavenly City along the road of life. After the Bible, it was the most read and best known religious work (see Subtexts).

Many Victorians observed the Sabbath (Sunday) very strictly, and the only reading allowed was often the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Hardy refers to it in Tess Ch 19, when he mentions the 'Valley of Humiliation', one of the places through which Christian passes. At the end of Ch 22, he mentions the lives of the dairymaids as a 'pilgrimage'.

As in Pilgrim's Progress, Tess encounters:

  • Those who help or hinder her on the way
  • People such as the sign-writer who bring her messages
  • Temporary shelter
  • Moments of temptation and testing.

Tess as traveller

Tess is constantly on journeys, which get more and more frequent as the book progresses (see Journeys [in Parallels and repetitions]). This is the same pattern as is found in Hardy's next novel, Jude the Obscure. Once she leaves home, after her brief return to nurse her baby, she is forced onwards, from one community to another. Ultimately, she loses all community and is isolated with the two men in her life: first Alec, the false pilgrim, then Angel, the true, repentant one.Walking boots, photo by Alan Murray-Rust, available through Creative Commons

The loss of her boots (Ch 44) is a sign or emblem of Tess trying to adopt a different role, and its failure. The whole journey to Emminster, specifically called 'a pilgrimage', is a personal failure for Tess as an attempt to gain help. It leads to the next temptation, the reunion with Alec, a false pilgrim disguised as a holy man.

Other significant journeys Tess undertakes are:

  • The journey to market with the bee-hives (Ch 4)
  • The journey to the fair (Ch 10). Note these weekly journeys are called 'pilgrimages'
  • The journey home after her 'false start', and her encounter with the sign-writer (Ch 12)
  • The journey to Talbothays to start again (Ch 16) where Tess sings hymns and is in quite a spiritual state of mind. Religious imagery is frequent in Hardy's narrative here.

You can no doubt think of many more examples.

The pilgrim's destination

The remark at the end of Ch 22 suggests the destination of pilgrimage is defined in terms of personal happiness, in finding love with a man or woman. The novel shows us a community of such pilgrims among the dairymaids at Talbothays, and the difficulty of reaching that destination in their love for an idealised Angel, who is socially out of their reach.

True and false destinations

Tess appears to have gained her destination when she marries Angel, but the place of its intended consummation is a d'Urberville mansion, which we know is a false place from the many comments Hardy makes about the ancestral family. In the face of this past, Tess cannot find a resting place.

However, Hardy does finally allow her to reach her goal of happiness and union in the last few chapters, when she is reunited with Angel. He finally finds her when she appears to be quite ensnared in a moral quagmire in the superficial glitter of Sandbourne (Ch 56), which is akin to Bunyan's Vanity Fair. Tess frees herself from the snare of sin by literally taking a knife to it (Ch 57).

The final setting of Stonehenge (Ch 58) is thus a climax and her true destination, as it frees Tess from the constraints of her history (by predating the d'Urberville family). The journey to get there is an idyllic one through paradise.

After Tess's demise, it is hinted that Angel will be allowed a second chance to make good his wrong behaviour with Tess, Liza-Lu being a substitute pilgrim companion (Ch 59).

Related themes: Patterns of the past.

See also: Journeys (in Parallels and repetitions); Subtexts

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