Laws of nature vs. laws of society

This is one of a set of oppositions Hardy sets up in the novel (compare Inner conflicts: body against soul), foregrounded by Hardy's authorial comments (see the end of Ch 13, 41; middle Ch 15). In Ch 14, this conflict is internalised in Tess.

Tess's ‘natural' purity

Hardy uses this opposition as a definition of Tess's purity (see Tess as a pure woman):

  • According to nature, what has happened to her is 'natural', which removes the deed from a socially conditioned moral framework
  • Hardy equates the laws of society with convention, specifically the narrow Victorian sexual convention, which he regards as unnatural and inhuman. One of Hardy's most obvious images is that of Tess's reaction to the sign-writer (Ch 12), whose crude and blatant texts represented popularly held views.
  • Thus, Tess is 'pure' in natural terms.

This was the cause of much of the controversy surrounding the early years of the novel. Hardy wanted to shock his audience out of their complacency (just as Angel has to be shocked out of his inherited and unexamined moral framework). Today, readers are more sympathetic, so the argument shifts to the validity of Hardy's argument and whether he logically and consistently upholds it in the novel.

Is Hardy's argument valid?

The answer to this examination comes up negatively for two reasons:

Hardy's argument excuses too much

  • The ‘law of nature' also excuses Alec's behaviour. As an alpha male, he does what any powerful male would do to spread his seed
  • It excuses the pheasant-shooters in Ch 41, since animals kill other animals for their food. This instinctive behaviour is still seen when the animals don't need the food (as when a well-fed pet cat still kills birds or mice)
  • Such cruelty of nature is acknowledged by Hardy as 'cruel Nature's law' in reference to the dairymaids writhing in the throes of unrequited love (Ch 23), but it hardly forms a basis for a value judgement
  • A well-ordered society has as its duty the suppression of such natural instincts, not the excusing of them. Hardy would seem to agree with this when he talks of overpopulation (Ch 3,5).

Tess's conflict is not due to social convention

  • The real site of conflict is within Tess herself and arises instinctively from her spirituality, not her subjection to conventional teaching
  • Tess is rarely subject to any such conventional attitudes - a few stares at church (Ch 13) are counterbalanced by the easy acceptance of her fellow-labourers when her baby is brought to her to feed (Ch 14)
  • Tess's family conditioning is purely practical and amoral. Her mother's advice is to get married after intercourse if not before, so Tess's moral refinement is seen as freakish by Joan. But would we want Tess to be more like her mother?
  • What Tess has internalised is not the laws of society but her own inner sense of inviolability, which has now been broken and she does not know how to reconstruct it. This is her angst.

The ‘law' of time

What emerges is that the laws of society and the laws of nature are actually both parts of a wider, impersonal law:

  • This 'law' seems to set itself against human happiness, even though promising happiness through 'organic nature' (Ch 15) and its rhythms
  • The unforgiving reality of this law is that:
'Bygones would never be complete bygones till she was a bygone herself' (Ch 45)
  • Thus the real element that resolves the conflict is time, not changing convention.

This theme is perhaps the clearest example of Hardy as author not being fully in control of the narrative role, leaving it to the reader to choose between two different interpretations. As readers, we are swayed by the novel's action and development.

Related themes: Nature as sympathetic or indifferent.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.