Chapter 36

Synopsis of chapter 36

For two days, Angel goes off to the mill to study methods of operation. As the machinery is very old-fashioned, he learns little. He comes home to meals, when he speaks to Tess. They make little headway as to how to go on. Angel feels that, whilst the man, whom Tess has not named, is still alive, that man is her real husband.

Tess offers divorce, but Angel believes this is not legally possible. He also believes that the past will eventually bring shame on any future family they might have, and so living together is impossible. Eventually, Tess suggests she goes back home. Angel accepts this.

Commentary on chapter 36

Angel is shown to have a heart of iron. He imagines the worst for the future. Tess keeps hoping for a change of heart in him, but has no will to plead her case with any determination.

Lotus columns, photo by Jon Bodsworth, available through Creative Commonslike a lotus-headed column: similar to a column in ancient Egyptian temples, where the top might be decorated with lotus blossom. Ironically, the lotus flower symbolises inner harmony, even paradise.

the ashes of their former fires: a reference to lines in Lord Byron's poem The Giaour. Hardy uses the ashes/fire symbolism throughout these two chapters, as well as other features of the house.

Indeed I cannot: whilst divorce laws had been relaxed in England in 1857 to allow for adultery as a cause, technically there is no adultery before marriage. However, one possibility not mentioned is annulment for non-consummation of marriage. The notorious case of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his wife Effie had highlighted this.

Under your mistletoe: mistletoe was part of a pagan ritual of fertility, but also used at Christmas festivities as a place to kiss under. The irony of its forming part of Tess's threat of suicide is obvious.

Apostolic charity: a reference to the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church. Hardy actually quotes a verse (1 Corinthians 13:4-5) to show Tess's purity and other-worldliness.

instinctively known what an argument lies in propinquity: Hardy's vocabulary is again very formal, trying to control the emotional charge of the dialogue he has set up. Tess instinctively realises that if they stay together, they will actually become lovers just by the sheer force of presence. She does not realise that it is her presence that Angel cannot deal with.

M.Sully-Prudhomme: Prudhomme was an older French contemporary of Hardy's. The quotation is from his Le Voeu (vow, wish). Hardy had written an article on the pessimism of French writers.

the self-combating proclivity of the super-sensitive: the oversensitive person has a tendency to answer his own arguments.

the tyrannous wind of his imaginative ascendancy: Angel's inner resources are proving much stronger than Tess (or the reader) has imagined. So strong is his idealism that it breaks down all natural desires or habits of behaviour.

Social context

You need to understand that divorce in the nineteenth century, even when possible, was considered shameful, and was a social stigma even among the very rich and powerful. In his evangelical family, Angel would have been brought up to believe that divorce was not permitted in the eyes of God. His reaction to Tess' suggestion, therefore, may not just have been social snobbery, but deeply instilled beliefs.


The chapter covers three days, a symbolic period, being the period from Jesus' crucifixion to his resurrection. It is the period of dying and descending into Hell, therefore. But there is to be no coming back to life.


antipathetic: hostile

bolting: sifting

boreal: northern

ebullition: violent outburst

gloss: explanation, interpretation

propinquity: nearness, presence

recuperative: able to recover

vitalizations: animations; objects brought into life

vulpine: wolf-like

Investigating chapter 36

  • How does the opening paragraph incorporate devices used in the previous chapter?
  • In what ways do the couple act out their marriage roles?
    • What effect does this have on the reader?
  • How does Hardy seek to show that Tess is indeed 'a pure woman'?
  • Where anger might be expected to predominate, there is a marked absence of it.
    • What emotions does Hardy substitute between the couple?
    • Do these other emotions make us feel the situation is more - or less - tragic?
  • List the reasons Angel gives for discontinuing the marriage.
    • Against which does Tess offer a defence?
    • Do you think any of the reasons hold water?
      • Give your reasons.
    • Do any of the reasons prefigure what will happen in the novel?
  • List phrases that suggest Tess' state of mind
    • Are they associated with images or symbols in any way?
    • What aspects of Tess have you not seen before?
  • In what way does Hardy link Angel's loss of faith in Tess with his loss of faith in Christianity?
  • What is Angel's problem with her presence?
  • Look at the last sentence.
    • What does it suggest might happen in the novel?
      • Does it?
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