Chapter 48

Synopsis of chapter 48

Tess continues working on the thresher after dinner as the machine has only been hired for the day and is wanted elsewhere the next day. However, Alec turns up again and waits for her. He tells Farmer Groby that what Tess is doing is not woman's work. Groby is willing to excuse her, but Tess refuses.

Alec continues to offer help and aid to Tess and her family in return for her favours. These she refuses to give. Instead, that night she writes a passionate letter to Angel to come to rescue her or to let her come to him.

Commentary on chapter 48

Hardy spends a second chapter on the threshing incident. It shows again Tess's helplessness, both whilst on the machine and in the face of Alec's persistence. The two chapters make it seem a long unrelenting process of being worn down, and that her resistance must soon be broken. That is why her letter to Angel is so passionate. Her faithfulness to him is being compromised. Her intensity creates a newfound fluency in her writing.

'nammet'-time: the afternoon equivalent of morning 'lunch'.

Jacob's ladder: see Genesis 28:10-12. This ladder, the conveyor belt taking the straw to the top of the newly forming stack, is no gateway to heaven, but quite the opposite, a way down to hell. Jacob, rather like Tess, was at the time a fugitive, fleeing from his brother.

a little ratting: just as in Ch 14, animals get trapped in the decreasing food supply, and are finally hunted at the moment they try to escape. As before, the episode is symbolic of Tess's entrapment.

The sheaf-pitchers and feeders: the people working on the original stack of bales to feed them to the machine.

as of Pandemonium: another image of hell. Literally the word means 'the place of all the demons'. In Milton's Paradise Lost, it is the newly-built capital of hell (Book I. 756-7).

a bled calf: prior to slaughter, calves are sometimes bled so as not to discolour the meat.

my last state will be worse than my first: echoing Jesus' words about exorcism in Luke 11:24-26. It is no good getting rid of evil if nothing fills its place; evil will re-invade a vacuum and be worse than before.

Social context

There is an interesting discussion as to what men's work is and what women's work on the farm is. We have seen that many jobs, such as milking, have no gender discrimination, even though rates of pay were usually different. This is against a general social background where women's work was limited and specific to set occupations.

Alec's point is that the work is too heavy for women, even though their fingers may be more nimble and they can concentrate on repetitive work. If we accept this point, and Alec quotes good evidence from other farming practice, this is another example of Groby's personal vendetta against Tess - and Alec's inability to protect her from it.


the Giant's hill by Abbot's Cernel: see note in Ch 45. It would lie some four miles due west of the farm.

Milton Abbey, by Trish Steel, available through Creative CommonsMiddleton Abbey: Milton Abbey, a large house. In the eighteenth century, the aristocratic owner had torn down the nearby village to enlarge and remodel his house and grounds and built a model village called Milton Abbas for the displaced workers. It would lie four miles east of the farm.

Shottsford: Blandford, or its full name of Blandford Forum, some ten miles east of the farm, in the valley of the River Stour.


cadaverous: corpse-like

facetious pipes: presumably pipes or whistles that emitted funny noises

traditionary: traditional, that is, a fear she had learned from childhood in watching her father's drunken bahaviour

Investigating chapter 48

  • Select the images Hardy uses to describe the machine.
    • What seems to be the main picture that emerges of it?
  • List words and images relating to colour.
    • In what way do they fit with previous patterns of colour images and descriptions?
  • Investigate the interplay of power and powerlessness in this chapter and the previous one.
    • To what extent is Tess trapped into the situation?
    • Where does her letter fit into this interplay?
  • Is Alec now a better or worse man than in the first chapters?
    • Do Jesus' words of Luke 11:24-26 refer to him rather than to Tess?
    • How genuine do you think his offer of help is?
  • Look closely at Tess's letter.
    • She often uses religious language. In what does she place her faith?
    • If the letter arouses pathos, what does this centre on?
      • What other responses do you think Hardy is trying to create in the reader?
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