Chapter 59

Synopsis of chapter 59

The scene changes to Wintoncester, site of the county jail. It is July. Angel and Liza-Lu are seen holding hands walking away from the city. They stop and look back, observing a black flag being raised in the jail, the sign that a prisoner has just been hanged. The prisoner is Tess. After a long time, the two continue walking away.

Commentary on chapter 59

In a sense, the climactic ending was in the previous chapter with Tess's arrest. Many novelists use a last chapter to round off loose ends, or create an aftermath. Hardy refuses to do either. His ending affirms only Tess has been hung, and Angel and Liza-Lu are together, as Tess had wished. We know legally they cannot marry, but will they get round this? The question seems irrelevant as it is not a situation that Hardy has invested any time or effort in developing.

Nor does it seem relevant to know what happens to Tess's hapless family; or to the Clares. And it seems altogether too painful to know what Tess's final days or conversations were. Hardy is content to make the sarcastic remark that 'The President of the Immortals ... had ended his sport with Tess', a remark designed to prevent any sentimentality.

In fact, Hardy was much misunderstood for the remark, many critics taking it literally as a statement of his belief in a cruel deity. Hardy's autobiography makes it clear he meant it as a personification of all the forces previously working against Tess.

More on the sense of an ending in Victorian novels: The conventional Victorian novel usually ends up with a neatly rounded off 'And they lived happily ever after' formula, with loose ends tied up.

However, there are remarkable exceptions:

  • Jane Eyre, for example, has Charlotte Bronte, its authoress, ending with a long note on Jane's cousin, St.John Rivers, labouring as a missionary and finally dying.
  • In Great Expectations, Dickens provided two alternative endings, one in which Pip and Estella drift apart, and one where they presumably come together, though we are never told they marry.

What is more important is the sense of resolution: not that the plot is rounded off, but that all that needs to be said has been said:

  • In the modern novel, there is often a deliberate sense of incompletion
  • The Victorians liked completion. So in Tess we feel the tragic pattern is complete.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in writing about tragedy, said the audience need to experience catharsis. The English poet John Milton interpreted this as 'all passion spent' in his tragic poem Samson Agonistes. This is what the reader feels by the end of Tess.

Giotto's Two Apostles: Giotto was an Italian painter of the late thirteenth / early fourteenth century. Hardy's title may refer to the episode of two of Jesus' disciples walking sadly along the road to Emmaus just after Jesus' death (Luke 24:13-14). Some critics suggest the painting referred to is actually Aretino's The Burial of St John the Baptist, from about the same time, which refers to John's disciples, as recorded in Mark 6:24-29. The first account has a happy ending (the resurrected Jesus appears to them); the second does not.

its Norman windows: in church architecture, the Norman period ran from 1066 to the thirteenth century. Its most recognisable feature was rounded archways. Hardy is perhaps reminding the reader that the d'Urbervilles also were a Norman family.

Aeschylus, photo by Sailko, available through Creative CommonsThe President of the Immortals in Aeschylean phrase: Aeschylus was the father of Greek tragedy. His drama is sombre and the presence of the gods, and their justice, is strong. The phrase is, Hardy claimed, a literal translation of words from the play Prometheus, l.169.

joined hands ... and went on: Hardy is echoing Milton's Paradise Lost again, this time the very ending when Adam and Eve exit Paradise, Book XII. ll.648-9.

Social context

Throughout the nineteenth century, hanging was the means of exacting the death penalty. Hardy himself had seen a woman hanged for murder in his youth, and many think this was the genesis of the novel. By the time the novel was written, hangings were no longer public, but held within the jail.


The time of the last chapter is July, thus just over five years from the time of the first chapter. Tess would have been just twenty-two.


Wintoncester: Winchester, the county town of Hampshire (mid-Wessex), and site of the county jail and court house.

the College: Winchester College is a prestigious public school


dole: daily portion or handout

freestone: made of uncut stones

hospice: hostel kept by monks for pilgrims

isometric: where all three faces are equally foreshortened

Investigating chapter 59

  • Compare the beginning of Ch 1 with this chapter in terms of perspective and the direction of the pedestrians.
    • What are the cinematographic qualities of Hardy's description here?
  • In what sense are the two pedestrians 'pilgrims'?
    • Are they returning from a holy place or are they still seeking for some destination?
  • How does Liza-Lu differ from Tess, and in what ways is she the same?
    • In the previous chapter, Tess claimed she had, 'All the best of me without the bad of me'.
      • What 'bad' qualities has she not got, do you think?
  • What does Hardy not tell the reader about Tess and Angel?
  • Why does Hardy put quotation marks round 'Justice'?
    • Do you think Hardy meant to connect this phrase with that about 'ended his sport'?
  • What is the impact on you of words 'not knowing' and 'speechless' at the end?
  • What is the effect of 'and went on' right at the end?
  • Discuss whether you find the ending convincing and satisfactory.
  • In what sense is the Phase a 'Fulfilment'?
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