Alec D’Urberville: Religious Fanaticism, Temptation and the Bible

Alec D’Urberville is ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ big bad, as his rape of Tess sets all of the events of the novel in motion, leading Tess down a path of misery which ends in her death and his. Alec is initially portrayed as a bit of a moustachioed pantomime villain, but his later resurgence in the sixth phase of the novel shows that he has changed massively… or has he? I mean one thing that has definitely changed is, his moustache… that’s gone for good.[1]

Tess is understandably distressed to see Alec preaching, as he comes across as a massive hypocrite. We are told that he hasn’t just changed, but that he’s undergone a whole ‘transfiguration.’ This is quite an aggressive reference to the Transfiguration of Jesus, perhaps prompting us to compare Alec to Jesus. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would actually do that, but Thomas Hardy wants us to believe that this man is totally different to the one that we originally met… but is he? Hardy is very descriptive about the whole thing, as he always is, but the most striking oxymoron is his note that Alec’s ‘animalism had become fanaticism.’ One minute Alec is the aggressive, forceful animal that raped Tess, next he is the religious zealot seeking salvation. Alec takes the ‘blame’ for Tess’ despair, and promptly wants to resolve the issue by deploying a ‘marriage license.’[2] He wants to marry Tess so that the rape effectively doesn’t count. Any sexual intercourse between them, pre marriage, wouldn’t really matter, as they would be husband and wife. Even before this, their sexual contact, consented or unconsented, would lead Victorian readers to believe that they were married in the eyes of the church. That’s Victorian sexual politics for you. Tess is married to Angel at this point, so naturally she doesn’t agree, and even though Alec’s attempts at making it up to Tess are extremely misguided, in his mind, he is trying to atone. Yes, to modern readers this sounds pretty crazy, but in his mind, and in the minds of Victorian readers, Alec is trying to do the right thing.

This falls flat though, even when he tries not to be tempted. Alec notes that he has a ‘fear’ of ‘women’s faces,’ because of how they tempt him.[3] He even has the audacity to ask Tess to ‘swear’ that she won’t tempt him again.[4] Tess may be tempting, but it isn’t her fault that Alec sexually assaulted her, so even though he is trying to atone, it appears that he still doesn’t realise that he is responsible for his own mistakes. Even though, we are told, that Alec has changed, and from this point is dedicated to his religion, it seems that he still doesn’t understand his past fully. But this conflicts with his declaration that he was to blame for Tess’ misery, so… he kind of atones but doesn’t fully understand how? It’s a tricky one.

This all becomes a bit clearer when his attempts to resist temptation fully break down. He promptly ditches preaching to give way to his ‘passion’ for Tess.[5] So, before we could even fully understand Alec’s supposed conversion, he basically slips back into his old ways. Seeing Tess prompts a revelatory outburst, which adds to the complexity of the character, and makes for dramatically gripping reading:

‘I was on my way to salvation till I saw you again! He said, feverishly shaking her, as if she were a child. ‘And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again – surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!’ His voice sank, and a hot archness shot from his own black eyes. ‘You temptress Tess; you dear witch of Babylon – I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!’[6]

He’s gone on a full U-turn here, and goes back to blaming Tess for everything, after initially saying that she was blameless. He again, says that she tempted him, when in fact, she’s spent the last number of pages trying to shake him off. He casts her as a bit of a femme fatale. A lot in the novel is left up to chance, and if Tess hadn’t stumbled upon Alec again, perhaps he would have gone on to fully atone. It’s difficult to tell. Now, we know that Alec’s conversion is really just meant to criticise the hypocrisy of the church, as although it preaches forgiveness and love, Alec has been accepted even though he raped Tess. She suffers and loses faith throughout the novel, prompted by the refusal of the church to baptise her illegitimate child by Alec.[7] Tess is unprotected by everyone in the novel, including the church. Where someone from the church should support her and help her, the church instead gives her the man who ruined her life, the difference being now that he has the backing of divine authority. It is incredibly hypocritical and insulting, and just reinforces Tess’ purity in contrast to the other characters within the novel. Even Angel, foretold as her guardian angel, is no saint. This girl cannot catch a break.

Alec certainly packs in a few Biblical references in his tirade, which is not uncommon throughout the whole novel. His likening of Tess to Eve demonstrates her uniqueness, and the pedestal that he places her on, seeing her as the first woman, and incomparable to all others. She isn’t just a woman, she’s the living embodiment of ‘woman.’ Obviously, Eve is tied up with temptation, and it seems that Alec has it in his mind that she was tempted by him.[8] She did say that she found him handsome, but this obviously does not translate to consent. On the surface it seems pretty clear that Alec is the snake in the Garden of Eden. Tess’ association with Eve prompts the reader to wonder who her Adam is, and this is made even more complex when people debate if Angel is just as bad as Alec, and therefore unworthy of that title. Who sits in the Garden of Eden with Tess? Is it even Eden, considering how badly she is treated?

By the time anyone has the chance to figure out any of these questions, presuming that there is an answer, it is, as Tess says, ‘too late.’[9]

Thanks for reading!

Stay safe, stay inside. Read something cheerful.

[1] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, (London, Penguin Classics, 2003) p. 305.

[2] Ibid., p. 313.

[3] Ibid., p. 310.

[4] Ibid., p. 311.

[5] Ibid., p. 322.

[6] Ibid., p. 323.

[7] Ibid., p. 96

[8] Ibid., p. 77.

[9] Ibid., p. 378.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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