Angel’s parents surprise him by reading a biblical passage about how virtuous wives are loving, loyal, selfless, and “working.” Mrs. Clare applies the passage directly to Tess, demonstrating her wholehearted acceptance of Angel’s choice not to marry a fine lady, but Angel, overcome with emotion, leaves the room. Following him, Mrs. Clare guesses that Angel discovered something dishonorable in Tess’s past, but he vehemently denies it.
Analysis: Chapters XXXV–XXXIX
Atmosphere is a very important component in these chapters, and as Tess nears the culmination of her tragedy, the sense of mystical gloom intensifies. The old, abandoned, Gothic d’Urberville mansion is a perfect setting for the emotional change that takes place. The setting also mirrors Tess’s feelings of emptiness and coldness toward her family legacy. In exploiting the setting for dramatic and psychological effect, Hardy draws heavily on the conventions of Gothic literature, sometimes creating very unrealistic effects.
In a similar vein, the scene in which Angel sleepwalks is Gothic almost to the point of being ridiculous. The scene represents the fact that, while Tess herself is still very much alive, Angel’s vision of her is dead. The woman he married does not seem to be the same woman now, and he cannot reconcile the difference. As Alec sexually violated Tess, Tess’s past has spiritually violated Angel. It seems inevitable that Angel’s idealized, pure vision of Tess must shatter and, given the importance he attaches to this vision, their marriage must shatter along with it. Angel’s reaction is a result of his childish decision to marry the Tess that he envisioned as opposed to Tess as she actually is.
The scene becomes even harder to believe when Angel scoops up his wife, and—still asleep—carries her to her ancestral cemetery and places her in a coffin. Hardy may have included such a scene to please a Victorian readership that loved Gothic gloom and mystery. But the scene also attests to the hostility of fate toward Tess. Hardy means for us to accept Tess’s tragedy as foreordained, willed by the universe, and executed by powers beyond mortal control. By suggesting such a deterministic view of events, Hardy makes us look at the story in a new and unsettling way. For much of the novel, Hardy seems to criticize the archaic and outmoded morality that unfairly judges and condemns Tess, as well as the social hierarchies that allow aristocrats to exploit the lower classes and men to abuse women. But if Tess’s tragedy is foreordained, it may not be solely the fault of outdated public moral judgment.
Angel thinks that Tess is somehow dead, and Tess herself actually wants to be dead. She loses her strength and tells Angel that she wishes to submit: “I will obey you, like your wretched slave, even if it is to lie down and die.” She never complains about his feelings, and she only criticizes and blames herself. As Angel carries her over the narrow bridge, she imagines both of them falling over the side to their deaths in each other’s arms. She wants to commit suicide but—as with her inability to tell Angel about her past—she cannot summon the courage. As they say good-bye, Tess is little more than a walking corpse. Indeed, it seems that Angel has killed her soul and her desire to live. It is apparent now that Tess can never escape the wrongs of the past, either socially or personally.