— Wuthering Heights And Tess Of The D’urbervilles As Tragedies Essay, Research Paper
The Definitive Tragedies
From some of our earliest literature, a style of writing has come forth that has been used throughout history, known as the tragedy. From these classical and definitive texts, including Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, the literati of our society have selected certain characteristics, which we use to form a working definition of tragedy. This definition, which explains that a tragedy must include social or moral elevation of the tragic hero, a basic character flaw within this hero, and recognition by the hero of his or her failure, can be used to prove that both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Mayor of Casterbridge, are indeed tragic novels.
The first of these characteristics, social or moral elevation of the tragic hero, is present in both of these novels. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it is Tess herself who is elevated above her peers, by her angelic looks and seemingly impeccable moral standards. By all outward appearances she is an upstanding young woman, worthy of praise. In addition, the newfound connection between the lowly farming Durbeyviles and the noble family of the D’Urbervilles, brings forth the further elevation of Tess, as she begins to realize the importance of her family name. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard is elevated in much the same way. A lowly hay-trusser at the beginning of the novel, Henchard works his way up to his ultimate goal, the position of Mayor in the town of Casterbridge. Henchard’s elevation is different than that of Tess, however, for Michael works his way towards this goal, whereas Tess does nothing to earn the noble title that is bestowed upon her family. Still, despite the difference in the means by which they are elevated, both novels meet this requirement, by elevating the hero and heroine to a level higher than the common citizen.
The next characteristic, a basic character flaw, is more obvious for Michael Henchard than it is for Tess. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard’s greatest mistake is made in the first few pages of the novel, when he becomes intoxicated, and sells his wife to the highest bidder. This mistake gives the reader an idea of Henchard’s greatest weakness: alcohol. Still, he overcomes this weakness, and builds an impressive life out of the shattered soul that stumbled into a fair outside of town. It appears that all will be well for him, until his wife returns with his young daughter. From this point on, the Mayor’s small transgressions and mistakes all lead to the pivotal moment when his past is disclosed to his townspeople. His vice then, a weakness for strong drink, is ultimately his downfall. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess also possesses a basic flaw in her character, which will eventually lead to her downfall. To begin with, the ignorance of young Tess, coupled with a desire to help her family, lead Tess into a situation she cannot control. At this point, she has become the fallen woman, no longer known as a pure young lady to the members of her town. Tess, like Michael, reshapes the mess that she made of her life in her youth. And Tess, like Michael will fall from this new height she has reached. Her marriage to Angel Claire seems to be her ultimate achievement, like the Mayoral appointment of Michael Henchard, but it too is not meant to last. Again, a desire to help her family, this time coupled with her intuitive pride, lead Tess into a situation that she cannot, or does not, control. Given the chance at a new relationship with her estranged husband, Angel, Tess commits the ultimate crime, and is ultimately punished. This is her downfall.
The final characteristic, recognition of failure, is present in each novel in different ways. In Tess, she is a fugitive, collapsed on her temporary bed of stone at Stonehenge, when she realizes that she cannot escape her destiny. When the authorities come, she goes silently; she does not fight. She has recognized the mistake she made in murdering Alec D’Urberville, whatever his crimes against her may have been. She knows she cannot be forgiven, and she foresees her execution. Hardy reminds the reader of Tess’s nobility at the end, only making her death more tragic. The loneliness of her death, and the way her life affected those around her serves to bring forth feelings of sympathy in the reader at her execution. In the case of Michael Henchard, however, it is not until after his death that his recognition of his own failures becomes apparent. In the letter that is given to Elizabeth Jane, Michael is forgiven of his sins, and becomes a true tragic hero by inspiring feelings of pity and sympathy in the reader. It is not until this letter is read, though, that the reader is sure that Michael has realized his mistakes. In addition, the image of the starved, withered, goldfinch, a gift given in love, compared to that of the starved, withered, Michael Henchard, evokes a sympathy for Henchard. Though it cannot be argued that many of his problems were direct results of his mistakes, the reader is forced to feel that somehow he has been a victim of fate, that things could never have worked out for this poor man, no matter what his decisions.
These three characteristics, the elevation of the tragic hero, a basic character flaw, and the hero’s recognition of his or her own failures are what make Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge modern tragedies. Though the interpretation of these basic characteristics has changed with the times, these tragedies evoke the same feelings of sympathy, fear, and pity in the reader, bridging a gap between the times of the great philosophers, and a world struggling with revolutions of all kinds.