"He Knew Psychoanalysis": Thomas Hardy and the Paradox of Degeneracy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Shirley A. Martin

June 24, 2005


In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, heredity plays a highly visible if debatable role in shaping character, plot, and, ultimately, narrative tragedy. Yet when Sigmund Freud read Tess in 1929, he credited Hardy with intuitive knowledge of psychoanalysis. Although no elaboration of it has been recorded, Freud's remark invites speculation, as Hardy's representation of heredity would seem to defy psychoanalytic construction. In this essay, I use psychoanalysis to question the received dichotomy in Tess between nature and society by showing how both Angel Clare's and Hardy's thinking about heredity is psychologically motivated. In particular, by refracting the rhetoric and imagery of heredity in Tess through a Freudian optic, I illuminate the disdain for "degenerate" old families professed by Angel, the putative degeneracy of Tess herself, and the dualistic view of nature Hardy associates with Tess and its relation to his creativity.


     Clarence Oberndorf recalls that on a visit to Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1929, Freud asked him "with a gleam in his eye" to come into his workroom to see what he was reading. When Oberndorf expressed his surprise and pleasure at Freud's reading Tess, Freud smiled and said of Hardy, "He knew psychoanalysis" (quoted in Oberndorf, 1953, p. 182). It is not surprising that Freud sought in Tess confirmation of psychoanalysis. As early as 1897, Freud intimated to Fliess that his insight into the Oedipus complex had been confirmed if not inspired by two tragedies, Oedipus Rex and Hamlet (Berman, 1994). Indeed, that literary works express, if only indirectly, not only the contents of their authors' unconscious but also the laws of its working led Freud to declare, "creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream" (Freud 1907/1959a, p. 8). If Freud himself never recorded the psychological insights he gleaned from his reading of Tess, psychoanalytically-oriented critics have stepped in to fill the void. Various characters in Tess have been described as suffering from intrapsychic conflicts—between the superego and libidinal drives (Oberndorf, 1953, p. 183; Sumner, 1981, pp. 129-146); between social tendencies and natural impulses (Meisel, 1972, chap. 6); between intellect and emotion (Björk, 1987, pp. 108-117); and between Eros and Thanatos (Giordano, 1984, chap. 9). Nevertheless, psychoanalytic readings of character—or, more precisely, of Tess's character—would seem to be vitiated by a powerful thematic undertow.

     Critics have argued that Tess is impelled not only by psychic but also by hereditary determinism. Taking a more hopeful view of human nature in Hardy, some critics have called attention to the failure of heredity to extinguish either Tess's natural vitality (Ebbatson, 1975) or her affirmations of individuality (Robinson, 1980). Others have taken a darker view of the role of heredity in shaping character and events in Tess. J. O. Bailey (1970) regards "the immortal genes of the long-dead d'Urberville knights and dames as the true villain" of the novel's tragic end (p. 14). Peter Morton (1974) gives substance to Bailey's assertion by demonstrating that, while writing Tess, Hardy embraced the neo-Darwinian faith in natural selection unalloyed by "soft" Lamarckian inheritance (but see Otis, 1994, pp. 160-167). According to Morton, it is Hardy's commitment to hereditary determinism that informs the pessimistic narrative arc of Tess. For in Tess, hereditary determinism is manifest not in evolution but in devolution—in the decline of the d'Urbervilles, in the atavism of Tess and, ultimately, in narrative tragedy. Given the extent to which the heroine of Tess appears to be shaped by the forces of heredity—manifest in her degeneracy—why might Freud have said of Hardy, "He knew psychoanalysis"?

     To be sure, it is not as though degeneracy is inexplicable under psychoanalytic theory. Although Freud's contemporaries presumed the aberrant or "atavistic" impulses of degenerates constituted a hereditary taint, Freud universalized perversion through libido theory, thereby undermining degeneracy as a distinct diagnostic category (Gilman, 1993, pp. 157-168). That Hardy portrays degeneracy as the disorder not of civilization, but rather of a particular family, thus poses a challenge to a psychoanalytic reading of Tess. But I shall argue it is this very representation of the degenerate as the Other that provides confirmation of psychoanalysis and, in particular, of the existence of unconscious mental determinants—manifest in character-type, neurotic symptoms, and intrapsychic conflicts.

     Such an exegesis presents two advantages. First, although Freud made only passing mention to "degenerates" after 1917 (Gilman, 1993, p. 162), my reading of Tess shall show that, in principle at least, Freud was not silent on degeneracy because exaggerated signs of it were an embarrassment to psychoanalytic theory. On the contrary, the seeming exception proves the rule, as Freud's own clinical experience attests (Freud, 1915/1957a). Second, I shall show that psychoanalysis may profitably be applied to literary texts' seemingly unpsychological content which, like clinical material, puts up resistance to interpretation. In other words, the representation of degeneracy in Tess, which seemly controverts Freud's theory, can be made to support it when it yields to Freud's "collection of picklocks" (Freud, quoted in Masson, 1985, p. 427).

     I shall employ two strategies to "open" Hardy's text and, in particular, its representation of degeneracy, to a psychoanalytic interpretation. I first submit to scrutiny the behavior of the two major characters, Tess and Angel Clare, in order to show that not only the phenomenon of "degeneracy," but also the fascination exercised by it, can be read as psychopathology. For Tess's murder of Alec, seemingly the capstone of a hereditary propensity to crime, and Angel's apparently rational if excessive contempt for "old families" can, with the help of Freud's picklocks, be put down to character and neurosis, respectively. The rhetoric of criminality and decay, however, are not the only markers of degeneracy in Tess. My second approach is to examine whether degeneracy's sexual underside surfaces in Hardy's images of Tess, despite his advocacy of her purity. I attempt to demonstrate through associations to a single image that Tess's "purity" is destabilized by her degeneracy, and that this equivocation can be read as a projection of Hardy's own intrapsychic conflict due to ambivalence. These two approaches will, I hope, not only lend persuasiveness to my account in their mutual illumination of common themes, but also contribute to an understanding of Hardy's creative impulse and the interpretive richness of its textual realization.


     One hereditarian strain in Tess would appear to be compatible with the degeneracy hypothesis current in the late nineteenth century.1 The French psychologist Bénédict Morel, one of its most vocal proponents, claimed that poor endowment and poor environment mutually reinforce each other, as inherited tendencies to alcoholism, idiocy, and crime are realized in an environment that adds to the inherited burden, which resulting decline in a family's physical, mental, and moral health is—without intervention—irreversible. Eventually the cumulative experiences of successive generations "are epitomized in their negative aspect in one individual existence" (Morel, quoted in Otis, 1994, p. 50). Such was Zola's Nana who, as a prostitute with a "deranged" sexual instinct, represented a cavernous force for corruption, nourished as her sexuality was on the contaminated soil of generations of alcoholism and poverty (pp. 64-66).

     Like Nana's deranged sexuality, Tess's murder of Alec can be seen as representing the culmination of a degenerate disposition—in Tess's case, toward criminality. This interpretation would appear to be supported by the crimes Hardy attributes to the d'Urbervilles over the centuries. Tess's "mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray" had "ruthlessly" raped peasant girls (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 77), and a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century ancestor with a similar predilection had murdered a woman whom he had abducted in his coach (p. 341). (Although Hardy is elliptical about who murdered whom, how likely is it that a woman wrestled a weapon away from a man, if he had one, and killed him with it?) Finally, in the nineteenth century, the d'Urberville crime of murder is capped by one of its number's committing a crime that represents its inversion: a woman's—Tess's—murder of her rapist/seducer. That the d'Urberville misdeeds become, over time, both more violent and unnatural (progressing from rape to murder, and from murder by a man to murder by a woman) is in keeping with degenerative moral decline.

     The gradual intensification of aggression revealed in the d'Urberville family is also telescoped in the acts Tess commits in her adult life. For in Tess's behavior toward Alec, "the slight incautiousness of character inherited from her race" (p. 96) and "sudden impulses of reprisal to which she was liable" (p. 74) gain ascendance: verbal threats ("I could knock you out of the gig!" p. 83) give way to her slapping Alec across the mouth with her glove, "heavy and thick as a warrior's" (p. 321), and to murder when most "wickedly mad" (p. 377). In the view of someone like Morel, Tess's crime represents an efflorescence of a degenerate disposition that had already broken out, but never before with such virulence. Moreover, Hardy himself remarked in an interview (though not too much stock should be put in such remarks), "The murder that Tess commits is the hereditary quality . . . working out in the impoverished descendant of this once noble family" (Hardy, quoted in Waldoff, 1979, p. 142). Although Tess's murder of Alec—and indeed, her aggressive acts that foreshadow it—can be attributed to this cause, they can also, I maintain, be attributed to her character.

     Although Freud never posited a causal connection between character-type and disposition to neurosis, on one hand, or between the character-type of an ill person and a specific neurosis, on the other (Freud, 1931/1964b), he did draw attention to the fact that certain patients put up a resistance to treatment, and that this resistance constitutes part of their character (Freud, 1916/1957c, p. 311). Such patients are often unaware not only of their resistance, but also of its motive (Freud, 1933/1960a, p. 108), which cannot entirely be put down to defiance toward the physician or a clinging to the gain from illness (Freud, 1923/1961b, p. 49). This garden-variety therapeutic reaction, however, may have a counterpart outside the clinical hour in specific and even sensational patterns of behavior that proceed from the same motive and that lay claim to the definition of a distinct character-type. One such character-type is marked by criminal behavior.

    Analytic work . . . brought the surprising discovery that such deeds were done principally because they were forbidden, and because their execution was accompanied by mental relief for their doer. He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something. . . . Paradoxical as it may sound, I must maintain that the sense of guilt was present before the misdeed, that it did not rise from it, but conversely—the misdeed arose from the sense of guilt. These people might justly be described as criminals from a sense of guilt (Freud, 1916/1957c, p. 332).

The paradox is rendered more explicable when a further piece of information is added, namely, that the sense of guilt is unconscious.

    It was a surprise to find that an increase in this Uncs. sense of guilt can turn people into criminals. But it is undoubtedly a fact. In many criminals, especially youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt which existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive (Freud, 1923/1961b, p. 52).

     This unconscious sense of guilt emanates from the ego which, for reasons that do not concern us here, seeks punishment from the parental authority of the law (Freud, 1916/1957c, pp. 332-333). But criminals are not necessarily lacking in morality. Presumably, their pangs of conscience may be as acute as those of persons whose sense of guilt emanates from a sadistic superego as opposed to a masochistic ego (Freud, 1924/1961a, pp. 168-169). Freud discusses the Dostoevskian character-type in which the ego cycles between parental authorities and the superego in order to satisfy its need for punishment: criminal acts induced by the need for punishment in turn beget a need for expiation, clearing the way for renewed expression of the need for punishment, ad infinitum (pp. 169-170; see also Freud, 1928/1964a). But Tess is Hardy's creation, and we should not expect her behavior to conform perfectly to any of the character-types described by Freud. In Tess, manifestations of a need for punishment and an overly sensitive conscience do not appear to be connected. Tess's acute conscious sense of guilt, evident in the first third of the novel, is eclipsed in the last two-thirds by a need for punishment to which Hardy overtly and, as I shall show— covertly—draws attention.

     The severity of Tess's conscience is evident in her excessive guilt over the unintended consequences of her actions. Tess regards herself "in the light of a murderess" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 38) for incurring the death of the family's horse when, over-tired and under-experienced, she falls asleep behind the reins in driving her family's hives to market. Similarly, after ending her liaison with Alec, the solitude-seeking Tess regards herself as "a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence" (p. 91), although Alec had set a "trap" for her (p. 372) and, as she told him, "I didn't understand your meaning till it was too late" (p. 83). Tess's guilt over her transgression continues to plague her at Talbothays, where she attempts to dissuade herself from securing Angel's affection, because she "could never conscientiously allow any man to marry her now" (p. 141). Yet at some point Tess's guilt transmutes into the recurrent and diffuse misgiving that "in inhabiting the fleshy tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her, she was somehow doing wrong" (p. 301). That Tess's sense of guilt remains unmitigated—whatever the extent of her culpability—suggests that it emanates from a masochistic ego as opposed to a sadistic superego. Nevertheless, evidence that Tess is impelled by a waxing unconscious need for punishment is wanting until her marriage to Angel, after which she seeks from others punishment for specific acts.

     The pivotal moment is Tess's confession. As something contemplated, Tess's confession to Angel appears as a manifestation of her overly sensitive conscience, motivated by a desire to be "fair to him" (p. 251). Yet how Tess responds to others' responses to her (intended) confession suggests another motive. Although her mother strongly advises against her trumpeting her trouble, Tess nonetheless determines at the twelfth hour to "pay to the uttermost farthing" in making the confession (p. 220). And when Angel forgives her but withholds his affection because "forgiveness is not all" (p. 229), Tess contemplates taking her own life. Tess's refraining from suicide less because she saw "how wicked it was" (p. 235) than because she feared causing a scandal to Angel's name marks the moment at which she substitutes for the authority of her own conscience the parental authority of Angel. This transfer is dramatized by her insistence that Angel kill her because "It is you, my ruined husband, who ought to strike the blow. I think I should love you more, if that were possible, if you could bring yourself to do it, since there's no other way of escape for 'ee" (p. 236).

     To put a psychoanalytic construction on Tess's act, she has replaced her superego with her image of Angel (the "object") with the result that

    the functions allotted to the ego ideal entirely cease to operate. The criticism exercised by that agency is silent; everything that the object does or asks for is right and blameless. Conscience has no application to anything that is done for the sake of the object; in the blindness of love remorselessness is carried to the pitch of crime (Freud, 1921/1955a, p. 113).

As we shall see, Freud's description would seem to serve as a cookie cutter for Tess's behavior from the morning after her confession. It must be borne in mind, however, that though Tess's ceding to Angel the authority to punish her is predicated on her losing his love, it cannot explain her need for punishment in the first place. Furthermore, Tess's guilt attaches equivocally to her liaison with Alec, because it attaches only so long as Angel himself condemns her for it. For her own sorrows were tolerable, "if she could once rise high enough to despise opinion. But that she could not do, so long as it was held by Clare" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 272). Herein lies the litmus test of Tess's need for punishment: were Angel to forgive her, Tess should, if impelled by a need for punishment, find another object to which to attach her guilt and, what is more, another parental authority should Angel fail to supply that object.

     Although Tess meekly submits to what she regards as Angel's "punishment" of her (p. 248)—that she wait for him to come to her—and "bent her head dumbly thereto" (p. 329), her patience in enduring her trial is tested by Alec's renewing his pursuit of her. When Alec asks Tess to "leave that mule you call husband for ever" (p. 320), she slaps him across the mouth with her leather glove with murderous thoughts in mind (p. 372). In so doing, Tess not only reasserts Angel's punishment of her as "just" (p. 325), but also warrants Alec's punishment of her by construing his rape/seduction of her as precedent: "Now punish me! . . . Whip me, crush me. . . . I shall not cry out. Once victim, always victim: that's the law" (p. 321). But Alec denies Tess the satisfaction of superadded punishment for Angel's sake, instead prevailing on her to believe she is a "deserted wife" (p. 308) and, when her options run out, to become his mistress. When Alec again maligns Angel, who has returned to reclaim Tess as his own, Tess takes vengeance on Alec for his "cruel persuasion" (p. 368) by murdering him.

     At a stroke, Tess seemingly exchanges the role of victim for that of victimizer. Nevertheless, Tess's act is still explicable as a need for punishment. Consequent to Angel's forgiving her, Tess's masochistic ego loses its accuser (if not the introjected object) and her guilt is put in limbo. By murdering Alec, therefore, Tess at once attaches her guilt to a new object and transfers authority for her punishment from Angel to the law. This transfer dooms to impermanence whatever happiness she and Angel might temporarily claim: "By committing a capital crime and making herself subject to hanging, Tess is . . . as self-destructive as if she had turned the bloody knife upon herself" (Giordano, 1984, p. 181). And in taking this step, Tess's relief is complete: "Unable to realize the gravity of her conduct she seemed at last content . . . as she lay upon his [Angel's] shoulder, weeping with happiness" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 372). That the locus of Tess's unconscious guilt is successively displaced—from myriad acts onto her liaison with Alec and onto her murder of Alec—in parallel with her successive punishment by her conscience, by Angel, and by the law—the latter of which alone brings relief—is, I submit, more in keeping with criminality from a pent-up need for punishment than with criminality as the break-out of biogenic moral decay.

     No doubt Tess's character-type is unusual; and if psychoanalysis can illuminate the extraordinary, it should be able to do as much for the ordinary. And what is ordinary if not the fascination with the Other—than the fascination with Tess as the degenerate Other? Since this fascination is something that even Hardy does not put down to heredity, it would be a coup for psychoanalysis if, as in the dream-work's reversal into the opposite, the "normal" person's detestation of the diseased Other were itself indicative of psychopathology.

     In pursuing this line of inquiry, I shall restrict my discussion of psychopathology—and its application to Tess—to the formation of neurotic symptoms, leaving aside the longer causal chain by which neurosis issues. As is well known, in Freud's theory, instinctual demands of an erotic-aggressive nature that are unacceptable to the ego are, before ever reaching consciousness, repressed or pushed into the unconscious (Freud, 1915/1957b, p. 147). Under certain conditions that need not detain us here, the instinct may be reactivated and renew its demand. Since the portals to normal satisfaction are closed, however, the repressed returns by a circuitous route and, without the cognizance of the ego, makes its appearance in consciousness in highly distorted form as a symptom (Freud, 1939/1964c, pp. 72-80, 124-27). Because the instinct partially achieves its aim through distortion and displacement, a symptom provides "substitutive satisfaction" for experiences elided in life (p. 127; see also Freud, 1917/1963, pp. 300-302).

     Angel Clare's hearty dislike of the "aristocratic principle of blood before everything" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 189) or the "good old family" (p. 121) represents what Freud calls the "return of the repressed" twice over. First, it expresses—though in distorted form—his repressed aggressive impulse. Being an intellectual, Angel doubtless resented his father for denying him a university education, but his repressed emotion returns in his hostility toward old families which, like his father who is a man of "fixed ideas" (p. 120), lack "good new resolutions" (p. 121). Second, Angel's disdain for the "good old family" provides a conduit for the return of his repressed eroticism. We are told that after being denied a university education, Angel had a brief affair with an older woman, after which he had himself "well in hand" (p. 193). That his subsequently voiced disdain for old families serves to express his eroticism in distorted form is evident from the terms in which Angel describes them: "Decrepit families imply decrepit wills, decrepit conduct" (p. 229) and, what is more, "have done their spurt of work in past days, and can't have anything left in 'em now" (p. 131). Tess herself represents "the belated seedling of an effete aristocracy" (p. 230) that constitutes "a spent force" (p. 330). In the medical literature of the nineteenth century, sterility, common among the aristocracy, was viewed as the terminal product of generations of incestuous reproduction ("decrepit conduct") due to moral weakness ("decrepit wills") (Gilman, 1993, pp. 181-184). Families that have "done their spurt of work," therefore, are families that have declined due to inbreeding, and their "decrepit conduct" is their yielding to this perversion. Angel's disdain for degenerate families, then, represents a return of his repressed sexual impulse, of which he fears losing control.

     The two purposes of this symptom—substitutive satisfaction of aggression and eroticism—come together in the scene of Tess's confession. After Tess confesses to him her former liaison with Alec, Angel expresses no anger toward Tess herself for the "joke" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 230) she has played him ("do not make me reproach you: I have sworn that I will not" p. 229), directing his anger instead at her ancestry: "I cannot help associating your decline as a family with this other fact—of your want of firmness. . . . Heaven, why did you give me a handle for despising you more by informing me of your descent!" (p. 229). Angel's reproaching Tess indirectly through her ancestry also allows him to keep alive in distorted form his erotic feelings for her. For not only has Tess exhibited "want of firmness" in becoming, if only briefly, Alec's mistress; she also metaphorically has committed incest with this "sham d'Urberville" (p. 351), repeating the perversion of her forbears that lead to their decline.

     That Angel's disdain for the "good old family" can be read as a neurotic symptom—and, likewise, Tess's murder of Alec as a defect of character—does not, however, exhaust analysis of the theme of degeneracy in Tess for the purpose of illuminating the possible meaning of Freud's tribute to Hardy.


     One potentially fruitful question that might be put is this: What evidence is there that Hardy's intuitive understanding of his characters' unconscious motivation has its source in his own psyche? Put differently, apart from his characters' psychology, is there evidence that the working of Hardy's unconscious finds expression in Tess and, specifically, in the theme of degeneracy?

     Clearly, degeneracy is a theme in which Hardy has a personal stake. Hardy himself is a representative of a family that has "gone down—gone under" (p. 15). For Hardy's family is among those old families that

    "have done their spurt of work in past days, and can't have anything left in 'em now. There's the Billets and the Drenkhards and the Greys and the St. Quintins and the Hardys [emphasis added] and the Goulds, who used to own the lands for miles down this valley; you could buy 'em all up now for an old song, a'most" (p. 131).2

Because he portrays his own family as an instance of the decline of the rural aristocracy, there is reason to believe that Hardy identifies with the narrator's (and Angel's) skepticism of the virtue of old families. The narrator describes Tess as a "sapling which had rooted down to a poisonous stratum on the spot of its sowing" (p. 133), an allusion to the family fecklessness. By contrast, the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, whose genealogical pretensions were patina, "formed a very good stock whereon to regraft a name which sadly wanted such renovation" (p. 42). Since "stock" refers to a line of descent, an implicit comparison is being made between "good" (new) and bad (old) stock, the "poisonous stratum" thus being a hereditary taint that depends for its "renovation" on the d'Urbervilles' reproduction with "good" (i.e., new) stock. Thus for the narrator (Hardy) as for Angel, degeneration is associated with familial decline due to inbreeding.

     Given that the disparagement of old families as "degenerate" has psychological import for Angel, the supposition perhaps is warranted that ideas about degeneracy have psychological significance for Hardy, expressing not merely his "knowledge" of the laws of the working of the unconscious, but also the nature of his own repressed desires. It follows that the latter might be recognizable as Hardy's (as distinct from Angel's) in Hardy's ventriloquizing his ideas on degeneracy through the narrator, whose descriptions—unlike Angel's remarks—evoke impressions in the reader that are clearly contrary to Hardy's artistic intent. Indeed, as I hope to show, the existence and nature of Hardy's internal conflict is revealed through the way in which the imagery of degeneracy destabilizes the basic premise of Tess.

     This premise is proclaimed in the novel's complete title, Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman. In order to make the case for the fallen woman as pure, Hardy relocates the standard of purity beyond the pale of society. This move is made explicit in the 1892 and 1912 prefaces to Tess. In 1892, Hardy argued against his critics, "They ignore the meaning of the word [purity] in Nature, together with all aesthetic claims upon it" (p. 4) and, in 1912, he averred that the subtitle "was appended at the last moment . . . as being the estimate left in a candid mind of the heroine's character" (p. 7). Yet Hardy seeks to evoke readers' sympathy for his heroine not only through her character and natural purity, which account for her positive virtues, but also through her degeneracy, which relieves her of all culpability for her crime (Greenslade, 1994, p. 162). Hardy wants it both ways: a heroine pure by two different standards. The success of this strategy requires that Tess's purity be uncontaminated—until overcome—by her degeneracy.3 But Tess's contrary qualities are not manifest sequentially or even separately. Nourished by the same soil, purity and degeneracy have a consanguineous relationship whose very closeness undermines Hardy's advocacy of Tess, as will become apparent from analysis of the roots and aesthetic fruits of Tess's purity.

     Tess's purity would seem to reside in her intentions (Ingham, 2003, p. 175; Petit, 1991). Tess declares of herself, "Never in her life—she could swear it from the bottom of her soul—had she ever intended to do wrong. . . . Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 343). Tess's words only underscore that she consistently acts in accord with her intentions. Her sins of inadvertence, therefore, result from her intentions being overcome by force (Björk, 1987, p. 111). In acting in accord with her intentions, however, Tess is perhaps not acting deliberately, that is, with full consciousness of the consequences of her actions. Taking leave of Alec, the pregnant Tess tells him, "If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don't" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 84). Not loving Alec and, indeed, with feelings toward him that are "quite cold" (p. 337) though "Hate him she did not quite" (p. 87), Tess does not even think of urging Alec to marry her: "On matrimony he had never once said a word. And what if he had? How a convulsive snatching at social salvation might have impelled her to answer him she could not say" (p. 87). That the dictates of nature (impulse) and society conflict so clearly in Tess's case, and that the scales weigh so heavily in self-interest on the side of society (could Tess have wrung Alec's consent to marry her), only set in relief as "pure" Tess's acting on intentions that accord with human nature.

     Tess is pure, then, because in acting on her intentions, she acts in accord with her natural erotic impulse, which is directed not toward Alec (whom she avoids before her rape/seduction and leaves soon afterwards) but toward Angel, with whom she was "converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale" (p. 133) in an attraction lacking "everything to justify its existence in the eye of civilization (while lacking nothing in the eye of Nature)" (p. 149). That Tess finally yields to this attraction represents the triumph of her (better) natural impulses over her (inferior) social scruples: "She might as well have agreed at first. The 'appetite for joy', which pervades all creation . . . was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric" (p. 191). Because Tess's morality is refracted through the prism of her sensuality, however, it readily separates into more than one hue.

     In yielding to her erotic attraction to Angel, Tess is imaged in a way that manifests and aestheticizes her sensuality.

    The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch, and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells—weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him (p. 127).

The sensuality associated with Tess is, on the surface at least, plenitudinous, fecund, enveloping. In accord with nature, Tess is both pure and fertile. Moreover, Tess's naturalization in this passage gives her purity a high profile.

     But the passage invites other, contrasting associations to Tess's sensuality as well. Though fecund, the garden's vegetation has displaced—indeed, feeds on the remains of—the cultivated, that is, pruned and healthy growth that once rooted there, just as its profusion and smells, and the excretions of its well-fed parasites and mollusks, place obstacles in the way of Tess's approach to Angel. Indeed, nature herself impedes Tess's acting in accord with her natural erotic impulse that is the basis of her purity. But the impediment that nature poses to Tess's purity is not merely temporary, an outward obstacle. Hardy's placing parasites—cuckoos and blights—in the garden is telling. Both appear harmless: the difference between the cuckoo's eggs and those of its host do not inhibit the host's caregiving, and the blights have the whiteness of purity. Both, however, drain their host's reproductive resources. Blights, in particular, drain their hosts of reproductive vitality in causing them to wither and decay, just as they metaphorically drain Tess's life-giving forces in leaving madder stains on her skin. Indeed, the garden as a whole seems singularly lacking in flowers or fruits; it is only the weeds that reproduce. The association of fertility with Tess's sensuality, then, is undermined by the reproductive perversity, decline, and sterility with which her sensuality is also associated. And just as sensuality as fertility is at root of Tess's purity, so sensuality as perversion-cum-sterility is at root of her impurity. It is not only through Tess's naturalization, however, that this inverse moral quality can be grasped. It is also through her heredity. For if Tess herself readily becomes pregnant and is one of seven Durbeyfield children, the d'Urbervilles are not only "worn-out" (p. 168) and "exhausted" (p. 254) but also "extinct" (p. 15) and, in the parlance of late nineteenth century medicine, degenerate, with all its connotations of moral weakness and perversion. That Hardy attributes to Angel, with whom he identifies, the creed that old families "must lie fallow for a thousand years to git strength for more deeds" (p. 131) suggests that the garden as a metaphor for Tess's degeneracy has the sanction of Hardy himself.

     If all Hardy had done was to invite the association of Tess's sensuality with both fertility and sterility, the textual equivocation would, perhaps, not demand an understanding of its author's intention. But in inviting the further associations between sensuality and purity, on one hand, and sensuality and degeneracy on the other, Hardy destabilizes the basic premise of the text: Tess as a pure woman. And this destabilization is built into the text from the beginning, although Hardy himself declared that Tess "was to all intents and purposes a pure woman till her last fall" (quoted in "A Chat," 1892, p. 153) when, allowing her body "to drift, like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from its living will" (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 366), there is no longer a question of Tess's acting in accord with her intentions. As I hope to show, the source of this perhaps consciously unintended equivocation may fruitfully be sought in Hardy's own psyche.

     One can read Hardy's destabilization of Tess's purity by her degeneracy as an expression of his ambivalence toward women in general. Clearly it is one instance of Hardy's contradictory responses to his female characters which, Shanta Dutta (2000) argues, reveal Hardy's failure to transcend Victorian gender ideologies despite his sympathy for the marginalized woman.4 Nevertheless, by zeroing in on the character of Tess, one can seek to answer whether any one woman is the object of Hardy's ambivalence. The image of Tess in the garden has further relevance here. For Tess's naturalization has meaning in the broader context of fin-de-siècle popular culture. Following the scientific rediscovery in the 1860s that woman has a sexual drive, her angel's wings were clipped and she became once more "the very personification of mother earth" (Dijkstra, 1986, p. 83), "her ancient mythological associations with fertility . . . resurrected by artists and writers everywhere" (p. 84). Tess's symbolic significance as the mother is underscored by Hardy's portraying her as a mother twice over—the mother of Sorrow, she also takes a "deputy-maternal attitude" toward her siblings (Hardy, 1891/1998, p. 28). Given Tess's polyvalent associations to maternity, it is tempting to read into Hardy's destabilization of her purity by degeneracy an expression of his own ambivalence toward his mother.

     There is no denying that during childhood and well into adulthood, Hardy was emotionally dependent on his domineering mother. As an infant, Hardy's possession of normal intelligence, and even his survival, was in doubt, and his parents perhaps refrained from making too great an emotional investment in a sickly child whose unresponsiveness was indicative of either incapacity or resistiveness (Millgate, 1982, p. 16). Once Hardy's "hard-driving" mother, Jemima, became certain that Hardy would survive, however, she became both protective of and ambitious for her son, providing him with books, a technical education, and an apprenticeship with a local architect that was to be his portal to the professional class (pp. 19, 39-42, 54-55). Jemima's ambitions for her son laid the ground for conflict with Hardy over two of his life decisions: his career and his marriage. Although Hardy's own inclination was to resist his mother's schemes for his social and financial advancement, he followed the path she had cleared for him for a time, until he found a role model more congenial to his acquired taste for arts and letters in the Oxbridge-educated Horace Moule (pp. 54-55, 68, 96). The tension between Hardy and his mother over his career choice was resolved, not by open conflict, but by Hardy's "very failure to act, his willingness to let matters drift until the situation somehow clarified itself" (p. 104). Similarly, after his marriage to Emma Gifford, a woman whose social pretensions aroused Jemima's antagonism, Hardy effected an uneasy compartmentalization of his marital and family life (pp. 176, 186, 213, 312). Yet the very tensions created by Hardy's choice of a career and a spouse led to a further decision which, though it kept Hardy within the orbit of his mother's influence, was crucial to the realization of his literary talent, namely, the decision to settle in Dorset, in the vicinity of his family.

     Hardy's fiction drew deeply on the customs, traditions, and values that he heard, saw, and lived growing up in his native Dorset. His was partly a moral mission "to preserve . . . a fairly true record of a vanishing life" (Hardy, quoted in Millgate, 1982, p. 252), and historical accuracy also enhanced Hardy's literary self-confidence (p. 252). Perhaps most important, Hardy's preservation of the "vanishing life" in his fiction was both enabled by his parents, who were a source of knowledge about it, and undertaken for his parents (p. 268), as a memorial and as a means of retaining—possibly deepening—his connection with the two of them and, one would assume, with his mother especially.5 The plot of Return of the Native, which details Clym Yeobright's conflict with his mother, is clearly autobiographical, but Hardy soon learned "habits of defensive secretiveness" (p. 201). Steeped in remembered experience and the emotions that color it, the characters of Hardy's major fiction "walk[ed] out from the chambers of memory through the gates of the imagination" (Bowker, quoted in Millgate, 1982, p. 279), whereby that experience underwent creative transformation. Although it is not to the purpose here to discuss Hardy's creativity (see Casagrande, 1994), perhaps enough has been said to justify my using Hardy's dualistic representation of Tess as a wedge into his psyche—but not enough to justify my interpretation of it as an expression of Hardy's ambivalence toward his mother.

     This interpretation is supported and deepened by application of "decomposition" to Tess. As applied to literature, decomposition refers to the splitting between two or more characters of that which represents a unity—consciously or unconsciously—in the author's mind. We shall here be concerned with unconscious splitting, or with what is known as "latent doubling" (Rogers, 1970). Without being consciously aware of it, the author effects a projection of his ambivalent attitude toward a particular person (e.g., the mother) in one of two ways: either by splitting an image of that person between two characters who together represent a composite character, or by splitting the ambivalent attitude toward that image between two complementary characters who take opposite, one-sided views of the hero or heroine. For example, prior to the twentieth century, ambivalence to the mother in the mind of the author frequently generated a portrayal of her as the complementary characters of the "femme fatale" and the "fair maid" (Rogers, 1970, ch. 7). The case has also been made that in Tess, Hardy splits his ambivalent attitude toward women between the carnal Alec and the idealizing Angel (Waldoff, 1979). But to delimit the search for latent maternal doubles in Tess to these forms and contents is to undervalue the aesthetic and gender-ideological resources at Hardy's disposal.

     In Tess, I will argue, Hardy's projection of his ambivalence toward his mother can best be understood as a splitting of the image of the mother not between characters but within the character of Tess herself, as is graphically manifest in the garden scene. Pure and degenerate, fertile and impotent, an object of both desire and fear of destruction from that desire (as will be explained below), the figure of Tess contains echoes of the boy's ambivalent feelings for his mother attendant on the Oedipus complex. In the normal "positive" Oedipus complex, the male child, under the threat of castration for his masturbatory maternal fantasies, relinquishes his erotic attachment to his mother and intensifies his identification with his father. Freud recognized, however, that the Oedipus complex could resolve with the boy's retaining a portion of his erotic fixation toward his mother which, like the fear of castration, undergoes repression (Freud, 1940/1964d, pp. 190-191). What seems to be projected in Hardy's dualistic representation of Tess, then, is the repressed unity of his residual eroticism toward his mother (in Tess's purity qua fertility) and his fear of this eroticism (in Tess's degeneracy qua impotence).

     The association of the fertile mother with desire for her is self-evident; but the psychological significance of impotence in relation to the mother requires a further word of explanation. Impotence is the inhibition due to the unconscious fear of castration (Freud, 1926/1959b, p. 139), the threat of which, as has been implied, is the basis of the boy's fear of his sexual desire for his mother. The boy fears this desire not merely because he is convinced its gratification would entail his losing a part of himself, but also because to lose this part of himself would be to lose his connection to his mother: "the penis … is a guarantee to its owner that he can be once more united to his mother—i.e. to a substitute for her—in the act of copulation. Being deprived of it amounts to a renewed separation from her" (p. 139). The composite image of Tess as both pure and degenerate thus can be read as a latent double that expresses Hardy's Oedipus-originating maternal ambivalence: desire to possess the mother on one hand, and fear that castration would sever him from his masculinity—and hence, from symbolic connection to the mother through the sexual act—on the other.

     My interpretation of Hardy's dualistic representation of Tess thus far has been based on the garden scene, where Hardy condenses his opposing feelings of desire for and inhibition toward the mother in a single image of Tess. Hardy's eroticization of Tess is so well established as not to require further discussion.6 But Hardy also splits his fear of that desire between disparate images of Tess whose psychological import can be apprehended by analogy to a cultural universal. That universal is taboo which, Freud notes, has an equivocal meaning. On one hand, the taboo is "sacred" and inspires veneration; on the other, the taboo is "uncanny," "dangerous," "forbidden," and "unclean," and its violation inspires horror (Freud 1913/1955b, pp. 18, 25). It is not merely the meaning of taboo that is ambivalent, however. For if the taboo distances the individual by evoking fear—that is, veneration and horror—it is because its purpose is to repress the ever-present urge to commit the prohibited act (pp. 69-70). Our interest here is in the taboo that concerns the mother: the prohibition against incest. By analogy from taboo, an imaginative writer who is ambivalent toward his mother might effect in his work a three-way splitting of his contrary attitudes toward her—onto representations of her both as an object of erotic desire and as objects of fear-inspired veneration and horror.

     Two images of Tess-as-mother (or a substitute) elicit either veneration or horror in observers with particular vividness: Tess's baptism of Sorrow and Angel's confrontation with the portrait of Tess's d'Urberville ancestress. The narrator tells us that in the act of baptism, "The ecstasy of faith almost apotheosized her [Tess]; it set upon her face a glowing irradiation . . . while the miniature candle-flame inverted in her eye-pupils shone like a diamond" (Hardy 1891/1998, pp. 99-100). If candlelight illuminates Tess's transformation into a figure of veneration, it also (if vicariously) transforms her into an object of horror. The portrait of the d'Urberville dame (a symbolic mother figure) that in daylight was vaguely suggestive of "merciless treachery" (p. 214), "In the candlelight . . . was more than unpleasant. Sinister design lurked in the woman's features, a concentrated purpose of revenge on the other sex—so it seemed to him [Angel] then" (p. 231). As the dame is associated with Tess in looks as well as blood, the "revenge" no doubt is cuckoldry, its horror arising from the contrast between the vengefulness with which the dame, and the inadvertence with which Tess, commit the same act. Whether Tess directly (or through her ancestress) is imaged as a figure of horror or veneration, an emotional distancing is effected: Angel, experiencing "the distressing sensation of a resemblance" between Tess and her ancestress (p. 231), checks his progress toward her chamber, and Tess's siblings "gazed up at her with more and more reverence. . . . She did not look like Sissy to them now, but as a being large, towering and awful, a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common" (p. 100). By analogy to taboo, at back of images of a fear-inspiring—as well as an eroticized—Tess is the positive current of Hardy's unconscious desire, the incestuous wish for the mother. If the unity of the repressed incestuous wish and the prohibition against it find expression in Tess, it is because this phylogenetically hard-wired cultural universal is a particularly pertinent feature of Hardy's psyche.

     One should be chary of reading anything into this conclusion, however. In making heuristic use of taboo and latent doubling, my purpose is merely to confirm and interpret Hardy's ambivalence toward his mother. Whether that ambivalence would register on a scale of neurosis is another question. According to Freud, ambivalence is characteristic of a young child's attachment to its mother (Freud 1933/1960b, p. 124). But if a boy's innate bisexual disposition is overweighted toward the feminine component, the castration complex resolves without his relinquishing entirely his erotic fixation toward his mother, as mentioned above. This fixation is then manifest as excessive dependence on her, which is at root ambivalent: "He no longer ventures to love his mother, but he cannot risk not being loved by her, for in that case he would be in danger of being betrayed by her to his father and handed over to castration" (Freud, 1940/1964d, p. 191). Unconsciously both desiring his mother and fearing the loss of his masculinity—and his mother's love—that his extrication from this enmeshed relationship would effect, the boy may, in maturity, develop a bisexual disposition (p. 191). There is no evidence, however, that this truncated clinical picture describes Hardy. Moreover, Hardy's biographer regards the excessiveness of his dependence on his mother as more apparent than real:

    While never venturing upon sudden and unexpected moves, never severing his connections with his home and his personal past, Hardy was entirely capable of whittling down his position by a kind of slow friction . . . and then of adopting the direction thus indicated with a dogged and implacable absoluteness (Millgate, 1982, p. 104).

If Hardy's identification with his father's passivity (itself a feminine attitude) gave scope to his mother's domination of him, it also supplied the means of resisting that domination. Whatever the effect of this dualistic impulse on Hardy's mental health, my point is that it worked its way unconsciously into the warp and woof of Tess.

     Ultimately, it is a mystery why Freud said of Hardy, "He knew psychoanalysis." It is possible that Freud had in mind isolated scenes in Tess whose interpretation would easily yield to his "collection of picklocks." Certainly Freud's interest in dreams may have led him to seize on the scene in which the sleepwalking Angel Clare lays Tess in a crypt, his metaphorical burial of her revealing the strength of his repressed feeling (Oberndorf, 1953, p. 183). It is also possible—and I would like to think such were the case—that Freud's attestation of Hardy's psychoanalytic acumen was based on his reading of the novel in its entirety, hereditarian warts and all. If indeed Freud saw the psychoanalytic beauty in the hereditarian blemishes of Tess, his fastening on heredity would have been no accident. For heredity was to Hardy what Jewishness was to Freud: it defined the self as both subject and object. Whereas Hardy was a "degenerate" who aestheticized his impressions on hereditarian determinism, Freud was a Jew for whom psychoanalysis was a response to a racial science that conceived the Jew as degenerate (Gilman, 1993). But if Freud's identification with Hardy would have enabled him to seize on heredity in Tess as a potentially profitable textual resistance, his scientific attitude would have disposed him to exhaust a psychoanalytic interpretation of it. For just as overcoming patients' resistance is key to their unconscious motivation, so a reading of Tess restricted to its hereditarian excrescences affords one key to an understanding of both Hardy's intrapsychic conflict and his intuitive knowledge of psychoanalysis itself.



     1The text permits a Lamarckian reading of inheritance, although in principle this conflicts with Hardy's avowed neo-Darwinism.

     2That Hardy is referring to his own family, and not some other Hardys, is evident from his family pedigree, in which he was intensely interested. Hardy believed his family to be descended from the ancient le Hardys of Jersey, although "From time immemorial," Hardy recalled, "my direct ancestors have all been master-masons" (Hardy, quoted in Millgate, 1982, pp. 4-5). As Hardy remarked of his family, "So we go down, down, down" (p. 293).

     3Tess's first and second fall can be attributed to her intentions being overcome by external forces (physical and circumstantial, respectively), which preserves her purity under Hardy's standard.

     4Other critics read the contradictions in Hardy's female characters as the result, not of ambivalence, but of Hardy's struggle to articulate a resistant female subjectivity against conventional Victorian gender ideologies (Thomas, 1999) or against both conventional ideologies and ideologies of the fallen woman and the New Woman (Ingham, 2003, chap. 5) within available literary and sexual images of women (Stubbs, 1979, chap. 4).

     5Critics have traced in Hardy's novels and poetry his desire for oneness or fusion either with the mother (Fowles, 1977) or with the feminine space (Knoepflmacher, 1993). Barbara Schapiro (1986), following Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, has argued that Hardy's ambivalence toward his mother is projected onto the characters in the major novels as narcissistic rage and a splitting of the personality into an idealized, grandiose self and a weak, defenseless self. It should be noted that Schapiro's approach differs from the one to be taken here, not only in its theoretical orientation, but also in that the ambivalence is inferred from character analysis and is projected onto male and female characters alike.

     6On Tess as the object of the erotic male gaze, see Boumelha, (1982, ch. 6) and Wright (1989, ch. 7).




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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Shirley A. Martin ""He Knew Psychoanalysis": Thomas Hardy and the Paradox of Degeneracy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/a_martin-he_knew_psychoanalysis_thomas_hardy_and_. June 24, 2005 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: June 24, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Shirley A. Martin