The Tragedy of Tess
The tale of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is filled with would-have-beens. Time and again, as Tess's life branches off onto yet another path of sorrows, the narrator emphasizes the sadness of the moment with a would-have-been or an if-only. When her husband, after learning of her past, determines that they must not live together, the narrator mentions a reply to his arguments that "she might have used...promisingly" (245), but she does not, and they part. At their parting, Hardy writes that "if Tess had been artful, had she made a scene, fainted, wept hysterically, in that lonely lane, notwithstanding the fury of fastidiousness with which he was possessed, he would probably not have withstood her" (255). But owing to a combination of pride and a long-suffering mood, she does not. When the abandoned wife, having fallen on hard times, attempts to seek her father-in-law's help, we are told that "her present condition was precisely one which would have enlisted the sympathies of old Mr. and Mrs. Clare" (304), but measuring the father by his less compassionate sons, she fails to call on him. Angel, having reconsidered her situation while in Brazil, misinterprets the lack of letters from his wife: "How much it really said if he had understood! That she adhered with literal exactness to orders which he had given and forgotten: that despite her natural fearlessness she asserted no rights, admitted his judgement to be in every respect the true one, and bent her head dumbly thereto" (345-46). But he fails to see the true reason of her silence, or he might have returned to her sooner, before it was too late. Angel himself joins the narrator in pronouncing would-have-beens upon the sad events of Tess's life. Having returned from Brazil and preparing to seek her out, he says "Oh, Tess! If you had only told me sooner, I would have forgiven you!" (269), and later, when she has told him about the time he walked with her in his sleep, he asks "Why didn't you tell me the next day?...It might have prevented much misunderstanding and woe" (396).
So many would-have-beens in Tess's story bring to mind another story, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, in which the lion Aslan says to Lucy that "no one is ever told what would have happened" (Lewis 170-71). Narnia, however, is not a tragedy; Tess of the d'Urbervilles is, and the sense of sadness given by knowing what would have happened is only one aspect of her tragedy. Tess herself has much in common with the heroes of the classical Greek tragedies. In the introduction to an anthology of Greek drama, Moses Hadas comments on the nature of tragedy:
The world of gods and the world of men were quite apart.... Each followed his own nature; for the gods two plus two might equal five, but men must continue making it four. If, making it four, he is tripped up by a system he cannot control or even understand which makes it five, the result is tragedy. So far from being a...