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criticism: Tess of the d'Urbervilles: The Symbolic Use of Folklore - by Tom Nash

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: The Symbolic Use of Folklore
Tom Nash

In 1957, when Richard Dorson joined with other prominent folklorists to describe the nascent study of folklore and literature, he used the pages of the Journal of American Folklore to criticize the shallow manner in which most scholars were writing about lore in imaginative works.[1] Dorson noted that much of what was being written about was not really folklore because a number of literary critics were confusing "folksy" with "folklore." Surveying the same field eight years later, Alan Dundes observed the disturbing scholarly notion that there should be "one method for studying folklore in literature and another method for studying folklore in culture."[2] The problem, according to Dundes, is that literary critics cannot identify items of folklore, and folklorists know too little about literary criticism. He concludes, "Either folklorists are going to have to educate their literary...colleagues in the mechanics of identifying folklore, or they will have to undertake some of the problems of interpretation themselves."[3]

For the most part, the folklorists and literary critics have continued to ignore each other. Although vastly oversimplified, it is useful to place the articles contributed since 1957 into two piles. In the one pile are articles written by fieldworkers and trained folklorists, these efforts concerned mainly with the search for origins and sources. Typically these authors are interested in whether Melville or Bellow enjoyed any "direct contact" with legends and superstitions or whether the influences were flawed and indirect, probably literary. The folklore fieldworker often sees a poem or play merely as a vehicle for transmitting folk culture; therefore, Thorpe's "Big Bear of Arkansas" and Faulkner's The Bear, although remarkably different in literary value, tend to get stacked together because they share common origins in the folk tradition. In the second pile are articles written by literary folklorists, who see folklore as an element of setting. These critics, often ignorant of folklore theory, like to talk about "local color" and "folk style," but they seldom recognize the particular superstitions, legends, and rituals in a story; further, they tend to equate the presence of folk motifs with "primitive" or "pastoral" literature.[4]

The problem of interpretation is probably most pressing for the trained folklorist who teaches courses in literature-and-folklore. Experienced folklorists tend to rush through passages of description and narration, anticipating the parts where Huckleberry touches the snakeskin or where Sam Fathers paints Ike McCaslin with the blood of the boy's first deer. At that point, it is tempting to savor the moment, to tell tales of taboos in Somalia and rituals in Tahiti. It is not unusual for the folklorist to begin the hour talking about Frost's "Mending Wall" and to conclude, some fifty minutes later, framed by chalkboard drawings of split-rail fences in the south of Wales. The seductiveness of comparative folklore is great. And yet, it should come as no surprise to learn that discriminating students recognize a disturbing undertow carrying them away from the work of literature rather than towards the center of the piece.

As a solution, folklore scholars must learn from the literary critic without adopting wholesale the critic's methods. Oral historians have a right to develop their special interests in folklore, but must use their specialized knowledge to illuminate the work, not to rewrite it. Critic J. Hillis Miller explains the art of literary study by borrowing a metaphor from literary mythology. Miller says,

A literary text is a texture of words, its threads and filaments reaching out into the pre-existing warp and woof of the language. The critic adds his weaving to the Penelope's web of the text, or unravels it so that its structuring threads may be laid bare, or reweaves it, or traces out one thread in the text to reveal the design it inscribes, or cuts the whole cloth to one shape or another. In some way the critic necessarily does violence to the text in the act of understanding it or of interpreting it. There is no innocent reading, no reading which leaves the work exactly as it is.[5]

Miller concludes his analogy of the text as a woven cloth with advice that pertains especially to the folklorist. He says that "the critic can do [the] job only while [the critic] remains caught within this web, following its filaments."[6] Such a reading, of course, renders irrelevant a series of conventional questions about the author's ties with a folk community and about the mimetic qualities of lore in literature. In short, it is a mistake to use folklore in a novel by Twain or a story by Hawthorne to make reverse assumptions about the quality of life on the Mississippi before the Civil War or about religious dogmatism in Colonial America. Such criticism escapes the bounds of the text and travels upon the warp and woof of language, but remains suspect because language itself, a semiotic system, cannot reconstruct experience. Folklore, when it enters a work of art, becomes fiction.

It is clearly time to establish a more fruitful tradition of talking about the functions of folklore in literature, avoiding both the clinical search for sources and mindless blather about "local color." To this end, consider Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, a novel known to most people, a book redolent with the symbolic use of folklore.[7] In Tess, Hardy uses rituals, superstitions, legends, and songs in a context common to the Wessex culture of the late 1900's, each item giving life to the moment as well as foreshadowing the climax of the novel. The Wessex lore that fills the pages of Tess, Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, and Far from the Madding Crowd no doubt went through many and variant tellings before it came to rest on the printed page. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, although written in the mimetic mode, does not recreate experience directly but is a historical fiction[8] that weaves a different spell for each reader. Folklore is the supporting thread that symbolically represents fiction.

Hardy's Tess, like The Return of the Native, begins with the faint echo of Celtic ritual, in this case a May-Day dance in the Wessex village of Marlott.[9] Remembering the Druidic Beltane festivals, Hardy calls the dance part of the "local Cerealia...a gay survival from Old Style days" (10). Tess, like the other girls dancing on the green, carries a peeled willow wand, a symbol of the Maytime veneration of the tree-spirit, and a bunch of pure white flowers. These flowers the folklorist might assume to be phlox, originally part of the Druidical May purification rites of Maytime. In more primitive times, near the first of May the Celts lit enormous bonfires on hilltops across Britain; here they danced around and through the fires or made human sacrifices to the spirits of vegetation. In these festive rites, phlox and other aromatic flowers were burned at crossroads, in courtyards, and on threshing-floors, often for the purpose of purifying and removing the spells of witches. The Anglo-Saxon word phlox derives from the same root as the Celtic word beltane, meaning "bright-fires";[10] clearly the flower has long-standing associations with the Beltane rituals. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, notes that northern dwellers in Celtic Britain often drove cattle between the bonfires or lit furze piles atop hills where milk-cows grazed, partly to ensure against the bewitching of milk-produce.[11] Moreover, "the heat of the fires was thought to fertilize the fields, not directly by quickening the seeds in the ground, but indirectly by counteracting the baleful influences of witchcraft or perhaps by burning up the persons of the witches."[12] Tess, like the other celebrants, is dressed in pure white for the May dances. Unlike the other girls, however, Tess wears a bright red ribbon in her hair, her own fire symbol. As "the only one in the company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment" (11), this future milk-maid and grain-thresher seems destined, in a representative sense, to be chosen as a sacrifice for the purification of the agrarian community. In fact, this "pure woman," whom Hardy defended so vehemently in his letters and manuscripts in later years, will eventually find her way to the Sacrifice Stone of the ancient temple of Stonehenge as the novel concludes. This motif then -- the welcoming of the fructifying spirit of vegetation -- is the common thread that unifies the folkloric symbols in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Indeed, the personal history of Tess Durbeyfield -- her pregnancy, her blooming and marriage, her withering despair, her ritual sacrifice, death, and rebirth (in the figure of sister 'LizaLu) -- mirrors the myth that is associated with the Beltane dances.

That myth, the backdrop for Hardy's story, is represented in the folklore of the novel. For example, in early June, Tess travels to the estate of the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, where she meets with Alec, the unctuous "cousin" who eventually seduces (or rapes) her, bringing the girl's ruin. As she returns by coach to Marlott after this initial visit, Hardy describes a woman outrageously adorned with "roses at her breast, roses in her hat, roses and strawberries in her basket to the brim" (36). Suddenly Tess becomes self-conscious about the tawdry display. As she plucks the more prominent blooms, a rose-thorn at her breast pricks her chin, spilling her blood. "She thought this an ill omen," says Hardy with typical understatement. Indeed, the omen prefigures her violent treatment in the mystical Druidic vale among "the primeval yews and oaks of the Chase" (62), where Alec forces her to partake in the rites of womanhood.

Previously folklore has provided another foreshadowing of Tess's unhappy fate. When "Sir" John Durbeyfield and his slatternly wife Joan, roiling in the rooms of Rolliver's Inn, boast their daughter's chances of making a marriage to recover the family fortunes, one of the ancient boozers there mumbles to another, "Tess is a fine figure o'fun, as I said to myself when I zeed her tramping round parish with the rest, but Joan Durbeyfield must mind that she don't get green malt in floor" (22). Although Hardy mentions this folk saying casually, calling it "a local phrase which had a peculiar meaning" (22), the reference to green malt is a warning against untimely pregnancy, a warning that, for the sake of Tess, might best have been broadcast more loudly.[13]

The May dance, the willow wand, the white flowers, the rose and thorn, and the folk-saying about "green malt" belong symbolically to the first half of Hardy's novel, the celebration of sensuality and fertility that portrays the spring and summer of Tess Durbeyfield's life. The second half of the novel shows a departure from the lush scenery of Blackmoor Vale and Crick's dairy farm, leading directly to the harsh images of winter and death. For example, when Tess sits with Angel Clare on a bank during their courtship, she picks the delicate buds of arum, playing a game called "lords and ladies." After peeling yet another bud, she complains, "It is a lady again....There are always more ladies than lords when you come to peel them" (107). In this game, it is as though Tess had plucked the petals of a lovely daisy only to discover that "he loves me not" prevails over "he loves me." Indeed, on the day of the wedding, a more portentous omen displaces the joy of the gathering throng. As the revelers say "good-bye" to the farmhands who will remain, an awkward moment is followed by a long silence. Then the mid-day crowing of a cock echoes across the pastures of Mr. Crick's dairy farm:

"Oh?" said Mrs. Crick. "An afternoon crow!"
Two men were standing by the yard gate, holding it open.
"That's bad," one murmured to the other, not thinking that the words could be heard by the group at the door-wicket.
The cock crew again -- straight towards Glare.
"Well," said the dairyman.
"I don't like to hear him!" said Tess to her husband. "Tell the man to drive on. Good-bye, good-bye!"
The cock crew again.
"Hoosh! Just you be off, sir, or I'll twist your neck!" said the dairyman with some irritation, turning to the bird and driving him away. And to his wife as they went indoors: "Now, to think o' that just today! I've not heard his crow of an afternoon all the year afore."
"It only means a change in the weather," said she; "not what you think: 'tis impossible!" (182) However, what Crick is thinking is not impossible. He recognizes the dire implications for the married couple; the cock crowing at mid-day calls to mind a wealth of premonitions about disaster; and the superstition naturally leads to the dramatization of Tess's betrayal, her despair, and her death.[14]

The ensuing events of the novel have prompted critics to cite Hardy's fatalism and tragic vision, his pessimistic sense of the inevitable victory of ill fate over good. In fact, Penelope Vigar talks of a "ballad-type inevitability" in the progression and accumulation of ill omens and superstitions.[15] There is something compelling to this point of view. For one thing, Tess is firmly caught in the bounds of a love-triangle where the reader's sympathies favor Clare and not d'Urberville. Further, the plot is underscored by Alec's recitation of the family legend, a story of intrigue and death that mirrors the ballad style. In this legend, says Alec,

[the] sound of a non-existent coach can only be heard by one of the d'Urberville blood, and it is held to be ill-omen to the one who hears it. It has to do with a murder, committed by one of the family, centuries ago....One of the family is said to have abducted some beautiful woman, who tried to escape from the coach in which he was carrying her off, and in the struggle he killed her -- or she killed him -- I forget which. (293)

Finally, Tess herself is terribly fond of ballads and folksongs, their repetition probably foreshadowing Tess's murdering of Alec with a "long, thin knife." The d'Urberville legend, of course, is much too close to the personal history of relations between Tess and Alec to go unnoticed by the reader. Symbolically, the legend foreshadows Alec's murder; in the same way, the legend recalls Tess's rape in The Chase beyond Trantbridge.

However, it is a mistake to see Tess of the d'Urbervilles either as a prose version of the ballad or as a simple tragedy In fact, Hardy is telling a story as old as Stonehenge itself: the myth of birth, death, and regeneration. Although the folklore clearly presages Tess's death, Hardy makes that death a ritual, acted out primarily at the ancient site of Druid sun- and fire-worship, and symbolically in keeping with the dramatization of the Beltane ceremony, the point at which the novel began.

As Tess reclines on the horizontal altar known commonly as the Sacrifice Stone, after her flight from the authorities, she feels a great sense of fulfillment and relief. The sun-warmed stone is comforting; she is safe here in the confines of the ageless pavilion. Somehow she feels she has arrived at a haven. Soon her thoughts turn to the Celtic rites perpetuated in Wessex folklore:

"Did they sacrifice to God here?" asked she.
"No," said he.
"Who to?"
"I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun, which will presently rise behind us." (327)

In a moment Tess is asleep. But the hunt for the murderess has continued through the night. And, as the sun begins to light the far horizons, says Hardy, "something seemed to move on the verges of the dip eastward -- a mere dot. It was the head of a man approaching them from the hollow beyond the Sun-stone" (327). There, following the precise path of the sun, is one of the marshals bearing down on the "great flame-shaped Sunstone" of the imperfect circle. Then, from each remaining compass point -- west, south, and then north -- approach three other men, their studied presence filling the scene with a sense of the past and of the eternal. "I am ready," says Tess quietly after waking. And the sacrifice is prepared. Only one chapter, and a very brief one at that, remains in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Most critics, dwelling on the injustice of Tess's fate, see the chapter only as a vehicle for the final spasm of Hardy's fatalism. They repeat with melancholy one well-known line: "'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess" (330).[16] Fortunately, Tess is not a Greek tragedy; indeed, not a tragedy at all. In stressing Tess's execution and Angel's loss, the critics ignore the scene taking place at the summit of the great West Hill overlooking the site of the execution. Here stand two young people, a man and a woman, arms affectionately intertwined. "One of the pair," says Hardy, "was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature -- half girl, half woman -- a spiritualized images of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes -- Clare's sister-in-law, 'Liza-Lu" (328-29). Just before her capture, Tess had said, "'Liza-Lu is so gentle and so sweet, and she is growing so beautiful. O I could share you with her willingly when we are spirits! If you would train her and teach her, Angel, and bring her up for your own self!...She has all the best of me without the bad of me; and if she were to become yours it would almost seem as if death had not divided us..." (326). In this concluding scene, with the joining of Angel and 'Liza-Lu, we see that Tess's final request has been granted.

This rebirth-regeneration motif is one that has been symbolically building in the folklore of the novel since the opening May-Day scene. In death is Tess purified; she is reborn into the spirit of her surviving sister. And this scene is precisely the one that is most noticeably missing from Roman Polanski's film version of Tess (1980). Although the cinema is a beautiful and graphic tale of tragedy, Polanski neglects most of the Wessex rituals, superstitions, and sayings --folklore that foreshadows, in a symbolic sense, the action. Polanski ends at Stonehenge and does not, at any point in the three-hour film, develop the character of 'Liza-Lu. Despite the tempting notion that Tess is a tragedy, Polanksi might have noticed, as early as chapter two of the novel, Hardy's sense of time as cumulative. When the novelist first describes Tess, he says, "Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes, and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then" (12).Just as the young girl Tess is contained in the grown woman, so is the dead woman contained in the budding figure of her sister.

Of course, Roman Polanski has the right to reinterpret Tess in his role as director. On the other hand, the cinemagraphic version lacks the poignancy of the novel; Polanski fails because, like the literary critic, he is reinterpreting the text and doing violence to the delicately woven threads of meaning. Although Polanski's version of the May-Day dance occupies the same position as in Hardy's novel, the cinema Tess slights the symbolic lore and, as a result, obscures the motifs that foreshadow the ritual conclusions. Hardy's novel deserves a better treatment. Starting with the May-Beltane symbolism, Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles weaves out a symbolic tale of life and death, repeating events that have already happened and which will recur innumerable times in the future. In short, the folklore of the novel makes Tess a literary myth.


[1]Richard M. Dotson, "The Identification of Folklore in American Literature," Journal of American Folklore 70 (1957): 1-8.

[2]Alan Dundes, "The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation," Journal of American Folklore 78 (1965): 141.

[3]Dundes 136. [4]A useful survey of scholarship involving folklore and literature is part of Neil Grobman's "A Theory for the Sources and Uses of Folklore in Literature," Folklore Preprint Series 4 (1976): 1-7, 8. Barre Toelken includes a fruitful discussion of folklore and literature in The Dynamics of Folklore (Boston: Houghton, 1979) 334-43, 364-66. Besides naming the best works of scholarship on the subject, Toelken identifies works such as Ruth Firor's Folkways in Thomas Hardy as examples of "zebracounting" (D. K. Wilgus's term), the identification of folklore motifs with almost no attempt to interpret the ways in which the lore is used.

[5]J. Hillis Miller, Distance and Desire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970) viii.

[6]Miller xii.

[7]All references are to Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, ed. Scott Elledge, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1979).

[8]Miller, in Distance and Desire, says that Hardy's writing is "a representation of history, the copy of a copy, writing about another writing, in his version of a pattern of thought as old as Plato" (xiv).

[9]While Tess begins with the May ritual of Beltane (or, at least, its survival), The Return of the Native begins with the ancient Celtic rite of Samhain, celebrated on or near the first of November. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, identifies the Samhain (or Samhnagan) bonfires as attempts to identify fey persons or witches, the rites bearing great similarity to the fires of Beltane. As with the Beltane rites, those chosen for marking could not be expected to live long from that day.

[10]Both Beltane and phlox derive from the root phlegein (Greek), meaning "bright-fire." Both words can be traced to the Indo-European bhel, meaning "to shine, flash, burn; shining white and various bright colors."

[11]Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged version (New York: Macmillan, 1951) I, 715-20.

[12]Frazer, 719-20. Frazer mentions that in many districts, especially in the north, an egg-milk cake was baked in the fires of Beltane. The cake was "formerly used for the purpose of determining who should be the 'Beltane carline' or victim doomed to the flames. A trace of this custom survived, perhaps, in the custom of baking oatmeal cakes of a special kind and rolling them downhill about noon on the first day of May; for it was thought that the person whose cake broke as it rolled would die or be unfortunate within the year" (718).

[13]Ruth A. Firor, Folkways in Thomas Hardy (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1931) 225-26. Firor identifies green malt as the barley which, after being steeped in water for 48 hours, is drained and begins immediately to sprout. She calls attention to the phrase "to give a girl a green gown," meaning "to deflower her," as it appears in several ballads, including "Child Waters" and "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter."

[14]The Stith-Thompson Motif-Index lists motif J551.1 as "cocks who crow about mistress's adultery killed." Farmer Crick apparently first thinks of the superstition involving adultery and its consequences. Ironically, although only Tess knows the truth, the cock's daytime crow is appropriate as a warning for Angel Clare.

[15]Penelope Vigar, The Novels of Thomas Hardy (London: Athlone P, 1974) 184.

[16]See James Hazen, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Antogone," English Literature in Transition 14 (1971): 207-15 and Duane Edwards, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Hippolytus: Some Parallels," Thomas Hardy Yearbook 5 (1975): 55-57.