This Essay Was Due 25 Years Ago

The role of shame in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the force of shame in my life.

Illustration by Roman Muradov.

Illustration by Roman Muradov

This essay was due 25 years ago. The teacher who assigned it could be dead. I was in 10th grade when I was assigned a 10-page term paper on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles for English class. I read the novel twice. I read secondary sources (Irving Howe, probably, as well as Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams, and Gillian Beer). I filled index cards with observations and quotes from the text. But every time I sat down to write, I panicked. The essay in my head was brilliant and elegantly argued, but every sentence I typed (on an Apple IIe) failed to live up to that vision. “Don’t get it right. Just get it written,” my father said. He knew my perfectionism was paralyzing. I just had to bang out a draft, and then I could revise it. But I couldn’t manage to write anything. I kept fretting until the due date. I’d always been an A-student in English; I couldn’t believe I was about to fail. But fail I did, and spectacularly. I got an F on the assignment, which resulted in a D for the semester. I was sure I had destroyed my future, and I was profoundly ashamed.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a novel about, among other things, shame. Tess Durbeyfield is the oldest child of a yeoman family in the village of Marlott, in the Vale of Blakemore. It’s a “fertile and sheltered tract of country,”1 where modernity’s reach is not yet felt, and Tess, when we meet her, is an innocent girl of 16. Tess’ father learns, in the first chapter, that he is a descendant of a prominent old family, the D’Urbervilles. When Tess’ mother hears about a rich Mrs. D’Urberville not far away, she urges Tess to go “claim kin.”2 The Durbeyfields need money, especially because the horse on which they relied for income has been killed in a wagon accident. Tess was driving the wagon during the accident; she fell asleep at the reins. “Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself”3 for the death of the horse, but she feels indebted to her parents and agrees, against her better judgment, to seek the rich D’Urbervilles. What the Durbeyfields don’t know is that Mrs. D’Urberville and her son, Alec, are nouveau riche pretenders: They took the name for its grand associations but are not actual descendants of the line.

Alec D’Urberville hires Tess to look after his mother’s chickens, and eventually—inevitably—Alec, the cock in Tess’ hen house, steals her innocence, in a scene that is often interpreted as a rape. The striving Durbeyfields sent Tess off in hopes that she’d marry Alec D’Urberville and become a lady. Instead, she returns to their village, ruined. “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men folk? Why didn’t you warn me?”4 Tess asks her mother. When Tess becomes pregnant, her shame is visible to all. The bastard child, whom Tess calls Sorrow (Hardy is not subtle), dies when he is only 2 months old. And though Tess eventually leaves home again, finds happy work on a dairy, and falls in love with a gentleman named Angel Clare, she cannot escape her past. It is only a matter of time, she knows, before Angel learns about her sin. On their wedding night, she confesses; he abandons her. Things only get worse.

What was my thesis back in 1990? I wish I could remember. Perhaps I focused on the color red: Hardy’s symbolism is glaring. In the second chapter, he introduces Tess dancing around a maypole with a bunch of other girls, all in white dresses. Tess “wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment.”5 When she first meets Alec D’Urberville, he leads her around his property, then holds a strawberry, by the stem, up to her mouth:

“No, no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”

“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.”6

Red is also the color of the paint that a wandering evangelical uses to write biblical warnings on country fences. And a macabre pool of blood, dripping through a ceiling, apprises the landlady of (spoiler alert) Alec D’Urberville’s murder late in the book: “The oblong white ceiling with this scarlet blot in the midst had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts.”7 Red is often the color of shame, and Tess’ life is stained with it.

As Jennifer Jacquet notes in her new book, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, shame “aims to hold individuals to group standards,” whereas “guilt’s role is to hold individuals to their own standards.”8 Shame requires an audience, or an awareness of possible exposure. As Tess muses, “alone in a desert island, would she have been wretched at what had happened to her?”9 Shame is deeply rooted in human nature, but its causes depend on cultural norms. A pregnancy out of wedlock is no longer a source of shame in much of the Western world, but in Victorian times, it was evidence of a fall from grace. Tess is not to blame for her sins; they are thrust upon her. But she is left carrying the shame, while D’Urberville, theatrically twirling his mustache, roams free. Shame is often gendered: A pregnancy is hard to hide. In this sense, Tess can be read as a feminist novel: Hardy is deeply sympathetic to his heroine and to the double standard faced by women of his time.

Irving Howe argues that Hardy “liked women,”10 but I think Hardy underestimated their complexity. What frustrates me about Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that Tess’ downfall is the result of external events. There is a sense that she is being led, by her author, to slaughter. Her fate is sealed from the moment that horse dies. In the pivotal scene in which she is deflowered, the dastardly D’Urberville comes upon Tess sleeping in the woods, and then Hardy fades to black. The tactful Victorian dissolve makes it unclear whether Tess is raped or if she wakes up and submits with the same “slight distress” with which she took that strawberry. Later Hardy writes that Tess “had been stirred to confused surrender awhile,”11 which suggests that she doesn’t understand what is happening.

Hardy quotes from King Lear, but unlike Lear, Tess has no tragic flaw. The people around her are flawed: Her parents are vain, lazy drunks; Alec D’Urberville is a lascivious impostor; Angel Clare, despite his heavenly name, is too judgmental, a “slave to custom and conventionality.”12 But until the end of the novel, Tess is guilty of nothing. Even the accident with the horse isn’t really her fault. Because her parents were out drinking late, neither of them can get up, as required, at 2 o’clock in the morning to drive the family’s beehives to market. The dutiful Tess gets up in the middle of the night to transport the hives. After the death of the horse, she “regarded herself in the light of a murderess,”13 but Tess is too hard on herself. Her author is always putting her to sleep at inopportune moments.

I’m sure I felt sorry for her when I was 16. When I reread Tess recently—for the first time since 1990—I was just annoyed with Hardy. Tess is a less complex character than Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, which was published in 1874 (17 years before Tess of the D’Urbervilles) or Anna Karenina (1877), whose choices contribute to her undoing. There are moving moments in Tess, but there are also a lot of clunky, heavy-handed ones. The scene in which Angel Clare, while sleepwalking, expresses the love and forgiveness he can’t show Tess in waking hours, evokes the hallucinatory quality of King Lear’s Dover cliffs scene, but lacks the power and poetry of Shakespeare. And Hardy’s Gothic touches feel forced: A curse, involving a murder, on the ancient D’Urberville family becomes poor Tess’ birthright. Legend has it that only true D’Urbervilles can hear the sound of a “non-existent coach,” and that hearing it is a bad omen. Of course Tess hears it. In Hardy’s hands, she can’t get a break.

Yet I can’t totally dismiss Tess. She stirred me, deeply, when I was young. Perhaps, as my friend Leslie Jamison suggested, I couldn’t completely identify with Tess until I, too, had experienced the shame of ruin. And it did feel like ruin, when I failed that assignment. Or perhaps Tess’ tractability frustrated me so much, even then, that I decided to fail on my own terms. Nothing scared me more than failure; so I jumped into the abyss. Even what I considered a mediocre paper probably would have earned me a B-plus, but in those days, B’s didn’t seem good enough. It sounds ridiculous now, but at 16, I believed that my life would essentially be over if I didn’t end up at an Ivy League school. My parents placed a premium on academic achievement: My mother went to Harvard, my father was a Rhodes scholar. My identity was wrapped up in my performance in school. Not completing that term paper undermined my sense of self—as a person who was smart, as a member of an achieving family. My shame was rooted in my cultural norms. As Jennifer Jacquet says, “Shame, linked to one’s identity, has staying power.”14 Not writing that paper became, for me, an identity crisis. I spiraled into depression. I lost confidence in my abilities, and it took years to get that confidence back. Shame, as Jacquet argues, can be motivating: Shaming a politician or corporation, for corruption or environmental waste, can lead to positive policy changes. Fear of shame makes us show up for work on time and wear clean clothes. But for me, shame also proved self-destructive.

Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less. After all, Angel Clare abandons Tess when he learns about her past. He tells her she’s not the person he thought she was. Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes. I’m determined to prove, with every met deadline and completed assignment, that I’m not a failure. I’ve spent most of my adult life reminding myself to stop worrying about what others think. It’s freeing to let go of other people’s standards and focus on your own. And I’ve made progress: I was as proud of finishing my novel as I was of getting it published. The process was as satisfying as the result.   

And I wrote this essay, not because it was an assignment, but because I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. (I turned it in to my editor three days before his deadline.) Writing it so many years after it was due feels like redemption. It’s not the perfect essay I imagined, but at least I wrote it. I refuse to be trapped by my past, the way poor Tess is. Tess ends up hanging from the gallows. But I’m going to stop hanging myself.    

1Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Scott Elledge (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990). 5.
2Ibid., 17.
3Ibid., 23.
4Ibid., 64.
5Ibid., 7.
6Ibid., 29.
7Ibid., 301.
8Jennifer Jacquet, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (New York: Pantheon, 2015), 11.
9Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 71.
10Irving Howe, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles, at the Center of Hardy’s Achievement,” in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: The Norton Critical Edition, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990), 406.
11Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 64.
12Ibid., 208.
13Ibid., 24.
14Jacquet, Is Shame Necessary?, 41.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the 
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.