Methods Used to Present the Relationships as the Reason of Downfall in the Novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and Atonement Ian McEwan

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

McEwan and Hardy both use relationships as a plot device to drive conflict and opposition towards the protagonists eventual downfall however both authors use this concept of relationships differently by tailoring the way in which relationships are perceived to the characters personal attributes.

This acts like a sort of countermeasure towards both protagonists always contradicting the good they do, for example Tess was driven by her extreme love for Angel to murder Alec while on the other hand Briony’s accusation towards Robbie was an obstacle Briony thought she had to face to become a mature and responsible figure in the eyes of her family, however it completely backfires and jeopardises all of her values except one which is her ambition for storytelling which inevitably drives her to accuse Robbie.

Essentially Tess is conflicted with her sexual relationships and is forced to confine to 19th century norms due to the repucutions of her rape while Briony faces and embraces the truth of her dysfunctional familial relationships by commiting the crime of accusing Robbie of rape. McEwan and Hardy use their protagonists to express the difficulties of living and being born into a patriarchal society and how women are fundamentally taught to be submissive and subservient towards men throughout their whole life making it an integral part of a woman’s life within the 19th century, where women were viewed and used as domestic vessels whereas 20th century society limited women’s career choices, making domestic life a secure path for women at the time.

McEwan uses sexual exploitation as a device in which Briony can manipulate the narrative and facts to her liking while Hardy presents Tess as being extremely submissive and passive towards her own exploitation from men, this is mostly portrayed in her sexually abusive relationship with Alec, since his introduction in chapter 5 his predatory intentions and motives are clear from the start, “Well my big beauty, what can I do for you? said he, coming forward” Hardy structures Alec’s dialogue and narration as being elusive and has a sort of looming sense of danger, “said he, coming forward” the pauses between Alecs movements suggests a sense of caution as he approaches Tess, given what he says before it could be interpreted that Alec may be analysing Tess’ beauty sexually as he does this throughout the novel consistently, Hardy does this to show Tess’ passive nature as it’s extremely blatant what Alec’s intentions are yet Tess does nothing to stop him other than allow his actions to worsen making her confrontation towards Alec seem an impossible concept for Alec for him to understand.

Alec refers to Tess as being a ‘big beauty’ which connotes to theme of Tess being a flourishing country girl, in the novel it has also been referenced that tess sexual attributes appear to be more ‘womanly’ compared to her age, “it was a luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was.” Hardy tries to underline the fact that Tess’ beauty makes her vulnerable to predatory males and i underlying factor to her downfall, her passiveness only attracts more males with the intention of exploitation, though it’s not her fault for being a “beautiful country girl” she is still extremely submissive making her an easy target.

Hardy deepens this concept through Tess as she lives with the burden of her dead child which was a result of Alec raping her, Tess even has to bury her own child against the precepts of the church and 19th century society while Alec feels no remorse and is never present in these situations which relates to victorian norms of women assuming resposnbility for their actions while facing the judgement and isolation of society, “As a result, gender based social norms greatly influenced societal attitudes towards female wrongdoing” ( Gretchen H Barnhill, 2005 ) female wrong doing was potrayed more sevearly than if a man commited a crime due to the male dominant norms that resided in society with the intetntion of controlling women lives, in this case Alec has commited a crime in the eyes of 21st century ideals, however through a victorian perspective Tess is the main and only culprit as she gave her virginty and purity away to a man before marriage, which completely diverges from the true essence of a women which means intention and consent are not considered at all when it’s towrads a women losing her virginity before marriage, as long as a women slightly misrepresents the ideal of women essence they will be always be seen as unpure or fallen.

In a 21st century perspective Alec would definitely be the main culprit and would be judged by his actions similarly to the way in which Tess was treated for her wrongdoings this is due to religious fear clouding judgment amongst society which compared to present day religion, which still remains very prominent but it does not repress society into moral standards. Hardy presents Angel as being a major culprit to Tess’ downfall as his manipulation was very subtle and underlying, he perceived Tess as the pure essence of women, this strong appraisal and flattery caused Tess to deeply fall in love with Angel manipulating her psychologically, we know Angel’s love for Tess isn’t strong or entirely true as he completely rejects Tess and ends their very passionate relationship.

This sevearly breaks Tess emotionally and she is forced to conform to patriarchal norms by returning to Alec indecisively, this eventually leads to Tess’ downfall as her love for Angel has been built so strongly that it creates an impulsive and explosive nature within Tess, determined to do anything for Angel even murder. Hardy’s intentions for this is to vividly express how much a victorian patriarchal society has exploited and manipulate the lives of countless women, simalary these views reside in McEwan’s novel through Paul Marshals relationship with Lola Quincey, we know that Lola approaches Briony twice about a recent attack but does not mention that she was raped by Paul Marshal, this is to ensure that she isn’t judged and profiled by that thought as she recognises that she would essentially be entirely blamed, Lola is very similar to Tess through her passiveness towards her own exploitation however she does nothing to resolve it which inevitably leads to Paul Marshall invading all aspects of Lola’s life to the point of marrying her, Lola doesn’t have any limits to her submissive nature towards paul marshall which is why she conforms to patriarchal norms instead of fighting for her freedom. Women in the 1930s had no right to higher education but they could attend universities to find a new life partner essentially limiting the career choice of countless women not allowing them to pursue other routes other than just domestic careers, this also withheld Lola from refraining Paul Marshals proposal as she had no other choice and ambition to achieve in life but to become a domestic wife for Paul.

An alternate view on both Briony and Tess’ downfall is that relationships are more of an underlying factor while the true reason was that they both committed serious crimes out of their own selfish desires meaning they understood what they were doing was to achieve their ambitions, both McEwan and Hardy present this through the concept of free will and how both characters are extremely desperate to successfully fulfill their selfish desires, however both Briony and Tess’ ambitions are very different, Briony’s ambitions fluctuate throughout the novel, she firstly wants to prevent her sister from indulging in disgraceful tendencies with Robbie however her main interest revolves around her narrative and her story that she created which lead to her selfish ambition in creating a compelling story even if it meant destroying the lives of her own sister and her love interest Robbie.

On the other hand Tess wanted to be with Angel even though he wanted nothing to do with her after the reveal of her unwanted pregnancy which diverged Angel’s perception completely of Tess, viewing her as impure, Tess’ actions almost mimics that of Alec’s through her disturbingly stubborn attitude towards Angel’s separation with her, she is committed to Angel making her completely desperate. Hardy’s philosophy of destiny is vital to this interpretation as he extensively and critically analysed the bible referencing it numerous times within concepts in his work, this deeply shaped Hardy’s conception of life which lead to these concepts being vividly portrayed in his novels.

Hardy had many critical views on his concepts and philosophy of life for example Ernest Brennecke was one of Hardy’s first critics in which he praises his philosophy, Ernest argued that Hardy created “ a consistent worldview through the notions of chance and time, circumstances, fate, nature, providence, nemesis and will tinged with metaphysical idealism” Hardy believed that all events in life were predetermined possibly through circumstance which relates slightly to Tess as she is always placed in difficult circumstances that she has to surpass however the murder of Alec was done by her own free will and impulsive desicion but this could also relate to another philosiphy known as the butterfly effect, this the ideoligy in which each event branches into multiple possibilities which lead to other events creating an endless timeline with multiple banching realities. McEwan portrays this idea differently as Briony does not embrace this fact of destiny but philosophies the idea of a malleable timeline of events which contrasts to Hardys predestined ideology, this is because McEwan gives Briony the omnipotent ability of manipulating events to her liking which suggests that Briony is fully responsible for all the events that unfold in atonement compared to Tess of the D’urbervilles which destiny is viewed as a “blind force of nature”.

On the contrary McEwan has Briony use this patriarchal dominance in society to her advantage by using it to manipulate events to her liking however he repercussions of her manipulation are very prominent within Briony’s familial figures, these repercussions are vividly shown through the dysfunction and negligence of the tallis family towards Briony. Briony’s relationship with her sister Cecilia starts with a maternal dynamic due to the lack of a real maternal figure throughout Briony’s, her real mother Emily is bound to her bed due to health problems which prevents her from doing more for her family however this circumstance also causes the slow separation of the Tallis family as mothers are essential to a families typical structure however this vital role is missing. Emily tallis feels responsible for her position and is filled with guilt for not being there for her family, though she rarely connects with briony they are still integrally similar, they both dream of great ambitions and are burdened by guilt for lacking responsibility, this suggests that Briony’s downfall was inherited by her mother as she is just as vulnerable and ambitious.

Cecilia does not connect well with her mother due to Cecilia having a more modern ideology in life that would mostly be accepted during the 21st century, she wants to live without the norms of patriarchal influences and go through life with no limits however this strong ambition is quickly concluded as both Emily and Briony tallis eliminate this by conforming to the repression of women, for example Briony thinks Robbie is a threat and bad influence to Cecilia thinking she will indulge in disgraceful acts, This ideology that Briony has resonates with her mother as Emily Tallis still has the mindset of 19th century patriarchal influences, this is shown when Emily Tallis believed that cecilia should of revealed the letter to her to prevent her from going down this “corrupt” path however she was only fulfilling her true ambition of embracing life with no limits, this contributed to the families separation as Cecilia is revolted by her sister’s actions and her mother supporting Briony broke her which lead to years of isolation from one another.

This integrated flaw that Briony has inherited through her familial figures is what destroys the connection between her family which does not allow for Briony to atone for the sins she has committed which inevitably leads her to her initial downfall. This slightly differs from Hardys interpretation of family and how the connection between Tess and her sister Joan and how she leads to her downfall, in Briony’s case she inherits the qualities and attitudes that lead to her downfall however Tess’ sister Joan Durbeyfield who has slightly selfish intentions by convincing Tess to seek out the D’urbervilles so that the family can inherit the d’urbervilles wealth to help their own situation, Joan’s intentions are good but putting Tess in that position only proves that she would rather risk her sisters image than her own which goes back to how victorian etiquette and social image was vital to someone’s character even if it means jeopardising a family member’s image to boost your own.

In conclusion McEwan and hardy both portray relationships as being an extremely vital factor of both Briony’s and Tess’ downfall due to the fact that these relationships vulnerable aspects of both characters personality, for example Tess’ passive and submissive nature is caused by predatory male exploitation from Alec and Angel while Briony’s dysfunctional relationship with her family is what leads her to explore unknown concepts such as sexual relationships without any consolation from her mother or sister which inevitably destroys Cecilias and Briony’s life. On the other hand Hardy frequently presents Tess as having strong willed ambition to find true love which inevitably clouds her judgement when she murders Alec, she is also represented as almost an incarnation of stubborn will power, and certainly a representative of an impure woman in the eyes of Victorian society.

The connection Tess has with her underlying and explosive is also used by Hardy as a tool for him to present Tess’ extreme dedication towards Angel. Tess undergoes many hardships and bears an extreme burden of the death of her child, however this is unveiled as one major weakness throughout the novel. Her greatest weakness is portrayed mostly through her sexual relationships, particularly Alec and how he exploits the patriarchal dominance within the 19th century. The influence in which relationships have directly represent the problems of society of both periods of time and how repression and male dominance was a ruling factor within the lives of minorities in both 19th century and early 20th century society. Inevitabley a form of negligence or discrimination was the major factor needed for a dysfunctional life within Tess and Briony, Hardy and McEwan meerly presented the characters as vessels to embodie these flaws and embrace the unfair judgements of society which mostly resides in the sexual and familial connections of society at the time.


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