Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy’s iconic novel, centres around the eponymous tragic heroine, Tess. Yet the tragedies that befall her in the course of the novel would not have occurred without the two leading male characters whom Tess encounters. The first is Tess’s ‘cousin’, Alec D’Urberville, whom she first meets in Chapter Five when she comes “to claim kin”. Alec becomes infatuated with the sixteen-year-old Tess but after he is rebuffed several times, rapes her and leaves her pregnant with his child.
The second of these characters is Angel Clare, a young man Tess is introduced to at Talbothays dairy farm where she works as a dairymaid at the age of twenty. Angel and Tess fall in love, but their romance is blighted by the shadow of Tess’s past. On first reading, Angel and Alec may seem to be very different, but further analysis may prove that these men are more similar than previously seen. Alexander D’Urberville is written to be the complete antithesis of Angel Clare.
Alec is rich, powerful and lazy, everything that Angel despises about the “old families”. Even the names of the characters reflect their personalities. Alexander brings to mind great noblemen, such as Alexander the Great, but the fact that the diminutive, Alec, is almost always used, suggests that perhaps the man has not lived up to the name. His surname at least sounds impressive, and the fact that it contains some of the title of the book seems to bestow a degree of importance.
However, as the reader finds out just before Alec is introduced, the D’Urberville family don’t actually have a claim to their name: it was an old ancestor who simply annexed the surname ‘D’Urberville’ in order to sound more genteel and more impressive. Thus, on meeting Alec D’Urberville for the first time, we see him straightaway as a fake, an imposter. Unlike with Alec, whose name precedes him and tells us about his nature before he even meets Tess, Angel Clare is introduced very early on in the book, in Chapter One, but as a nameless student.
He joins in the country girls’ dance and partners everyone but Tess, who then stares reproachfully after him. During this encounter, we find out nothing about this young man except that he has not chosen a path like his brothers, yet when Angel is ‘officially’ introduced in Chapter Seventeen, the reader straightaway knows who he is before he even gives his name. ‘Angel’, an unusual choice of first name for a male, marks him out straightaway as a hero, a harbinger of good, the light to Alec’s dark. His nameless presence remains in both Tess’s and the reader’s mind until we see him again: he is marked out by his intelligence and his willingness to involve himself in country life, rather than his beautiful name. Hardy describes Alec’s appearance very vividly.
His “red and smooth” lips bring the first hints of sexuality and eroticism to Tess’s life, while his “well-groomed black moustache with curled points” implies he pays a lot of attention to aesthetics and appearances, which is confirmed when he continually refers to Tess as “my Beauty” and gives her beauty as the reason for his passion for her, rather than her innate qualities. Hardy uses plosives when describing Alec for the first time (“lips”, “badly”, “points”) to emphasise “the singular force” and violent, aggressive nature of the character.
The contrast Hardy makes between Alec’s full moustache and his relatively young age suggests that Alec is using his moustache as a smokescreen to disguise his lack of maturity and experience: his self-assured, superior manner helps him assert power over Tess, but he has had little experience in the area of love and affection and therefore is unsuccessful at winning Tess. He is worldly and superior in many aspects, but emotionally he is still immature. Hardy also makes reference to the “touches of barbarism” in Alec’s face.
Throughout Phase the First, we see how Alec falls from his aristocratic status in his efforts to make Tess love him: he curses, swears, forces himself upon her, cries and begs, simply to try and make her feel for him. The barbaric aspects of his countenance also reflect the contrast between his higher social position and his base morals, showing an even greater difference between Angel’s idealised morality despite his lower class, and between Alec’s self-degradation and lack of self-control in spite of his higher status.
An interesting point is that Hardy’s vivid description of Alec paints him very similarly to the Devil. At that time, as Hardy himself makes reference to in Chapter Fourteen, Christian children were taught “quaint and curious” ideas about religion, leading to common visual stereotypes such as that of Satan with his horns and moustache. Even the colours used, such as red and black, are reminiscent of the Devil, drawing a not-too-subtle contrast between this and Angel. Unlike Alec, who has been described so vividly that almost every reader pictures him in the same way, Angel is described in a vaguer manner.
While some of Alec’s outward characteristics are linked to his behaviour, Hardy only really mentions them in passing, as the pace of the story is fairly quick here, as if Hardy is eager to get to Tess’s first interchange with Alec. At Chapter Eighteen, however, the pace has slowed considerably to make room for the new main character, and so most of this chapter is given over to describing Angel and his history. Angel’s description is linked more to his personality and behaviour, and this vagueness of description also emphasises how Angel is “nebulous, preoccupied, vague… ad no very definite aim or concern about his material future”.
In contrast to the plosives used when describing Alec, a lot of sibilance is used in the paragraph describing Angel (“past… distinct… as… appreciative voice… fixed, abstracted eyes… somewhat too small” and so on) which not only adds to the vague haziness surrounded his future prospects, or emphasises our and Tess’s knowledge of him as a memory only, but hints at a gentle, placid, soft nature in keeping with his namesake.
However, there are signs that perhaps Angel’s nature is not as consistent as it seems: the juxtaposition of “fixed” and “abstracted” as well as the description of his mouth as both “delicate” and “firm” suggest contradiction, if not hypocrisy, in his nature. The masculinity of both characters comes under question: while Alec’s apparent masculinity is undermined by his constant attention to aesthetics and his aversion to any form of manual work, Angel’s is enhanced by his apparent firmness, a trait valued in Victorian husbands and fathers at the time.
The attitude to country folk and manual work is something that divides the two men significantly. Alec, as a gentleman, has never done a day’s work in his life. He has excessive free time to spend watching Tess attempting to whistle and looking after the birds. In fact, our first image of Alec is of him standing lazily at the gate smoking his cigar, while our first real image of Angel is when he is milking a cow. Additionally, Alec looks down on Tess’s social class. Although he sends the Durbeyfield family gifts, his motives are purely romantic, and he sees himself as a noble beneficiary, helping those lower than himself.
His attitudes towards the country folk are shown perfectly when, in Chapter Ten, he addresses the group of country workers as “work-folk”, showing he considers them useful only for manual labour and of lower intelligence than himself. He defines them by what they do, rather than what they are. Angel, on the other hand, steps down from his initial family pathway due to his beliefs, and does not consider himself above the workers at Talbothays who are of a lower social standing than him.
Hardy deliberately describes how Angel’s mindset and attitude change over time: at first, it is natural that Clare sees the new society in which he lives as “strange”, “undignified”, “retrogressive and unmeaning”, yet as he becomes part of the household, a change takes place. Suddenly he realises that each member of the dairy is just as uniquely human as he is, with their own memories and dreams, and this is what Alec fails to realise.
The latter never treats Tess as anything close to his own intelligence, treating her like a child, while Angel learns to treat every man or woman as an equal, not an inferior. This is reflected in his change in sentiment towards where he lives: not only does he begin to “like the outdoor life for its own sake”, but he forms an attachment to the dairy and the people living and working there. Alec, however, scorns Tess when she becomes emotional at seeing the village where she was born, remarking unsympathetically that “we must all be born somewhere”.
In keeping with Hardy’s Romantic leanings, Angel is portrayed as more feeling and more appreciative of his surroundings, which is exacerbated when he falls in love with Tess and starts to see her as a “daughter of Nature” rather than separate from his surroundings. In a story where something as simple as a name changes Tess’s life forever, it is fitting that both men’s attitudes and feelings towards Tess are shown perfectly through the names they use for her. As aforementioned, Alec focuses only on Tess’s appearance, continually calling her “my Beauty” or “my pretty”.
When he uses her name, it is in the diminutive (“Tessy”), belittling her even more than he normally does. However when his mood towards her changes, as it so often does, his names for her change to “mere chit”, “Miss Independence” and “young witch”, simultaneously scorning and patronising her ‘disobedience’. Angel, on the other hand, calls Tess “Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half-teasingly”. These names, stemming from classical mythology, show Angel to be more educated, imaginative and creative than Alec, and represent Tess as a beautiful embodiment of pure womankind, not just a pretty maid to be wooed.
These names show how high a pedestal Angel has placed Tess upon, and how he associates her completely and fully with the natural world, as both these goddesses represent aspects of nature or hunting. It is important to note, though, that Tess implores him to use her real name, signifying that at this point, Angel does not know Tess for who she really is (or her full history) and therefore uses these names because of the idealised way in which he sees her. An interesting point is that both characters are required to ‘save’ Tess at some point, and that both characters take advantage of Tess’s vulnerability to fulfil their own romantic motives.
At first, Alec appears to be Tess’s knight in shining armour, come to rescue her from the angry Car Darch, but he rides off into The Chase, unbeknownst to Tess, and uses the opportunity to rape her. Angel, on the other hand, carries all three of Tess’s friends and then Tess herself across the river, ostensibly to help them to get to church. Hardy emphasises the beauty and romance of this scene in contrast to the sinister tone of the scene in The Chase, reinforced by the fact that the events in the woods take place at the dead of night while the scene at the river is in broad daylight.
Alec purposefully rides off in the wrong direction while Tess believes he is taking her home, and Angel actually tells Tess that he has “undergone three quarters of this labour entirely … for the fourth quarter”. Both men use Tess’s predicament to be alone with her, but the key difference is that Alec goes ahead and forces himself upon the fragile and terrified Tess, while Angel remembers that “he was somewhat unfairly taking advantage of an accidental position; and he went no further with it.
Angel treats Tess with reverence and respect, while Alec believes he has a right to Tess’s maidenhood. Throughout the first part of the book, it is clear to see that Hardy makes very obvious differentiations between Alec and Angel. Both represent strong influences on Tess, even after they leave her life, but Alec corrupts and ruins her while Angel later on even takes the place of a deity in her eyes.
However, both men are only human, and throughout the rest of the novel, Hardy goes on to show that despite their differences, both characters have an equally destructive impact on Tess’s life. Both offer to protect and love her, but in the end, both abandon her, believing themselves superior in intellect and character. It could be argued, therefore, that Hardy’s overall aim is not to show how dissimilar Angel and Alec are, but to show how neither of them truly cares for Tess when she needs them to, leading to her downfall.