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A "Grotesque Prestidigitation"

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message 1: by Dave (last edited Feb 04, 2014 09:06AM) (new) - added it

Dave One of Angel's responses to Tess' wedding night confession was that there had been a "grotesque prestidigitation." The implication was that he'd been duped into marriage by Tess’ clever deception. In the fire lit room in a mansion with just the two of them it's initially puzzling that Angel would use the word prestidigitation, which Tess surely didn't know, instead of using words expressing the same meaning which she would have understood. The answer may be telling.

In his phrase "grotesque prestidigitation" he's really not talking to Tess but to himself or some imagined body in his mind. Being a conformist to his society's standards and now in a situation where he finds his wife, marriage and plans suddenly at odds with society's approval, he's desperate to exonerate himself and remove himself from the "intolerable" situation. It's as though he's saying to society's jury, "I've been scammed. I’m a victim. Don’t blame me, it’s her fault." From this moment through most of his time in Brazil, he continues in this attitude.

After months in Brazil he briefly comes across another Brit to whom Angel discloses his troubles at home. The fellow responds that Angel's made too much of Tess' blemishes and that others in similar situations have accepted, understood and had happy marriages. In a fairly short time Angel reforms his thoughts and returns to Tess as soon as he’s able.

While many suggest Angel's mind has been broadened, more likely the stranger simply convinced him society's judgment on Tess wasn't as harsh as he had thought. Angel isn't more broadminded, society is. What the story reveals is that Angel puts society's judgment ahead of his own, if he has any. What's essential to Angel is society's judgment he's a respectable man, and to keep that reputation he's willing to sacrifice his marriage and even Tess. Whatever Angel does, in his mind society's jury is constantly judging him. Where Tess sets nothing above her love for Angel, Angel sets nothing above conforming to society's judgment. He'll be the same with Liza-Lu and all the others in his life.

message 2: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 04, 2014 11:16AM) (new)

What you say here is definitely true, and sadly so. For if Angel were not to feel this way the story would not be a tragedy. Then of course it would not have been written by Hardy and wouldn't exist. It is an interesting paradox that the Angel character feels this way because in other aspects of his personal life he is a rebel. Becoming a farmer instead of pursuing a clerical life for instance, like the rest of his family. So I guess all we can go back to is the time period, and that being a rebel in one sense is relatively easy, but having to have society judge you by being with a fallen woman is quite another thing. But still today in modern society there is plenty of pressure depending on your religious clique to not divorce, or not remarry if divorced, etc. So it is easy to see how this condemnation of a woman that the reader sees as naive, helpless, taken advantage of .. could occur.

message 3: by Longhare (last edited Feb 28, 2014 12:40PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Longhare Content James, that's an interesting point. In David Copperfield, Lil' Emily's family moves to Australia to escape her status as fallen woman, but Dickens has Emily "nobly" refuse her many suitors there. They aren't nearly as bothered by her past as she is. I've always been bothered that Dickens seemed to approve of her self-sacrifice, but maybe that is what Hardy was getting at--the pointless cruelty of the English ideal of female purity.

I wonder, though, if Angel had been of Tess's own class, would it have been an issue? Emily had actually run off with a man and then dropped into prostitution--a far different thing than a roll in the hay with one of the gentry. Tess had at least proven that she could bear children--an estimable quality for a poor farmer's wife. Tess had the bad luck to fall in love with men who felt entitled to wipe their feet with her.

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