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The Indifference of Fragments: Untimely Ruin in Tess of the d’Urbervilles

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Ruins in the Literary and Cultural Imagination
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Fragments usually belong to a chain of a decay that stems from a context of ruin. To tentatively approach a theory of ruins, I follow a thread in Tess of the d’Urbervilles that moves beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay and illustrates how literature is already an act of giving way to the literary fragment that both negates and sustains it. Focusing on the ending of Tess and the ways in which Hardy linguistically and architecturally constructs this key scene, this essay offers a reading of the literary fragment that in Hardy’s hands is used to draw together, albeit uneasily, tenets of aesthetic representation that work against the stasis of ruin to bring to the fore a more migratory poiesis in the work.

… Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed.

Shall lodge thee.—W. Shakespeare

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  1. 1.

    It was customary in Victorian times to raise a black flag after an execution. Letters addressed to Queen Victoria describe how a “large crowd gathered and waited for the hoisting of the Black flag” (Buckle 2014, 423). Not all shared in the Queen’s 1887 Jubilee celebrations: in Ireland, a prominent black flag was raised by Republican movement in the name of starved, mistreated and evicted Irish people, leading us to speculate on Hardy’s poignant use of the black flag in Tess. My thanks to Jaya Savige for discussions on vexillology.

  2. 2.

    In the original 1892 manuscript held at the British Library, the flag “shot” up the staff, adding a discarded third rhyme to the phrase, blot, spot and shot. The removal of the word “shot” brings a sense of the timelessness to the last pages.

  3. 3.

    The relevant Nietzsche essay here is the third meditation in Untimely Meditations (2005), entitled “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.”

  4. 4.

    This stepping backwards in order to go forwards will characterize the theoretical path of my paper and was inspired by Steve Connor’s proposition that “A ruin is a temporal conundrum … it is a distempering of times, that puts time out of joint” (2006).

  5. 5.

    See Chapter 8 where David Tucker deals with Beckett’s textual ruins.

  6. 6.

    The Temple of the Winds known also as the Waterclock of Andronikos of Kyrrhos can be found in Athens, at the site of the Roman Agora; it was built in around 50 BC. The Athenian Waterclock or clepsydra was one of the first ancient devices for keeping time, and like Stonehenge today, it stands in ruins.

  7. 7.

    In The Madder Stain Annie Ramel, asking if Hardy as a newborn emitted a cry while his mother was being saved, cogently traces the literary effects not of biographical material, but of biographical material—such as “Hardy’s particular relation to silence and to the voice”—made into word (2015, 163).

  8. 8.

    See Chapter 6, where Sheila Teahan also discusses the relation between name and ruin/fragment.

  9. 9.

    As Steve Connor notes, “the instinct for reparation which Melanie Klein thought lay behind all artistic work” captures not only the sense of destruction—and guilt—Hardy must have felt witnessing Martha Browne’s hanging, but also his debt to that event for the impetus to create Tess (2006).

  10. 10.

    The sense of imbrication of author and subject was very much on the minds of many writers at the fin de siècle. In the work of Proust, Freud and Mallarmé, we find examples of this textual self-referencing. A poignant example is that of Gustav Mahler, who in 1900 confessed to a friend that “It becomes clearer and clearer to me that one does not compose; one is composed” (qtd. in Johnston 2009, 47).

  11. 11.

    Online Etymology Dictionary: fragment (n.) early 15c., “small piece or part,” from Latin fragmentum “a fragment, remnant,” literally “a piece broken off,” from base of frangere “to break.”

  12. 12.

    A genealogy from The Two Gentlemen from Verona to Martha Browne’s hanging and to Tess can to some degree be traced in Hardy’s poem “The Torn Letter.” For a feminist reading of the reparative elements of this poem, see my essay, “A Love Letter from Beyond the Grave: Irigaray, Nothingness, and La femme n’existe pas” (2013).

  13. 13.

    Hardy quotes this line from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in his article, “The Science of Fiction ” (1891), an essay he published while writing Tess. It is not difficult to read a sense of mourning for the inexactitudes and fictions of literary endeavour felt to be at odds with a period in history being catapulted into a new scientific and quantitative millennium.

  14. 14.

    In Chapter 11, the scene of Tess’s rape, Tess is seen by Alec only in pictorial terms; while “Everything else was blackness alike,” Tess is firstly as “invisible” and then “absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet” (2008, 81–82). Silent transformations, at key moments, of characters into colours halt the reader’s ability to read and go forward in the plot. Instead, reading becomes enmeshed in a fragmentary moment that is detached from time and sensory rather than legible.


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Potter, C. (2019). The Indifference of Fragments: Untimely Ruin in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In: Mitsi, E., Despotopoulou, A., Dimakopoulou, S., Aretoulakis, E. (eds) Ruins in the Literary and Cultural Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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