Shame In Hardy's Tess Of The d’Urbervilles And Death Of A Salesman

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Shame is dependent on the expectation of the self, and society, with tragedy lying in the character’s ability to never accomplish their desires. Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Willy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman can never transcend their shame, not because a prejudiced society limits them, but because they internalise such prejudice that confines them to their tragedy, evoking a sense of shame in failing to reach their expectation. Tragedy lies within the downfall of the common man which, as Miller described, was the belief that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings are.”

The equivalent level of tragedy connoted in the two texts would debatably not be present if it wasn’t dependent on cultural and gender expectations and Tess remains a victim to the shame projected upon her by the patriarchy. She endures the abuse inflicted on her throughout the novel by a society that doesn’t allow her to baptise her child, allow her to live without discrimination and escape male desires, but the tragedy occurs when Tess accepts and internalizes the misogyny projected onto her: “I shall not live for you to despise me… I am ready”. At first, Tess isn’t shamed by her appearance, as she values more than just her body as a tool for “happiness.” When she “mercilessly nipped her eyebrows off”, she wasn’t nervous of losing her beauty, but exploited what defined her in the eyes of men, and inverted it, contrasting Hardy's narrative that identified her as “a lesser creature” physically diminished by his language. Tess acquired pride in her appearance throughout the novel, utilizing her beauty for the aid of her family and manipulating male fantasy – she “was the only one who could boast” of the red ribbon in her hair, not being shamed by male sexualisation, but employing it for her advantage as a sign of proto-feminist power. Likewise, despite Tess’s pride originating in her difference (the red ribbon), her pride becomes a symbol of shame, reflected through her development from a “simple girl to complex woman” that delivers “a note of tragedy at times into her voice.” Her shame is thus founded in her womanhood, which transforms her from a “lesser creature” into a being that threatens patriarchal systems. Her body gains sexuality, and therefore power, meaning it can now be feared – it is no longer conducted by masculine rule. Victorian 19th-century society failed to comprehend how Tess could remain a heterogeneous figure, fitting the dichotomy of both whore and virgin. From a modern perspective, whilst audiences may appreciate Hardy’s demonstration of women wronged by society, he validated this through sexual assault, raising questions over whether Tess would still be considered the same if she chose to engage in sexual action as if it devalues her character. She remains punished by lack of choice, invoking shame upon her victimhood.

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Tess’s shame in womanhood becomes more pronounced through Hardy’s biblical symbolism. Despite the author’s agnosticism and dislike of the religious institution, he depicts Alec as a Satan-like figure, and Tess, too, through the depiction of her arm “coiling up” as she yawned alluding to the serpent imagery of Genesis. The way she is coiling up and opening her mouth is similar to snake’s behaviour prior to catching prey; she is the ultimate temptation to Angel, the scene’s victim. The similarities continue through Tess being fed strawberries “in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state” by Alec, reminiscent of the snake persuading Eve to eat the Garden of Eden’s fruit, inspiring Original Sin and disgracing humanity. By Tess being represented as Eve, the protagonist thus becomes a pinnacle of feminine shame and dishonour.

Gender relation is inherent in Death of a Salesman through Miller’s symbolism of Linda’s stocking as an emblem of self-indulgence and household labour. This simplifies Linda’s love for Willy into a domestic, objectifying item, also demonstrating the assumed similarity between all women and their desires. Shame is detected in an object typical of femininity, Tess’s red ribbon, or even Sorrow, a material burden and embodiment of her shame. Just as Tess finds disgrace in her appearance, inspiring her to create an altered version of herself, Willy projects memories onto the present, creating an alternate and more palatable reality. Shame is thus at the heart of the tragic experience for the ordinary person, as Willy and Tess can never surpass their shame. It defines them until their deaths, which are caused by society’s inability to process actions deemed “shameful” despite modern audiences understanding the gendered victim-blaming of Tess’ arrest and Willy’s descent into mental illness.

Alternatively, there is tragedy in shamelessness. Happy experiences no shame in Willy’s actions throughout the play, even professing to “win [the dream] for him!” in the Requiem as dramatic irony and engaging in the same sexist behaviour throughout the play, referring to seducing women being like “bowling”. Likewise, while Alec repents for his “sins”, he never learns from his intended sexual abuse and twists Hardy’s natural presentation of Tess: her “dressing-gown of grey-white in… “half-mourning tints” shows a hyphen separation of words that mirror Tess’s blurring of identity, and the description of her “cable” hair “hanging on her shoulder” represents the mechanical nature of her body now that Alec has removed her pastoral nature so often linked with femininity. Alec rarely exhibits any shame, although his behaviour is, to most readers, the most shameful, enforcing the novel’s overwhelming tragedy.

Shame permeates the texts as it is embodied through setting and colour with Tess’s close association with red evidenced through her ribbon during the May Day dance and Prince’s death. Red represents the color of shame, and Tess’ life is tinged with it, as a result she is blood-stained throughout, foreshadowing her tragedy and also demonstrating the visual component of shame. The red that surrounds her through the “red brick” of the D’Urberville house introduces the theme of shame being reflected in the setting, and thus the “overwhelming” emotion being an effect of claustrophobia. This is further developed in Death of a Salesman, where Miller describes the “towering, angular shapes” that box in the Loman household, developing an isolated, separate world – a place for Willy’s imagination to permeate. This is executed in the play where staging is crucial in establishing a sense of disgrace, with various spaces becoming another location through lack of walls, the oppressive apartment buildings crowding the house with Willy’s statement “The way they boxed us in here!” emphasising his fear of encroaching society and its consumerist competition. Some critics would dispute Willy doesn’t even achieve a tragic experience, instead living the life of a “little salesman with a pathetic belief in his worthless son” as professed by J.C. Trewin. However, this criticism only supports Willy’s shameful character as it intrinsically links to the “impersonal and hierarchical” world of capitalism and the unfeeling religion in opposition with the natural world in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, enforcing shame on anyone who cannot fulfil their societal potential and thus binding tragedy with the social process.

To a significant extent, Willy and Tess can never transcend their shame as it is bounded by their unifying hamartia – their hubris. At the heart of tragedy is an intense sense of shame, evidenced in two characters who cannot surpass their inexorable tragic flaw. It is then not how the protagonist is perceived by society, but how they incorporate such prejudice that encloses them to their tragedy which is archetypal of the tragic genre.

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Shame In Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles And Death Of A Salesman. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“Shame In Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles And Death Of A Salesman.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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