'The heathen temple, you mean?... you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home.'
This description of Stonehenge from Tess of the D'Urbervilles is not merely the poetic imagination at work. Stonehenge is indeed, by any definition, a 'heathen temple'. This great Neolithic monument, situated in an isolated part of Wiltshire in southern England, was constructed between approximately 3100 BC and 1490 BC; it consists of two concentric rings of great undressed stones set upright in the ground, around a horseshoe formed by five huge trilithons (two upright stones with a horizontal stone supported across their top surfaces), with a further arc of smaller upright stones within it, and a flat stone, thought to have been an altar, in the center. Although much about Stonehenge and other such structures remains unclear, as modern archaeologists admit, the structure and alignment of this monument indicate that its function was ritual, possibly associated with the worship of the sun and the marking of significant moments in the annual cycle of nature:
There is a sufficient body of evidence to suggest strongly that astronomical observation was one, if not the most important, function of many stone circles... Observations... were probably integral to the planning of seasonal festivals. Down to medieval times, festivals were held in spring and at midsummer and, in north-west Europe, at Hallowe'en (the Celtic Samain) and May Day (the Celtic Beltane).
Stonehenge, like other ancient monuments of Wessex such as hill forts and castles, features several times in the writings of Thomas Hardy, both prose and poetry. Hardy was fascinated by archaeology and the societies and cultures of past ages, and particularly with their religious and mystical aspects. In The Return of the Native (1878) for example, he suggests that the custom of celebrating Bonfire Night on 5 November each year with huge bonfires on the crests of Wessex hills is of 'druidic' and 'Saxon' origin rather than relating to the Gunpowder Plot of the seventeenth century; elsewhere, notably in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), he makes great play with rituals that survive into his own age from ancient times. Stonehenge, situated in the heart of Wessex, constituted an extremely potent source of symbolism for Hardy, as well as providing a setting of unique drama for the climactic scene of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In the late nineteenth century Stonehenge was little understood, being connected variously with Merlin and King Arthur, Ancient Egyptians, wandering Trojan warriors, the Danes and the Romans. The monument can thus be said to have constituted a place of memory, a location where the shared memory of a community (both the particular communities about which Hardy is writing, and the wider community of those who read his works) could be created and recreated and upon which cultural ideas could be projected; and Hardy uses it as a symbol of great power around which he can weave the life, character, and fate of his heroine, and express her place in the wider universal order of things.
Fundamentally, Stonehenge for Hardy stands for 'the natural', and - as Hardy himself made clear - Tess Durbeyfield, described in the subtitle of Tess as 'a pure woman', is pure in the sense of being natural, in her femininity, her beauty, and her motivations. It is therefore fitting that it is at Stonehenge that the climax of the story, the arrest of Tess, takes place, but this significance is prefigured in the early part of the book with the description in chapter II of the ritual of 'Club-walking Day', a pagan festival celebrating spring and fertility, in which Tess takes part. The story can thus be said to begin with moving circle of girls and women in white (among them is Tess, marked out by her red ribbon), performing a pagan ritual; it ends within the immobile circle of gray stones, a heathen temple of nature. The primitiveness of both these circles expresses the role that primitive, instinctive drives take in this highly sensual and tragic story, and mark one of the chief oppositional pairings that Hardy used as a fundamental structure of the novel: that between 'nature' and 'society'.
The Club-walking dance is the first in a series of events and places with pagan associations which Hardy creates around Tess, and themes of paganism and the forces of nature emerge at several significant points in the book. The seduction of Tess by Alec D'Urberville takes place in an ancient woodland, The Chase, that surrounds the D'Urberville estate. In Hardy's description, the forces of nature to be found there and the primeval energies associated with them are emphasized:
Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares.
Repeatedly, Hardy emphasizes the oneness of Tess with nature, and relates that oneness directly to her gender. At times he seems almost to absorb Tess into the natural world, breaking down the barriers between the woman and the realm of animals, plants, and the earth. When she goes into the fields to work at the harvest after having Alec's child, she is described in a way that makes the link between womanhood, fertility, the earth and the cycles of nature. A 'field-man', writes Hardy, 'is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she had somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it.' After falling prey to Alec's desires, Tess feels guilt and shame, and sees herself as a corrupt presence in an otherwise harmonious world, but Hardy in his narrative voice claims that:
she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.
This tendency to position women characters, and particularly young, fertile, sexually alive women characters, as 'forces of nature' reflects a movement in nineteenth-century literature in which:
young female characters who know too much are often placed literally in, and associated symbolically with, nature... To possess knowledge of nature, whether of her own desires, her physical body, the bodies of males, or of the creatures of the natural realm, indicated that a woman had ventured out into forbidden territory where the sexual and animal lurked.
The closeness of Tess to nature is thus not only a signifier of her potency as a physical, instinctual being but also of the dangers of her state, for herself and others. The implication is that she bears some responsibility for what happens to her; although how far her fate is the product of her own decision and how far it results from drives and instincts that are too deep-rooted to be subject to rational control is left as an open question. One of the attributes of paganism for Hardy appears to be a quality of resignation to one's fate, an acceptance that human beings are fundamentally at the mercy of the forces of the natural world, supernatural agencies, and destiny itself, and it is particularly noticeable that the female characters in Tess - Tess herself, her mother, the other village girls, the dairy maids at Talbothays - tend to express this view. 'Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose' is Tess's mother's comment on her seduction and pregnancy, "Tis nater [i.e. nature], after all, and what pleases God.'
Tess is thus an embodiment of timeless, primeval spirit of Nature, and is deeply embedded in the world of natural energies and forces. This primeval force of nature is embodied in The Chase, which comes to play such an important and tragic role in Tess's life, the landscapes of her own home valley and of the various places in which she finds work; but above all it is expressed in the intuitive, instinctive, sensual character of Tess herself. Hence her feeling that, when she reaches Stonehenge and lies upon the altar, she has come home. A modern scholar has called Tess 'an incarnation of nature' and summarizes Hardy's conception of her as expressing 'the life-force, that which is crucial to the existence of human nature.' The narrative of the book 'continues to stress Tess's oneness with nature throughout... Tess herself, misled by social conventions, fails to recognise the extent to which her actions have been "purely" natural.' Tess, we are told at another point, is an example of 'women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature' who 'retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at a later date.' Tess's place is to be at one with a pagan, untamed nature…