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The Aesthetics, Politics and Ethics of Becoming-Animal in Thomas Hardy’s Novels

Esthétique, politique et éthique du devenir-animal dans les romans de Thomas Hardy
Junjie QI


This essay aims to bring into dialogue the encounters between humans and non-human animals that feature prominently in Hardy’s novels with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal. It demonstrates that the close proximity of Hardy’s characters to non-human animals sometimes initiates the process of becoming-animal, albeit with varying degrees of success. This possibility of affective becoming challenges the notion of human auto-affection and provides us with an unusual vantage point from which to examine Hardy’s subversion of the human/animal dualism. This becoming-animal not only functions as an aesthetic device, creating a destabilising lyricism in Hardy’s text, but also provides a new lens through which to explore Hardy’s political and ethical concerns with reference to what Deleuze and Guattari call “minoritarian groups”. The article argues that the ontological continuity between humans and animals does not necessarily exclude an ethic of care. If Hardy’s fictional portrayal of animals runs the risk of anthropomorphism, then this possibility of becoming-animal in his novels revivifies human animality and builds up an alliance between humans and non-human beings.

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1Thomas Hardy maintained a lifelong interest in animals, which is borne out by the prominent role that animals play in his writings. This interest may have stemmed from the intimate proximity in which Hardy lived with animals during his childhood years at his birthplace Higher Bockhampton. According to Robert Gittings,

[t]he cottage home on the edge of the heath put Hardy into a companionship with all fellow creatures that never left him. Snakes and lizards flickered about the threshold, and even came into the house […]. Heath-cropping ponies and deer looked in at the windows, and in the evening light the bats would fly in and out of the bedrooms […]. This characteristic close-up view of even the smallest living things, the sense of existing actually with them, never left him […]. Other stories of his own childhood at Bockhampton show him as a solitary introspective boy, much more in touch with the animals around him than with the small group of fellow human beings. (Gitting 37–39)

2Hardy’s close relationship with animals not only enabled him to possess first-hand and detailed knowledge of a variety of animal species on which he drew to depict his literary animals, but also stimulated his peculiar desire for adopting an animal perspective anddecentring the primacy of human epistemologies” (Feuerstein 12). In April 1891, while visiting the Gallery of the English Art Club, Hardy commented: “If I were a painter, I would paint a picture of a room as viewed by a mouse from a chink under the skirting” (F. Hardy 235). During the last stage of his life, Hardy recalled, “crossing the eweleaze when a child, he went on hands and knees and pretended to eat grass in order to see what the sheep would do. Presently he looked up and found them gathered around in a close ring, gazing at him with astonished faces” (F. Hardy 444).

3In these two instances, what Hardy envisaged or attempted to achieve is akin to the experience of becoming-animal. This notion was coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their co-authored work Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986) and was then developed substantially in chapter ten of A Thousand Plateaus (1987), entitled “Becoming-intense, becoming-animal, becoming imperceptible”. Becoming-animal is one category among Deleuze and Guattari’s heterogeneous “becomings”, defined as such:

Starting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfils, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 272).

4During the process of becoming, one’s fixed “molar entities”, that is to say, one’s forms and organs as a distinct subject, become molecular collectivities, multiplicities and “haecceities”, that is, modes of individuation free from normative subjectivities. This molecular mode of being leads to the suspension of identities and dissolution of power structures. Becomings marginalise human beings and give rise to border experiences which destabilise the existing order and are hence in line with the idea of biodiversity. Deleuze and Guattari figure becoming-animal as a deterritorialised movement, or a line of flight, from molar organisations to a common zone of affectability where the hierarchical distinction between humans and animals is challenged. A genuine experience of becoming-animal approximates something like this: one is fascinated, or rather is affected by an animal which is filled with a multiplicity of affects, thereby “emit[ing] corpuscles that enter the relation of movement and rest of the animal particles, or what amounts to the same thing, that enter the zone of proximity of the animal molecule” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 274 –275). For Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-animal is an experimentation which opens up the possibility for undoing anthropocentric binarism and adopting an anti-humanistic line of thought:

To become animal is to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs. (Deleuze & Guattari 2003, 13)

5To put it simply, becoming-animal is an ontological cure for the sense of all-too-humanness in mankind. Thus considered, the experience of becoming-animal seems to cater to Hardy’s special desire for a non-human agency and a multi-species perspective reflected in the two instances quoted above.

6Since becoming-animal is an experimentation, then the result is unpredictable and there is no guarantee of success. A prerequisite for a successful becoming-animal is that the animal that one encounters is a demonic animal full of capacities of affectability, rather than a pet, Oedipal animal that only “draw[s] us into a narcissistic contemplation”, or a State animal that is “treated in the great divine myths, in such a way as to extract from them series or structures, archetypes or models” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 240–241). If the animals are “too formed, too significative, too territorialized”, or if one chooses to “re-Oedipalize” oneself, that is to say, to reterritorialise oneself within the wall of the signifier, then “the acts of becoming-animal cannot follow their principle all the way through” (Deleuze & Guattari 2003, 15).

7What occupies a decisive role in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of becoming-animal is the concept of affect, “an unknown Nature” that one feels while becoming animal, “the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 240). During a human-animal encounter, only when the human body is affected by the affecting animal can he or she become animal. Affect is a pure intensity, the very motor that triggers desubjectification and deterritorialisation. For Deleuze and Guattari, life alone creates affects, and only art can “reach and penetrate them in its enterprise of co-creation” and preserve “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994; 164, 173). Particularly, Deleuze and Guattari assign a primary role to novelists: “A great novelist is above all an artist who invents unknown or unrecognized affects and brings them to light as the becoming of his characters” (174). Interestingly enough, in their single-authored and co-authored works, Deleuze and Guattari made frequent references to Hardy’s writings which they believed belong to what they termed “[s]trange Anglo-American literature”, a kind of literature in which the novelists know “how to leave, to scramble codes, to cause flows to circulate, to traverse the desert of the body without organs” (Deleuze & Guattari 2000, 132–133). Specifically, Deleuze conceives of Hardy’s characters as packets of affects, or sensations:

His characters are not people or subjects, they are collections of intensive sensations, each is such a collection, a packet, a bloc of variable sensations. There is a strange respect for the individual, an extraordinary respect: not because he would seize upon himself as a person and be recognized as a person, in the French way, but on the contrary because he saw himself and saw others as so many “unique chances” – the unique chance from which one combination or another had been drawn. Individuation without a subject. And these packets of sensations in the raw, these collections or combinations, run along the lines of chance, or mischance, where their encounters take place – if need be, their bad encounters which lead to death, to murder. Hardy invokes a sort of Greek destiny for this empiricist experimental world. Individuals, packets of sensations, run over the heath like a line of flight or a line of deterritorialization of the earth. (Deleuze & Parnet 40)

8For Deleuze, Hardy’s writing is an empiricist experimentation which brings forth multiple affects that are capable of triggering series of becomings. Given the fact that encounters between humans and animals feature prominently in Hardy’s novels, one is tempted to ask whether the close proximity of Hardy’s characters to animals initiates their becoming-animal. Going a step further, one is tempted to ask whether Hardy’s writing amounts to a becoming-animal.

9In defining becoming-animal, Deleuze and Guattari take pains to emphasise the point that this process is not to be reduced to imitation: “A becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification […]. Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real […]. Becoming produces nothing other than itself” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 237–238). Hardy’s novels are rife with instances of comparisons between human beings and animals, but these do not measure up to genuine Deleuzian becomings-animal, since “all becomings are molecular” (275) and hence imperceptible. Comparisons only involve molar forms rather than molecular ones. The instances of metaphors, analogies and identifications that Hardy routinely supplies in his novels still work within the limits of the anthropocentric framework.

10Examples of this can be found in the human-animal encounters portrayed in The Return of the Native (1878). The Return of the Native has a compelling appeal for Deleuze, who argues that it is not so much a fictional work as a “heath-becoming” (Deleuze & Parnet 50). In spite of the fluxes, the affective assemblages and the lines of flight that the novel brings into play, however, successful becoming-animal is well-nigh absent. Throughout the novel, the ever-present proximity between humans and various animal species does not automatically reflect Hardy’s ecological thought, or his “democratic impulse” (Feuerstein) that challenges human supremacy, as some critics see it. The juxtaposition of humans and animals is merely a characteristic rhetorical strategy of Hardy’s which is not necessarily conducive to demonstrating a symbiotic and interdependent relationship between them. Rather, it sometimes tends to reinforce the human/animal binary opposition. Clym Yeobright’s self-pitying introspection after his mother died – “‘My life creeps like a snail’” (Hardy 2008a, 307) – gives away this fundamental existential schism between humans and animals. In the novel, animals as well as their natural habitat Egdon Heath figure as “a monolithic, inhuman mass whose intents and actions operate at a scale that diminishes the human individual to insignificance”, in the words of John MacNeill Miller (Miller 161).

11Throughout the novel, the peaceful, contended and untroubled existence of wild animals is constantly measured against the turbulent, harrowing and intense human drama. Wildeve’s remark that “it seems impossible to do well here, unless one were a wild bird or a landscape painter” (Hardy 2008a, 84) hits home. In the novel, all characters seem to be enmeshed in their own ways in the Oedipal and Oedipalised territorialities – families, communities, conjugal units, the oppressive Oedipal codes which obstruct deterritorialised flows of desire, and at which Deleuze and Guattari lash out vehemently in Anti-Oedipus (1977). A successful becoming-animal, thus considered, provides a line of flight through which characters are able to elude the clutch of these Oedipal codes. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: “Who has not known the violence of these animal sequences, which uproot one from humanity, if only for an instant, making one scrape at one’s bread like a rodent or giving one the yellow eyes of a feline? A fearsome involution calling us toward unheard-of becomings” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 240). A close and careful inspection of the novel reveals that Hardy’s writing displays a slippage, or an oscillation between rhetorical becoming-animal (only meant as a convenient label), that is to say, metaphors, analogies and identifications, and genuine Deleuzian becoming-animal, an oscillation that registers the uncertainty and trickiness of this experimentation.

12The scene in which Mrs. Yeobright creeps along the heath before she dies serves as a fitting example of this oscillation. Overwhelmed by both physical exhaustion and mental distress, Mrs. Yeobright is compared to an “invalid” first, then to a “lamb” and is finally relegated to “the larger animal species” (Hardy 2008a, 276–278) on the heath. Her humanity seems to dwindle out during this process. Again, this rhetorical becoming-animal is premised upon an anthropocentric logic and therefore brings to the fore the ontological gulf between humans and animals. There is no common zone of affectability that is able to trigger Mrs. Yeobright’s becoming-animal while she is harping on the cruel treatment that she believes she has received from Eustacia. The chapter that features this scene ends with Mrs. Yeobright’s encounter with a heron:

While she looked a heron arose on that side of the sky and flew on with his face towards the sun. He had come dripping wet from some pool in the valleys, and as he flew the edges and lining of his wings, his thighs, and his breast, were so caught by the bright sunbeams that he appeared as if formed of burnished silver. Up in the zenith where he was seemed a free and happy place, away from all contact with the earthly ball to which she was pinioned; and she wished that she could arise uncrushed from its surface and fly as he flew then. (Hardy 2008a, 278)

13A successful becoming-animal seems to ensue from this encounter. Affected by the unfettered and carefree heron that is described as possessing affective capacities, Mrs. Yeobright seems to be able to enter the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness of the heron, to enter the zone of proximity of the heron molecules. Nevertheless, such a line of flight which is able to suspend her fixed and molar identity and divert her from her Oedipal trajectory and harrowing domestic drama is compromised by the overpowering urge to be re-Oedipalised: “But, being a mother, it was inevitable that she should soon cease to ruminate upon her own condition. Had the track of her next thought been marked by a streak in the air, like the path of a meteor, it would have shown a direction contrary to the heron’s, and have descended to the eastward upon the roof of Clym’s house” (Hardy 2008a, 279). Here the movements of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation during the process of Mrs. Yeobright’s failed becoming-animal are conveniently reified respectively as the trajectory of the heron’s flight and the track of her thought, which is in its turn reified as the path of a meteor.

14Perhaps the only successful case of becoming-animal that The Return of the Native stages takes place during Clym Yeobright’s encounter with the “creeping and winged things” (Hardy 2008a, 244) when he works on the heath as a furze cutter:

Bees hummed around his ears with an intimate air, and tugged at the heath and furze-flowers at his side in such numbers as to weigh them down to the sod. The strange amber-coloured butterflies which Egdon produced, and which were never seen elsewhere, quivered in the breath of his lips, alighted upon his bowed back, and sported with the glittering point of his hook as he flourished it up and down. Tribes of emerald-green grasshoppers leaped over his feet, falling awkwardly on their backs, heads, or hips, like unskilful acrobats, as chance might rule; or engaged themselves in noisy flirtations under the fern-fronds with silent ones of homely hue. Huge flies, ignorant of larders and wire-netting, and quite in a savage state, buzzed about him without knowing that he was a man. […]
The monotony of his occupation soothed him, and was in itself a pleasure. Hence Yeobright sometimes sang to himself […]. (Hardy 2008a, 244–245, emphases added)

15What is played up in this passage is a floating music of polyphonic richness that unites Clym with these microscopic forms of life. The sentence “they seemed to enrol him in their band” (244) serves as a verbal signpost indicating that a becoming-animal is at play here. Hardy may have punned on the word “band”: a pack and a group of musicians. Here there is a sort of “musical assemblage”, in Deleuze’s words (Deleuze & Parnet 98). Deleuze and Guattari believe in the deterritorialising force of music. Music is full of becomings because “musical expression is inseparable from a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, a becoming-animal that constitute its content” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 299). Here in this passage, the insects perform an insect-song; or rather, they emit sound molecules which saturate the air with floating affects, fluxes and particles that trigger Clym’s becoming-insects. The molecular vibrations issued from these insects “make audible the truth that all becomings are molecular” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 308). Thus at the same time as Clym becomes insect, the insects become music, become molecular. This is what Deleuze and Guattari call “an asymmetrical block of becoming” configured as a zigzag structure, “an instantaneous zigzag” (278): a human becomes an animal at the same time as the animal becomes something else. During the process of his becoming-animal, Clym is able to, albeit only temporarily, disengage himself from the “thoughts of Eustacia’s position and his mother’s estrangement” (Hardy 2008a, 244). Therefore, for Deleuze and Guattari, “it is through music that you become hard and memoryless, simultaneously animal and imperceptible […], toward the realms of the asignifying, asubjective, and faceless” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 187). This passage exemplifies the aesthetics of becoming, “a destabilizing lyricism” as Elisha Cohn puts it (Cohn 520): flows and fluxes of varying speeds and intensities, multiplicities, collectivities, assemblages, affects, in other words nothing fixed, nothing stable, nothing permanent. The ontological difference between humans and animals is done away with during these processes of heterogeneous becomings.

16The experimentation of becoming creates zones of proximity not only between different realms of the living, but also between living beings and “haecceities” – a term used by Deleuze and Guattari to refer to “a mode of individuation very different from that of a person, subject, thing, or substance” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 261). Seen this way, “[a] season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date” are haecceities in the sense that “they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected” (261). Deleuze and Guattari’s further elucidation on this concept has direct bearing on novelistic realism:

It should not be thought that a haecceity consists simply of a decor or backdrop that situates subjects, or of appendages that hold things and people to the ground. It is the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity; it is this assemblage that is defined by a longitude and a latitude, by speeds and affects, independently of forms and subjects, which belong to another plane. (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 262)

17Hardy adorns his writings with assemblages of haecceities and multiplicities as opposed to identities, subjectivities or substantialities. In so doing, he defamiliarises the conventions and precepts of literary realism which defined logical, fixed identities and normative subjectivities. In the words of Richard Kerridge, “description is denied the power to stabilize character” (Kerridge 130) in Hardy’s writings.

18This aesthetics of becoming and haecceity is deployed on a large scale in Hardy’s later novels such as The Woodlanders (1887) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). William A. Cohen postulates that one way of reading The Woodlanders is “to regard the trees as people and the people as trees” (Cohen 6). Indeed, Giles Winterborne and the vegetal world form a collective assemblage in view of their sympathetic and symbiotic relationship. The full effect and scope of this relationship, however, will be better understood if it is construed through the lens of an haecceity:

[Giles Winterborne] looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards. (Hardy 2008b, 185186)

19The season, the temperature, the colour and the atmosphere, instead of functioning as mere detachable ornaments in keeping with orthodox realism, are treated as concrete individuations that are integrated with that of Giles. Brimming with nonsubjectified affects, this haecceity seems to occasion Grace’s becoming-plant, or becoming-child, which unshackles her for the moment from the gins and nets of the signifying systems:

Her heart rose from its late sadness like a released bough; her senses revelled in the sudden lapse back to Nature unadorned. The consciousness of having to be genteel because of her husband’s profession, the veneer of artificiality which she had acquired at the fashionable schools, were thrown off, and she became the crude country girl of her latent, early instincts. (Hardy 2008b, 186)

20Later on, Giles appears in Grace’s memory also in the shape of an haecceity, shorn of forms and subjectivity – sometimes “leafy, and smeared with green lichen”, sometimes “cider stained and starred with apple-pips” (249).

21While this lyricism of becomings informs the aesthetics of The Woodlanders, the novel nonetheless foregrounds the risks involved in the experimentation of becoming. Since the subversion of one’s molar forms is required during the process of becoming, the danger lurks that the plane of consistency upon which movements of deterritorialisation take place becomes “a pure plane of abolition or death”, the involution turning into “a regression to the undifferentiated”, or the line of flight into “a line of death” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005; 270, 229). Therefore, Deleuze and Guattari urge caution in the experimentation of becoming: “Is it not necessary to retain a minimum of strata, a minimum of forms and functions, a minimal subject from which to extract materials, affects, and assemblages?” (270).

22The Woodlanders features these heterogeneous becomings which are badly carried out and end up in becoming-dead. The uncanny, occult relationship between John South and his elm emerges as the woodman’s unexpected elm-becoming which leads to his death. In a somewhat similar vein, Giles’s death is carefully orchestrated, so much so that it takes the radical form of his bird-becoming, during the process of which his molar forms are unfortunately destroyed. There is a sustained blurring of the porous boundary between Giles’s ontological status as a human being and the whole vegetal and animal kingdoms. Giles’s coughs are repeatedly mistaken for the noises made by a squirrel or a bird. Later on, the sounds emitted by Giles during his delirium hover on the threshold between human utterances and non-human sounds: “They were low mutterings; at first like persons in conversation, but gradually resolving themselves into varieties of one voice. It was an endless monologue, like that we sometimes hear from inanimate nature in deep secret places where water flows, or where ivy leaves flap against stones” (Hardy 2008b, 281). Here is where language is pushed to its limits and subjectivities give way to multiplicities and haecceities. Giles’s delirium, brought about by his illness, borders on the experience of hallucination caused by drugs, which is conducive to “microperceptions” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 248). Drugs are considered by Deleuze and Guattari an “agent” for becoming-animal and becoming-molecular (283). However, just as “drug addicts erect a vitrified or emptied body, or a cancerous one” (285) that turns the line of flight into a line of death and abolition, so Giles’s becoming-animal ends up in a becoming-dead. And as if to give the whole process of Giles’s becoming-bird a neat finish, Hardy provides the reader with a rhetorical becoming-animal: Grace “la[id] her hand reverently on the dead man’s eyelids […] pressing down their lashes with gentle touches, as if she were stroking a little bird” (Hardy 2008b, 288).

23In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy’s treatment of Tess is infiltrated by the aesthetics of becoming. Tess’s molar identity is constantly dissolved into molecular multiplicities during processes of becoming. She is “a passion, a structure of sensations” (Hardy 2008c, 103), a “sheaf of susceptibilities” (194); as a field-woman, she is “a portion of the field” who “has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it” (100); she is an haecceity, a subjectless event “inseparable from an hour, a season, an atmosphere, an air, a life” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 262). The Talbothays scenes show many instances of Tess’s becoming-molecular and becoming-imperceptible. As a mirror scene of Clym’s becoming-animal triggered by the insects’ music, the garden scene features Tess’s becoming-molecular when affected by the deterritorialising forces of Angel’s music:

Tess was conscious of neither time nor space […] she undulated upon the thin notes of the second-hand harp, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close, for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound. (Hardy 2008c, 138139)

24Peggy Blin-Cordon rightly remarks that in her becomings Tess “escapes description, qualification, laws, rules, and carries within her the mystery of living” (Blin-Cordon, my translation).

25In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the issue of becoming-animal takes on a political and ethical dimension. Deleuze and Guattari endow the experimentation of becomings with a political value:

There is an entire politics of becomings-animal, as well as a politics of sorcery, which is elaborated in assemblages that are neither those of the family nor of religion nor of the State. Instead, they express minoritarian groups, or groups that are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt, or always on the fringe of recognized institutions, groups all the more secret for being extrinsic, in other words, anomic. (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 247)

26The philosophers point out that the opposition between minority and majority is not quantitative. The majority assumes “a state of power and domination” and is “the standard measure”, epitomised in “the average adult-white-heterosexual-European-male-speaking a standard language” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 105). In this sense, “women, children, but also animals, plants, and molecules are minoritarian” (291). Since all becomings are minoritarian and man is majoritarian par excellence, there can never be becoming-man, and becomings always pass through a becoming-woman. Deleuze and Guattari draw a crucial distinction between “minority” and “minoritarian”, the better to attach political significance to becoming-minoritarian: minorities are “objectively definable states, states of language, ethnicity, or sex with their own ghetto territorialities” (106), whereas minoritarian refers to “a becoming or process” (291), during which minorities are “thought of as seeds, crystals of becoming whose value is to trigger uncontrollable movements and deterritorializations of the mean or majority” (106). Therefore, even minorities have to enter a becoming-minoritarian so as to embark upon a process of deterritorialisation and create a line of flight away from their own position as minorities, thereby deviating from the norms prescribed by the majority and reshaping power constellations.

27If The Return of the Native brings into the open the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between humans and animals, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles Tess forms an alliance with animals on account of their minoritarian status as well as shared suffering. Nevertheless, this alignment, or “block of alliance” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 291) of Tess and animals, is not created automatically at the outset. In the binary opposition between man and woman, Tess is minoritarian, whereas in the binary opposition between man and animals, Tess is majoritarian. Only when Tess herself becomes animal can she become completely minoritarian and hence revolutionary. Tess’s long journey from life to death can be encapsulated as a process of becoming-animal. Much critical attention has been paid to the structural role that animals play in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. John Holloway, among others, frames the unifying force of the novel in terms of a central metaphor, “the hunting of an animal” (Holloway 60). Indeed, the rhetoric of hunting expands to structure the entire narrative. It is no mere coincidence that Tess is compared over and over again to wild animals, especially to birds: “[Tess’s] large eyes staring at [Alec] like those of a wild animal” (Hardy 2008c, 61); “A particular fine spring came around […], it moved [Tess] as it moved the wild animals” (112); “[Tess] had been caught during her days of immaturity like a bird in a springe” (214); “[Tess] turn[ed] up her eyes to [Alec] with the hopeless defiance of the sparrow’s gaze before its captor twists its neck” (351) – and the list could go on and on. In spite of the plenitude of these rhetorical becomings-animal, however, Tess’s successful becomings-animal are fraught with difficulties, with twists and turns, as we shall see.

  • 1 Ironically enough, Fitzpiers himself sees his marriage with Grace as a trap: “‘Ah, Edred, [...] to (...)

28Tess’s relationship with Alec, and by extension with predatory men, is patterned on a series of hunting-taming-rebelling-hiding sequences. In fact, this pattern also informs the relationship between Fitzpiers and Grace in The Woodlanders. Fitzpiers’s courtship – or better said, renewed courtship – of Grace obviously takes the form of hunting and taming wild animals, all the more so considering that Grace’s primary feeling towards Fitzpiers is one of “awe towards a superior being [rather] than of tender solicitude for a lover” (Hardy 2008b, 183). In the pivotal Midsummer Eve scene, Fitzpiers, accompanied by other “lurkers” (134) with the same intention, hides behind the bushes and captures the running Grace, as if “she had been a bird” (133). In the later stages of their courtship, “Fitzpiers kept himself continually near her, dominating any rebellious impulse, and shaping her will into passive concurrence with all his desires” (154)1. After they get married, Fitzpiers’s infidelity to Grace is paralleled by the fact that Grace’s horse Darling is “hag-rid” (182) due to Fitzpiers’s excessive riding for the purpose of meeting Felice Charmond. During the time of their separation, Fitzpiers, after the fashion of a trapper, waits patiently, approaches circuitously, cajoles deferentially – a series of steps which culminates, ominously yet appositely, in Grace’s being caught in a mantrap, which precipitates his second capture of her. Indeed, Grace’s experience can be reconfigured as a failure of becoming-animal. In the words of her father, Grace is too “tame” to attack “unguibus et rostro” – with talons and beak (199). The equally tame and docile horse Darling, an Oedipalised animal, falls short of triggering Grace’s becoming-animal and deterritorialising her overly Oedipalised and territorialised desires. Her “timid morality” (282) conscripts her into conventional significations that formalise her subjectivity and check her line of flight. While she evinces momentary rebelliousness and defiance against proprieties and social laws, especially when affected by Giles’s death, she eventually gives in to her “conjugalized, reoedipalized” desires (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 233), as crystallised in the final scene of the novel, in which she spends the night with Fitzpiers and decides to be reconciled with him.

29Seen in tandem with the failure of Grace’s becoming-animal, Tess’s experimentation in becoming-animal takes on a more complex dimension. The poetics of hunting that is contained in embryonic form in The Woodlanders achieves its fullest expression in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The opening chapters of the novel carefully build a dialectic between Oedipal, pet animals and demonic, pack animals in the Deleuzian sense. In the scene in which Alec drives Tess to The Slopes, Alec’s horse Tib, once a wild animal, yet tamed (or more precisely, half-tamed) by Alec, conspires with Alec to tame Tess. Shortly after this scene, there is a consciously overwritten description of Mrs. d’Urberville’s pet fowls and birds which appear in a wholly unfavourable light, a rare occurrence in Hardy’s oeuvre when taking into account the novelist’s overall sympathetic attitude towards animals. The ubiquity of pet animals bespeaks Tess’s precarious situation and heralds her impending “becoming-pet animal”, so to speak. Later on, Tess’s decision to leave Alec is couched in the rhetoric of taming: “‘I should be your creature to go on doing that; and I won’t’ […]. ‘See how you’ve mastered me!’” (Hardy 2008c, 89–90) Exasperated by Alec’s cynical and misogynous remarks, Tess rejoins: “‘How can you dare to use such words!’ […]. ‘My God, I could knock you out of the gig!’” (89). This is the “latent spirit” awaking in Tess, which Alec “was to see more some day” (89), as the narrator’s proleptic comment tells us. Or rather, we might say that this is the incipient affect that spurs Tess on to erect “the war machine, the crime machine” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 242) on her line of flight that entails her becoming-animal.

  • 2 In the opening chapters of the novel, the narrator tells us that [t]he dialect was on [Tess’s] ton (...)

30But Tess’s true becoming-animal has yet to come. Saddled with memories of her past history, Tess develops a guilty conscience. Caught up in the segmentarity of molar organisations, Tess’s becoming-animal is blocked, since there can be no zone of proximity with animals, hence no circulation of affects, and no becoming: “Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence” (Hardy 2008c, 97). In spite of her exclusion from the human community, Tess, like Grace before her, is still weakened by “shreds of convention” and “moral hobgoblins” (97). Seeing herself as a fallen woman, the antithesis of a pure, innocent woman, a binary opposition legitimated by the established moral order, Tess evinces what Deleuze and Guattari call an “arborescent” rather than a “rhizomatic” mode of thought which dichotomises her and bars her from creating lines of flight and embracing multiplicities. As the novel progresses, Tess oscillates between a nomadic mentality that dismisses memory, history, genealogy, and a susceptibility to be reterritorialised on regimes of signs. For instance, at the end of Phase Two, while Tess decides to leave Marlott to “escape the past” and find happiness “in some nook which had no memories” (Hardy 2008c, 112), one of the interests of Talbothays, as the narrator tells us, is “the accidental virtue of its lying near her forefathers’ country” (113). This inconsistency of Tess’s is further complicated by her relationship with Angel. For all her polemic against learning history – “The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands’ and thousands’” (142) – Tess internalises Angel’s alleged “intellectual liberty” (133) and good, standard English. Her relinquishing her minority usage of English2 runs directly counter to what Deleuze advocates in Dialogues II (1987): “[W]e must fight against language, invent stammering […] to trace a vocal or written line which will make language flow between these dualisms, and which will define a minority usage of language” (Deleuze & Parnet 34).

31What is at stake here, to put it in a nutshell, is that Tess seems to be coaxed into becoming-majoritarian, or becoming-man, if such a thing were possible in the Deleuzian sense: “[Angel’s] influence over her had been so marked that she had caught his manner and habits, his speech and phrases, his likings and his aversions” (Hardy 2008c, 222). Angel, as for him, betrays the impossibility of his becoming-woman:

Looking at her silently for a long time: “She is a dear, dear Tess,” he thought to himself, as one deciding on the true construction of a difficult passage. “Do I realize solemnly enough how utterly and irretrievably this little womanly thing is the creature of my good or bad faith and fortune? I think not. I think I could not, unless I were a woman myself. What I am in worldly estate, she is. What I become she must become. What I cannot be she cannot be. And shall I ever neglect her, or hurt her, or even forget to consider her? God forbid such a crime!” (Hardy 2008c, 236; emphasis added)

32Taking into account his later treatment of Tess, Angel’s internal monologue is cast in an ironic light. By relegating Tess to a “little womanly thing”, a “creature”, Angel falls into the common pitfalls of “a patriarchal conjecture of what it is to be a woman”, as Anna West puts it (West 33). Only by becoming-woman and becoming-minoritarian is Angel able to plumb the depths of Tess’s devotion and obedience to him. Indeed, a great deal of Tess’s later suffering derives from Angel’s failure to strip himself of his majoritarian molar identity as a man who always misconstrues women: “[Angel] was greatly perplexed; and in his perplexity as to her motives in withholding intelligence he did not inquire. Thus her silence of docility was misinterpreted. How much it really said, if he had understood!” (Hardy 2008c, 360). His limited, molar perception is inadequate to gauge Tess’s molecular multiplicities and intensities, “aims and impulses”, but is instead riveted on her “history”, her “achievements” (360), her molar identity as a fallen woman.

33This necessity of becoming-minoritarian applies with equal weight to Tess. After being abandoned by Angel, Tess evinces an increasingly salient tendency to become-animal, when she places herself on the edge of humanity and creeps along “the perimeter of the social order” (Bruns 705): “[…] there was something of the habitude of the wild animal in the unreflecting instinct with which she rambled on – disconnecting herself by littles from her eventful past at every step, obliterating her identity, giving no thought to accidents or contingencies which might make a quick discovery of her whereabouts” (Hardy 2008c, 295). This corresponds to what Deleuze and Guattari call “the innocence of becoming”: “forgetting as opposed to memory, geography as opposed to history, the map as opposed to the tracing, the rhizome as opposed to arborescence” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 296). It also corresponds to “Nomadology, the opposite of a history” (23), or “the orphan unconscious” (Deleuze & Guattari 2000, 82). The decisive moment of Tess’s becoming-animal comes when she encounters the dying pheasants victimised by an upper-class shooting party. Tess’s true becoming-animal triggered by this human-animal encounter is preceded and at the same time thrown into bold relief by her rhetorical becoming-animal. Walking towards an upland farm, Tess is caught up by the Trantridge man who knows her past and was knocked down by Angel before their wedding. With a “hunted soul” (Hardy 2008c, 296), Tess escapes by running like a wild animal and hiding herself in a plantation. Having made herself a nest with dry leaves, Tess spends the night like a hunted bird, unconscious of the fact that she is accompanied by a flock of dying pheasants, among whom “some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out” (297). This unawareness of the presence of kindred suffering at her side gives rise to Tess’s self-pity: “Was there another such a wretched being as she in the world, Tess asked herself; and thinking of her waste life said ‘All is vanity’ […]. All was, alas, worse than vanity – injustice, punishment, exaction, death” (296). Seen this way, in spite of the sustained comparison between Tess and hunted birds conveyed by this scene, there is still no common zone of affectability between Tess and animals insofar as Tess is yoked to her subjectivities, to the feeling of all-too-humanness.

34Tess is eventually empowered to liberate herself from her subjectivities and, in a larger scope, from her molar identity as a human being – as opposed to animals – by her unexpected encounter with the pheasants. Her becoming-animal is occasioned by the affect of shame in front of the sufferings of the pheasants:

“Poor darlings – to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o’ such misery as yours!” she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly. “And not a twinge of bodily pain about me! I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.” She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature. (Hardy 2008c, 298)

35This shame, as Deleuze and Guattari see it, is “the shame of being a man” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994, 107), a composite feeling that they explicate further in a footnote: “shame that men could do this, shame that we have been unable to prevent it, shame at having survived, and shame at having been demeaned or diminished” (225). In the words of Leonard Lawlor, this affect of shame “at being a man, at being human all too human, with our oppressions, our clichés, our opinions, and our desires, is really the motive for change” (Lawlor 174). For the first time, Tess realises that “[m]ost of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations” (Hardy 2008c, 104). The ontological gulf between Tess and the pheasants, and by extension, between humans and animals, is bridged by their shared “abominable sufferings” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994, 110) which create a zone of proximity in which Tess’s deterritorialised becoming-animal is enacted. The shared abominable sufferings engender vast empathy in Tess, which leads to her ethical care of the dying pheasants: “With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself, Tess’s first thought was to put the still living birds out of their torture, and to this end with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find” (Hardy 2008c, 298).

  • 3 On Hofmannsthal’s becoming-rat, see Lawlor.

36Tess’s encounter with the dying pheasants is comparable to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s encounter with “a ‘people’ of dying rats” that he poisoned (Deleuze & Guattari 2005, 240), a scene discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. The incredible feeling of an unknown nature that sweeps over Hofmannsthal during this encounter is not “pity”, but “unnatural participation” (240): the rat becomes “a feverish thought” in the man, making him “either stop writing, or write like a rat” (258)3. The same pattern holds true for Tess. The thought of the pheasants writhing in agony lurks in Tess thereafter, playing a vital part in her murder of Alec, a scene that has already been adumbrated earlier when she swung her leather glove in Alec’s face, causing him to bleed. This is Tess’s final becoming-animal, and a risky one. During this unnatural participation, Tess acquires avian features, endowing her body with relations of rest and movement, the speed and slowness of, we might say, a bird. In this murder scene, Tess’s deterritorialised body, and the equally deterritorialised carving knife, together form a machinic assemblage, a creative and productive war machine “exterior to” and “directed against the State apparatus” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005; 242, 230), which is the regimented centralising institutions signified by the “black flag” (Hardy 2008c, 420) that appears on the final page of the novel and signals Tess’s death.

37In What is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari express their belief in the power of art and philosophy to summon forth a race – “an oppressed, bastard, lower, anarchical, nomadic, and irremediably minor race” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994, 109). They argue that when writing for the minor races, we do not write “for their benefit” or “in their place”, but write “before” them, that is to say, we become them:

We are not responsible for the victims but responsible before them. And there is no way to escape the ignoble but to play the part of the animal (to growl, burrow, snigger, distort ourselves) […]. We think and write for animals themselves. We become animal so that the animal also becomes something else. The agony of a rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other. (Deleuze & Guattari 1994, 108109)

38In this sense, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the story of a becoming-animal, in which emerges the instantaneous zigzag configuration of an asymmetrical block of becoming: we have the becoming-woman of the novelist, the becoming-bird of Tess, and the bird itself becomes a tale, Tess’s tale. To write for (before) animals, to become animals, is a way for Hardy to give voice to his “plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, woman, and to the lower animals” (Hardy 1999, 70).


  • 4 For a more detailed discussion on Deleuze and ethology, see Uhlmann.

39Tess’s becomings-animal illustrate what an ethical way of living is for Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari establish a kind of ethics developed by Spinoza, which they conceive of as an ethology interpreted by Deleuze as studies that “define bodies, animals, or humans by the affects they are capable of” (Deleuze 1988, 125). In stark contrast to a transcendent morality based on rules of Good and Evil, an ethological ethics opens up the way to the experience of good and bad: whatever affects you and agrees with your nature and increases your power, is good, and vice versa4. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy provides a somewhat similar ethical framework. This ethological ethic provides a clear measure for Tess’s ethical prowess defined not by moral and religious absolutes or prevailing notions of sexuality and femininity, but by her “capacities for affecting and being affected” (Deleuze 1988, 125), by what her body can do. As D. E. Musselwhite phrases it, Tess is “a magnificent testimony to what a body can do – through her speeds and slowness, through her affective capacity for love and to be loved, for her molecular sympathies and intensities, for her enormous capacity for life” (Musselwhite 516). The intense affects that Tess’s body displays – love, hatred, shame, etc. – testify to Hardy’s artistic genius for creating a style through which becomings can be expressed (Deleuze & Guattari 2007, 3), a new style of life. John Hughes thus suggests: “Maybe the time has now come to articulate a Deleuzian or Bergsonian or Spinozist or Nietzschean Hardy” (Hughes 149).

40This successful becoming-animal that features in Hardy’s writings opens up the possibility for revivifying human animality by emphasising a sort of ontological fluidity. It brings to the fore the interdependent, symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, and therefore reveals the novelist’s anti-anthropocentric stance and ecological awareness. Compared with Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of the animal, which, as Alain Beaulieu notes, “remains above all conceptual” (Beaulieu 80), Hardy’s writing “give[s] visible form to what is animal in the animal” (Baker 95–96), by bringing to the fore – to use Blin-Cordon’s words – the “biological reality” of animals, and by foregrounding animal suffering.

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Baker, Steve, “What Does Becoming-Animal Look Like?”, Representing Animals, ed. Nigel Rothfels, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002.

Beaulieu, Alain, “The Status of Animality in Deleuze’s Thought”, Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9.1/2 (2011): 69–88.

Blin-Cordon, Peggy, L’animal chez Hardy : de l’artifice littéraire à la réalité biologique, FATHOM [online] 4 (2016), (last accessed 26 July 2022).

Bruns, Gerald L., “Becoming-Animal (Some Simple Ways)”, New Literary History 38.4 (2007): 703–720.

Cohen, William A., “Arborealities: The Tactile Ecology of Hardy’s Woodlanders”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 19 (2014).

Cohn, Elisha, “‘No insignificant creature’: Thomas Hardy’s Ethical Turn”, Nineteenth Century Literature 64.4 (2010): 494–520.

Deleuze, Gilles, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. R. Hurley, San Francisco: City Lights, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (1991), trans. H. Tomlinson & G. Burchell, New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

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Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986), trans. D. Polan, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1987), trans. B. Massumi, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnet, Dialogues (1987), trans. H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, New York: Columbia UP, 2007.

Feuerstein, Anna, “Seeing Animals on Egdon Heath”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 26 (2018).

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Hardy, Florence Emily, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840–1928, London: Macmillan, 1962.

Hardy, Thomas, Thomas Hardy: Interviews and Recollections, ed. James Gibson, New York: Macmillan, 1999.

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Hardy, Thomas, The Woodlanders (1887), ed. Dale Kramer, New York: Oxford UP, 2008b.

Hardy, Thomas, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), eds Juliet Grindle and Simon Gatrell, New York: Oxford UP, 2008c.

Holloway, John, “Hardy’s Major Fiction”, Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Albert J. Guerard, Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1963, 52–62.

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1 Ironically enough, Fitzpiers himself sees his marriage with Grace as a trap: “‘Ah, Edred, [...] to clip your own wings when you were free to soar!’” (Hardy 2008b, 198).

2 In the opening chapters of the novel, the narrator tells us that [t]he dialect was on [Tess’s] tongue to some extent, despite the village school” (Hardy 2008c, 21). Much later, Alec is surprised by Tess’s good, fluent English (331).

3 On Hofmannsthal’s becoming-rat, see Lawlor.

4 For a more detailed discussion on Deleuze and ethology, see Uhlmann.

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Electronic reference

Junjie QI, The Aesthetics, Politics and Ethics of Becoming-Animal in Thomas Hardy’s NovelsFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 23 December 2022, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Junjie QI

Independent scholar

QI Junjie received her PhD from the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle in 2021. Her thesis explores the relationship between Hardy's architectural training and his writing. She is currently working on a book project entitled The Representation of Ruins as both Materiality and Metaphor in Thomas Hardy's Works.  


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