Any interest in writing about how Angel Clare is the worst? And other literary terrible men? (I read this reflection on teaching The House of Mirth and students reactions to Lawrence Selden and realized that he’s more or less the same kind of terrible as Angel.)
Round these parts, I usually refer to him as Angel FUCKING Clare, but I will waive that for this post, as it would take far too long to type.
Now The House of Mirth has been my break-up book for years, because if ever there was a novel that gives a stern reminder that, while love is very nice, it definitely shouldn’t be the be all and end all of life.
But, while it pains me to say it, while Lawrence Selden is insufferable, he doesn’t offend me on anything like as profound a level as Angel FUCKING Clare. They have a similar personality type though, and serve as excellent warnings for why no one should ever outsource their self-respect – no one will ever be good enough to climb over the mountain of their moral judgement.
The most irritating thing about the House of Mirth is that Lily calls Selden on his egregious bullshit early on in the story, when she points out that, for all his posturing about “the republic of spirit” and how the wealthy are excluded from it, he spends “a good deal of.. time in the element you disapprove of.“ She has him bang to rights, and for all his claims to be in society but not of it, it’s clear throughout the story that Selden has internalised all the societal bullshit he claims to be above.
I can’t loathe him to anything like the extent I do Angel though, because on some level he is a trap that Lily knowingly walks back into. Admittedly, his tendency to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, despise Lily for following them, and then refuse to support her when she crosses them, is infuriating… but at least Lily always has the choice, limited consolation though that may be. (I must admit, I also understand Lily’s attraction to him more – Selden reminds me of one or two self-obsessed young men for whom I pretended to like Philip Roth or Leonard Cohen, back in the day. The way they set themselves up as guardians of artistic ‘standards’ in an aggressive form of narcissism wasn’t always obvious to me at the time. I think this is a fairly common reaction – and quite possibly one Wharton had herself, as she’s generally pretty pessimistic about men).
But Angel FUCKING Clare.
Remember how I joked about Dan being a strong contender in the competition for worst human to ever live? I take it back, because Angel FUCKING Clare could beat Dan in that competition handily with a ball gag and both hands tied behind his back.
Part of this is social progression, of course. Because, should Amy ever be sexually assaulted, I don’t think there’s it would be possible to write a credible reaction for Dan that wasn’t sheer rage at the attacker. As toxic as he is, it’s utterly implausible that his… let’s call it affection for Amy, would be in any way altered by such an event. (In other words, as always when I read period fiction, I am intensely grateful to live in the 21st century, with access to contraception, and without religiously driven obsessions with so-called sexual purity).
Tess of the D’urbervilles is one of the only books I’ve ever thrown against a wall out of anger, and in all honesty, if I hadn’t had to finish it for college, I’m not sure I would have. I think there’s some argument that this effect is purposeful, that Hardy wanted to make Tess’ doom inescapable in order to really demonstrate how hateful society was to rape victims, but I disliked the book so much I refused to study it in more detail, so I may be wrong.
Angel Clare is the most perfect example I can think of in fiction of how utterly lacking in compassion people can be when they think they are right.
I am not sure which enrages me more – the way he abandons all his responsibilities to Tess because his feelings are hurt, or his torment of her for never being ‘good’ enough for him, or his mincing, sanctimonious, unending hypocrisy.
It’s the relentlessness of it that really bothers me. Alec’s treatment of Tess is unconscionable – he is her actual rapist – and yet he shows at least flashes of humanity towards her. He knows that he’s materially harmed her, he feels at least some measure of guilt (though I tend to think that, much like all his emotions, it’s pretty shallow), and he has at least the common decency to acknowledge that Tess is a human being with basic physical needs.
And the hypocrisy of it… Angel has an affair with a woman, lasting weeks, and yet he dares to judge Tess as eternally stained because she was raped, the implacable prick. And of course he considers running off with another woman – also outside the bonds of marriage – as soon as he finds out that Tess is ‘stained.’ Not to mention that at the end of the novel, he can’t even muster the basic empathy to tell the woman he loves (supposedly), who he abandoned when she needed him most, that they will see each other again in the afterlife, because even a kind lie is too much of a strain on his morality, apparently.
Angel is far more responsible for Tess’ downfall than Alec is. I may think the ‘breadwinner and provider’ role for men is bullshit (because it limits women’s opportunities unfairly and because it puts far too much pressure on men), but that is the role he accepted in her life when he married her. And if he had the decency to act as a husband should – in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad – Tess would never have gone back to Alec, because she would never have needed to.
Hardy implies that Angel is ‘too’ moral, but in my reading he’s not moral at all. Compassion surely lies at the heart of all morality, and he has none of it. (Note, Angel’s parents, devout Christians, are far more compassionate to Tess than he is, for all they insist on considering her rape as a sin she committed…). If your morality is so rigid it cannot bend just because a person you claim to love is in agony…
And unlike Lily, Tess accepts his judgement at every point, believes that his treatment of her is deserved, that she has earned his contempt, and continues loving him anyway. She internalises his judgement to the point where she suggests that Angel should marry her sister, who is has none of her ‘badness’ (and if you’re wondering, this is the point when I nearly had a rage stroke).
The narrative voice never really questions Angel’s essential rightness, even while his actions amply demonstrate that he is a smug, heartless, spiteful piece of misery, incapable of extending empathy to anyone beyond himself if his life depended on it.
He marries Tess, abandons her so she has no financial or emotional support, barely communicates with her during that time, convinces her that he has nothing but hatred and contempt for her, and when she finally snaps and murders Alec so they can be together… he spends the entire time judging her for lack of moral sense, never once considering how he may have contributed to the situation.
Dan shows more compassion to Amy in Storms and Pancakes alone than Angel does in the whole damn book, and yet Angel’s the one we’re supposed to believe is a good person.
If I could climb into the book and slap the sanctimony out of him, I would, but it would about a hundred years.