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Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy



In the Vale of Blackmoor in rural Wessex lives a teenage girl, Tess Durbeyfield, her six younger sisters and brothers, and her parents, John and Joan. One day John, coming home from work in his typical drunken manner, meets the local parson who tells him an amazing secret. It turns out that Mr. Durbeyfield is really the last descendant of one of the most ancient and powerful families of England, known as the d'Urbervilles. John, unlike his illustrious ancestors, is poor and powerless. Naturally he's determined to make this d'Urberville legacy pay off for him and his family. Triumphant, he swaggers home to the village of Marlott where he sees his sparkling daughter Tess dancing in the local club- walking festivities. There's another important male observer at this all-women dance- Angel Clare, a young man on a sightseeing tour with his brothers. He notices Tess but doesn't dance with her, which hurts her feelings.

Mr. Durbeyfield is so carried away at the thought of being "Sir John" that he drinks all night, concocting grand plans to send young Tess to claim kin with an inferior, but still wealthy branch of the d'Urbervilles. He spends most of the night drinking, and the next morning is too hung over to take his produce to market. Tess, a very responsible young girl who knows her family's economic welfare is at stake, drives the goods to market herself. Unfortunately she's not used to controlling the horse, Prince, and she's also very sleepy, having had to drag her parents home from the local pub the night before. When she falls asleep, Prince runs into a passing mail wagon and dies. Prince's death makes Tess feel guilty, as if she were a murderess. She doesn't want to go begging to the d'Urbervilles, but her guilt over Prince's death and her family's dire economic need push her on. She comes to the d'Urberville estate at Trantridge and is taken in by Mrs. d'Urberville's sensual, manipulative son, Alec. It turns out that these d'Urbervilles are fakes- wealthy people named Stoke who simply took an unused title as their own. Innocent Tess has no idea that Alec isn't her cousin, which makes it easy for him to take advantage of her. He gives her a job tending his mother's chickens. Tess' folks mistakenly think this is a subtle way of bringing her into this well-to-do family. Actually it's a way for Alec to keep Tess under his wing. Finally one night in the old wood known as The Chase, he rapes her.

For reasons that are unclear, Tess remains with Alec for a few weeks after the rape. She hates herself for staying with a man she can't love, though his attentions did dazzle her for a short time. Tess leaves without giving him a chance "to do the right thing" and marry her. Tess learns she's pregnant. She has the child, but it dies soon after birth. She never tells Alec about their baby until they meet again at Flintcomb-Ash.

In mourning and disgrace at having a child out of wedlock (a heinous crime in Victorian England), Tess hires herself out as a dairymaid in the distant Var of Froom. Here she hopes to forget the past. And indeed, at Talbothays Dairy, amidst the green tracts of fertile, expansive farmland, Tess begins to recover from her trauma. When she meets Angel Clare, now a dairyman-in-training at Talbothays, she fears he'll recognize her and somehow cause the horrors of her past to surface. Angel, however, doesn't remember seeing her at Marlott on that club-walking day so long ago. He's a gentleman apprentice, and his eyes are on the future and the farm he hopes to start someday. The youngest son of a fanatical Evangelist preacher, Angel refused to become a clergyman because he believes in following the spirit of the Bible rather than the letter. Angel is a heretic and near-atheist who lives in dreams of a pagan, earthly paradise where humankind and nature form their own harmonious religion.

Tess and Angel fall in love, but Tess refuses to marry Angel. She believes that because she isn't a virgin she'd be an unfit wife for such a wonderful man. Her romantic feelings are mirrored, often comically, by the three other dairymaids who share her bedroom, Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, and Marian. Tess keeps trying to interest Angel in the other girls whom she's sure are more worthy than herself. Finally Tess gives in and agrees to marry Angel. Several times before their wedding she tries to tell him about Alec and her dead baby, but either Angel won't listen or something happens to interrupt her confession. On their honeymoon night, the two lovers trade confessions. When Angel tells Tess of a brief affair he had, she forgives him. But when Tess tells of her affair with Alec, Angel refuses to forgive her, even though Tess' affair was far less deliberate than Angel's. Angel is a romantic idealist and is afraid that the innocent woman he married isn't the real Tess at all.

Although Angel loves her, as evidenced in a sleepwalking scene in which he kisses her passionately and carries her in his arms, he's convinced that they must separate. Tess is heartbroken but bows to her husband's will. She returns to her parents. Angel goes off to Brazil, hoping that a foreign culture with different social mores will change his rigid attitudes. He hopes that someday he and Tess can live there together.

Tess can't stand living with her family- she feels like a failure and a nuisance. Leaving them half the money Angel gave her, she sets off to work on a miserable farm called Flintcomb-Ash, which is as desolate and infertile as Talbothays was convivial and lush. Marian works there and Izz joins them. Tess finds out that her beloved Angel had propositioned Izz and nearly taken her to Brazil as his mistress. Izz, though willing to go, reminded him that no one could love him like Tess, and he retracted his offer. This knowledge convinces Tess that she must approach Angel's parents to try to win their moral support. She goes to visit them in Emminster but turns back after overhearing Angel's brothers and Mercy Chant, with whom Angel had his affair, gossiping about his unfortunate marriage to Tess. The narrator tells us it's a shame that Tess didn't see Angel's parents because they are good, compassionate people who would have sympathized with her and taken her in. Tearfully, she makes her way back to Flintcomb-Ash and meets Alec d'Urberville, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher. (Angel's father has converted that swaggering philanderer into a righteous man.) As soon as Alec sees Tess he forgets his high ideals and wants her back. This time he tries to combine duty and desire by asking her to marry him. Of course Tess refuses- she's already married to Angel. In addition she'd never consider marrying anyone she didn't love.

Alec becomes obsessed with mastering Tess. He loves her in a very driven, sensual way that is very different from Angel's spiritual, unphysical devotion. However, Alec is willing to help Tess and her family, while Angel can't deal with such practical concerns.

When Tess' parents become ill and her father dies, the Durbeyfields lose their lease and are out on the streets. Alec again tries to convince Tess to live with him. He promises to educate her beloved brothers and sisters and to protect her dear mother. Still Tess has the strength to refuse his proposition, thinking she'll find a way to support her family herself. The Durbeyfields set up camp at the ancient d'Urberville burial vaults at Kingsbere. Alec follows Tess here, and we feel that she's far too exhausted to resist much longer. She's written Angel a few pleading letters but has received no response.

Meanwhile, Angel, who has been seriously ill in Brazil, realizes that people should be judged by their intent as well as by their deeds. He believes that Tess has always tried to do the right thing but that circumstances have conspired against her. Angel, having matured considerably in South America, returns home to forgive his deserted wife. He learns from Mrs. Durbeyfield that Tess is at Sandbourne, a luxurious sea resort. When he arrives he begs her forgiveness and asks her to come home with him. Tess is shocked to see Angel, for she had given up all hope of ever seeing him again and had accepted Alec's offer of protection. Tess tells Angel the truth and demands that he leave. He refuses. Driven by frustration and remorse, she murders Alec, whom she considers the source of all her unhappiness.

Tess then runs after Angel, sure in her derangement that he'll forgive her now that she has eliminated the root of all their problems. Angel doesn't quite believe that sweet Tess could kill anyone, but he takes precautions and they flee. Angel and Tess celebrate their wedding and honeymoon in a deserted mansion. Within a few days they sense that their hiding place has been discovered and once again move on. Tess is fearless now. Though Angel is tender with her, she feels that their relationship could never withstand all that passed between them. She would be happy to die.

Angel and Tess find themselves at Stonehenge, where pagan gods were worshipped, and Tess falls asleep on the sacrificial altar. The police find her sleeping there. When she awakes, they arrest her. Tess is tried for Alec's murder. Before she is hanged, she requests that Angel care for and marry her innocent younger sister 'Liza-Lu. Angel and 'Liza-Lu watch the hanging and then trudge off together, hand in hand.

[Tess of the D'Urbervilles Contents]



    Few novels concentrate as completely on one character as does Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Hardy traces Tess' life from the age of sixteen until she dies in her early twenties.

    Tess is an unusual girl, full of contradictory emotions and actions. On the one hand she's feisty and independent; on the other she's shy and easily victimized. It's helpful to see her as a character caught between the old and new social orders, independence and dependence, spirituality and passion.

    Most readers are divided into two camps on Tess- they see her either as a victim (of fate, society, or her own sexuality) or as a heroic martyr, responsible for her own tragic fate. The best way to deal with such a complicated character is to try to see her in various lights.

    In his portrayal of Tess, Hardy begins with the melodramatic Victorian stereotype of the "innocent seduced"- a girl whose life is ruined by those less sensitive than herself. But Hardy takes his heroine beyond this popular Victorian type, by beginning rather than ending the book with her "fall" and dealing with her will to survive. Instead of committing suicide, Tess tries to go on living and loving, staying true to her intentions and feelings.

    Tess is overburdened with responsibilities for her family and her loved ones. Though very resilient, she blames herself harshly for innocent mistakes.

    She's affectionate, sensual, and bright, though poorly educated. Tess wants to better herself, not socially but as an individual. This is what attracts her to Angel Clare. She has many fears, probably because of her superstitious background. Although she tries to live an orderly, modern, life, she finds herself reverting to beliefs in fate and omens. When we compare her to Angel and Alec, she seems fresher, less inhibited, and even wiser. Unlike these men, she tries to combine thought and feeling. She is a daughter of the earth rather than of the intellect.

    Tess' character is a combination of her mother's fatalistic peasant beliefs and her father's ancient aristocratic heritage. From the d'Urbervilles she gets her socially rebellious, proud, and temperamental nature. Hardy credits Tess' peasant side for her ability to survive. Her worn-out aristocratic side seems to encourage lethargy and passivity. Sometimes Tess lets people victimize her; as her mother says, she's easy to manipulate.

    Tess is often described as a hunted animal. She's very beautiful and men are always pursuing her, either for purely sexual reasons or because she represents an excitingly unformed life waiting to be molded. People are always judging, pursuing, or rejecting her. Tess doesn't try to change people; she respects their dignity and lets them make their own choices, though she's there to help them in times of need.

    Tess' relationships with Angel and Alec are major focal points in the novel. Alec reflects her sensuality but she rejects his love because he has few aspirations and doesn't seem to care sincerely for people. Angel, her true love, is forever striving after the highest and best in life. However, he's too steeped in traditional values and philosophical abstractions to translate his dreams into reality.

    Angel calls Tess a heathen, and Alec treats her like one. Tess is religious, though not in a conventional way. She believes in being good and charitable but refuses to believe that God- if there is one- would care more about the letter than the spirit of the Bible. She takes tender care of the wounded animals left in her charge.

    Many readers ask whether Tess is the pure woman that Hardy insists she is. Although you'll have to decide that for yourself, you are given one unwavering picture of her- that of a lone woman trying, or at least willing, to do good regardless of the horrors and temptations thrust in her way.

    Tess also has an irrational, violent side that Hardy attributes to her ancient d'Urberville warrior heritage. It's this part of Tess that lashes out against Alec and eventually drives her to murder him. While Hardy blames her noble blood, we can see her fiery temper also as a primitive survival tool.

    Her subservient attitude with Angel is the complete opposite of her fury with Alec. Angel brings out not only her giving, sweet nature but also her lethargic, self-denigrating tendencies. Perhaps one of Tess' big mistakes is to let Angel's disappointment in her affect her so deeply; it nearly drives her insane. Why do you think she puts so much faith in a man who could turn on her so quickly? Tess is a tragic heroine; she's a lofty soul who is destined to suffer and die. From the start of the novel we sense that she's playing a losing game, though we can't help but hope for her each time she picks herself up from despair and moves bravely on.

    Most important, Tess is herself. She never tries to be more than she is. Tess always reminds Angel and Alec that she is a poor, simple dairymaid. She's not trying to become a grand lady. Tess' goals are to be happy and to make those she loves happy, to try to live a good and giving life in a difficult world. Do you think she succeeds?


    You can see Angel Clare as a hypocrite or as a man torn between moral conventions and his sensual attraction to the land and to a woman. In either case he tries to make everything, from Talbothays to Tess, a storybook dream so that he can avoid dealing with reality.

    Some readers find Angel an unconvincing character. After all, how could such a sensitive, reflective man turn brutally against his love because she fails to fit into a moral code he says he rejects? Other readers find nothing unusual about this contradiction in his nature. Don't many of us pay lip service to ideals that we just can't live up to? Throughout the novel Angel matures from a dreamy idealist to a realist with ideals. Yet even toward the end of the book, when Tess suggests he marry 'Liza-Lu after her own death, he balks at the idea, finding it socially unacceptable. However, he and 'Liza watch Tess' hanging and go off together hand in hand.

    Angel is a clergyman's son who has disappointed his family by failing to enter the ministry. Like Hardy he seems to have experienced a religious crisis that prevents him from believing in all the articles of the New Testament. Although it's not stated specifically, Angel seems to be an atheist. He doesn't believe in the supernatural, and so he follows human moral codes rather than those said to be "divine." Unlike Alec he doesn't take advantage of women, even though he has opportunities with the dairymaids at Talbothays.

    Our first impressions of Angel are very positive- he seems kind, honorable, bright, and open to new ideas. Later, after he rejects Tess and tries to proposition Izz Huett, we see him in a much less favorable light. We see that he shares some traits with- of all characters- Alec d'Urberville. Both men are self- centered and unstable. Think of how swiftly they change from one position to another. Angel goes from a loving husband to a man who criticizes and rejects his wife. Alec goes from philanderer to fanatical preacher and back to woman chaser.

    Many readers see Angel as Tess' means of escaping her rural background and encountering exciting new ideas and possibilities. Other readers believe that it is Angel rather than Alec who destroys her because he sets her up to love him and then suddenly rejects her.

    As you follow Angel's character throughout Tess, try to see how his various sides play against each other. His unswerving, logical mentality collides with his impassioned feelings toward Tess. His pagan idealism dashes with his conventional moral upbringing. He doesn't fit in with his fanatically religious family nor with the lower class farm folk at Talbothays. He says he hates old aristocratic families because they're decadent and worn out and yet he's overjoyed to learn that Tess is a d'Urberville.

    Angel isn't an unbelievable character but a highly complex one who learns to match his ideals with his practices.


    Alec Stoke-d'Urberville, counterfeit cousin and real seducer of Tess, is probably the simplest of the novel's three major characters. He's straightforward with regard to what he wants and how he attains it. Even in his kindest moments it's clear that he's concerned only with himself. Alec is narcissistic (self- loving) and takes advantage of other people's weaknesses. Near the end of the novel he convinces Tess to be his mistress by promising to care for her destitute family. He is also capricious; look, for instance, at his sudden conversion to Evangelism and how quickly he abandons it once he's in love again with Tess.

    Many readers feel that though they can't forgive Alec for raping Tess, he's not a complete villain. They see him as a man driven by his senses, obsessively drawn to Tess, but not without sincere feelings for her. Even before he rapes her, he cannot win her attention, gratitude, or respect. He's used to dominating people because of his money and strong personality, but Tess seems impossible to share- like a pigeon in the park!

    Like Angel, Alec is at odds with nature. His modern home, The Slopes, is more like a plaything than a working farm, and he doesn't seem very comfortable with the natural life around him. Even the strawberries at The Slopes are "forced" to grow by man-made contrivances. While Alec is driven by his sensuality, it doesn't ultimately satisfy him.

    Many readers feel that Alec is an unsuccessful characterization. He's too temperamental to take seriously. As a villain he's typically melodramatic and even sports a handlebar mustache. These readers have trouble with his suddenly becoming an Evangelical preacher. Yet haven't you met people who were converted to a cause overnight? As Hardy points out, Alec's whole personality doesn't change, he just finds a new and different forum for his vehemence. He becomes a preacher out of boredom with life as a dandy and also perhaps as a reaction to the death of his mother.

    If we can't take Alec the preacher seriously, we are forced to take Alec the lover at his word. Even though he has done much harm to Tess, he does offer to marry her. When he learns she's already wed, he still wants to help her and her family. Alec admires Tess for not kowtowing to him; at the same time he wants to dominate her again.

    It seems that Alec doesn't know how to have an equitable relationship with anyone. Unlike Angel we see him interacting with almost no one but Tess. He's a stranger to the world, and Hardy's primary interest in him is in his temptation of Tess. When we compare him to Angel, who abandons Tess, we see that at least Alec is a pragmatist and believes in helping those he wants in his life. To some extent, Alec can be admired for his open sexuality. He's not a hypocrite like Angel who believes intellectually in liberal attitudes but in practice abhors them. Alec has no shame about sex, which to Hardy was a positive trait in someone living in the repressed Victorian age.

    Alec can be seen in two ways: as an agent of the devil who has come to tempt Tess or as a man driven out of his senses by a woman he can't forget. Is Alec a victimizer or a victim? He may own Tess' body, but she possesses his soul.


    John and Joan Durbeyfield, Tess' parents, are depicted as lazy, live-for-today farm folk who bear responsibility for their daughter's problems. Mr. Durbeyfield is often drunk and disorderly. His d'Urberville pride does him no good; it makes him feel too superior to work for a living and too proud to accept help. Tess can't have her baby baptized by the local preacher because her father is too ashamed of her and of the illegitimate child to let the minister in. Like so many characters in Tess, John is more concerned with reputation than with reality.

    Like her husband Joan Durbeyfield is basically a dreamer. Unlike him she was born of peasant stock and seems tougher, more hard working. Though she raises her children cheerfully, she doesn't hesitate to leave them with her eldest while she goes drinking with John at Rolliver's Inn. She has a fatalistic peasant philosophy and believes that whatever happens was meant to happen and can't be avoided or changed. This keeps her from being ambitious, guilt-ridden, and melancholy.

    Joan and John force Tess to take on responsibilities beyond her years. Their inability to provide security drives her to work for Alec and his mother, even though she feels it's a dangerous situation. Joan nearly sets up her naive daughter to be seduced. She dresses Tess for Alec, assuring her that a pretty face and figure will do more for her than her extinct d'Urberville title. Joan doesn't become angry when Tess returns unwed and pregnant. She just can't understand why Tess didn't take advantage of her rape to force Alec to marry her. Joan, unlike John Durbeyfield, is very pragmatic about the realities of life. She isn't as concerned about reputation as John is. Tess' superstitious nature comes from Joan, who consults a fortune-telling guide to decide Tess' future.

    Tess' parents act like irresponsible children. They aren't evil, but they don't seem to think about the consequences of their actions. As Tess says they've sent her out into the world with no knowledge of man; thus she's easy prey for people like Alec. On the other hand, Tess' instinct for survival also comes from her mother's vigorous peasant background.


    Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, and Marian are Tess' friends at the dairy farm. We don't get to know them very well as individuals, but as a group they represent a chorus that reflects, comments on, and empathizes with Tess' love for Angel. They all are infatuated with Angel but know they'll never win him, as they're poor farm girls with no sophistication or education. They also believe, far more than Tess, that she is worthy of Angel.

    Izz Huett is the coolest and least talkative. Angel later asks her to go off to Brazil with him but retracts the offer when she speaks honestly and says that no one could love him more than Tess. Marian is duller but kinder; she drinks herself silly after Angel and Tess' wedding but is quick to help Tess find a job at Flintcomb-Ash after Angel abandons Tess. Retty, the youngest of the three, is hypersensitive and tries to kill herself when Angel marries Tess. After this we hear little about Retty.

    Izz and Marian want to reunite Angel with Tess. When they see her with Alec they write to Angel and warn him that he'd best return.

    Most important, these girls, who could easily be jealous and malicious, are compassionate and generous to Tess. Unlike most of the other characters they don't disparage her or use her for their own benefit. They are the finest, most charitable representations of country folk in the novel. They also bring comic relief to this very serious book particularly in their romanticizing over Angel.

[Tess of the D'Urbervilles Contents]



Tess takes place in rural southern England in an area called Wessex that roughly corresponds to present-day Dorset county. Wessex includes a variety of landscapes, from fertile valleys to arid limestone beds, bordered by heaths, sands, and the sea.

The countryside is almost a character in Tess. Much of the time the settings reflect what's happening to Tess and the characters who influence her life. Marlott, her hometown, is as secure as a mother's womb. Talbothays, where she meets Angel, is fertile and expansive- the perfect place for growth and romance. Flintcomb-Ash, where she waits hopelessly for her husband to return, is an abject wasteland. Each station or place where Tess stops is a testing place for her soul. Hardy's Wessex is so varied that it can be seen as a microcosm of the world. Notice, however, that the novel excludes large urban centers, though their influence can certainly be seen in the market towns and railroad trains buzzing through the countryside.


Here are major themes of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Some of these themes contradict one another; others are complementary. Consider each of these themes in depth, using the text to substantiate your ideas.


    The novel is about Tess- her personality, trials, growth, and development. While many novels concern the interaction of characters, Tess of the D'Urbervilles concentrates almost single-mindedly on the life of its heroine. The other characters are important only insofar as they affect Tess' fate. Some readers see Tess as a detailed story of the psychology of an unchaste woman- how she deals with her own morality.

    Tess can also be viewed as the symbol of valiant challenge against both the rigid morality and religious dogma of the old order, and the skepticism of the modern world. Tess' story is that of a woman who tries to respond to the changing world around her with honesty and integrity. She can be viewed as an independent, active heroine who chooses martyrdom. She can also be seen as a victim either of society or of her own nature, who has no choice but to let herself be destroyed.


    Tess is an exploration of love and passion. Tess' relationships with Alec and Angel are as different as night and day. Alec is a man driven by his senses, while Angel focuses on his ideals and dreams. To Alec, Tess is an erotic object existing solely for his enjoyment. To Angel, Tess is the epitome of purity (at least until she confesses her "fall"). Tess herself combines Alec's sensual nature tempered by Angel's spirituality. She prefers, however, to live in a state of unerotic betrothal, in which the fantasy of romance is often more appealing to her than the more sexual aspects of love between a man and a woman.

    Hardy was disturbed by Victorian hypocrisy toward sex. Most people hid their sexual impulses, expected good women not to have any, and applied a double standard to the sexual practices of men and women. This standard condemns Tess for having premarital sex. Hardy explores sex as both a painful and a pleasurable experience. Tess' dairymaid friends writhe and weep over their impossible love for Angel, and Tess herself finally accepts his proposal because she can no longer bear the pain of saying no.


    Many readers see Tess as a social novel in which the heroine represents the old agrarian order battling against the new industrial order. These readers focus on her relationship and irreconcilable conflict with Alec, who represents the new middle-class rulers of Britain. Men like Alec have much money and power, but unlike the old rulers (such as Tess' d'Urberville ancestors), their power comes not from the land but from industry. As a symbol of the new order Alec is depicted as estranged from nature, irresponsible, unfocused, and insensitive to those he rules. Tess, as a representative of the old agrarian order, is seen as warm, charitable, in harmony with the land, but also exhausted.

    We often see Tess at the mercy of machines, particularly the thresher at Flintcomb-Ash with its ghoulish engineer. Hardy actually traps his heroine between serving the incessantly moving thresher and falling off into Alec d'Urberville's waiting arms. When Tess and her family are driven from Marlott, they encounter hoards of other transient farm families forced to live a nomadic life under the new factory-like agricultural system. Uprooted from their stable lives they lose their sense of individuality and community tradition; they are treated worse than machines. As you read Tess try to decide if Hardy thinks that the new system is completely bad, or that the old one is completely good. You'll probably find that he's trying to honestly examine both systems to discover the best in both, in order to develop, as Angel Clare desires, a more ideal new system.


    Tess abounds in natural imagery. Few books are as lush with descriptions of natural life. To Hardy nature, like sexuality and society, has its good and bad points. Nature can be wonderful, as it is at Talbothays Dairy, where the land is fertile and life-renewing. It can also be harsh and grueling, as it is at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, where the soil is thoroughly inhospitable to growth.

    Notice how nature also reflects the characters' emotions and fortunes. For example, when Tess is happy, the sky is blue and birds sing. When events turn out badly the earth appears harsh and coldly indifferent to her agony. Nature is also depicted in the many journeys that take place in Tess. Both traveling and the rhythms of nature are seen as causing fatigue. You'll notice that as Tess nears the end of her life she doesn't want to move at all. At the same time the natural rhythms of growth and seasonal change are vital to earthly continuity.

    Hardy's belief in the constant movement of human feeling between pain and pleasure is also reflected in the seasonal nature of life. As you read Tess be aware that Tess' life begins and ends in the spring, that she falls in love during the fecund summer months, and that she marries, ominously, in the dead of winter. Even her story is divided into seven phases. Rather than calling these sections of the novel parts, Hardy uses the word phases to emphasize that Tess' life is part of a cycle that includes all of nature.

    Hardy's primary stance on nature is that it is the core of our existence; regardless of individual fates it can and must strive forward.


    Many readers think that Tess describes a world in which people are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. They point to the fact that, regardless of what Tess does, everything and everyone turns against her. These readers feel that Hardy is a pessimist- why else would he stand back from his story and comment on human and cosmic injustices toward the exceptional or innocent individual? Other readers say that Hardy is neither a pessimist nor a fatalist; he's simply angry at life's injustices and wants to make his readers look at them. They believe that Hardy champions the individual, who, like Tess, fights against convention and fate in order to follow her own path in life. Tess does seem to grow in spite of everything, thereby affirming human potential in an often inhospitable universe. Hardy doesn't give us nearly as positive a view of Tess' parents, who are typical rural fatalists, accepting everything that happens as "it was meant to be." It's Tess who, because she takes action and fights, saves her family from destruction.


Although Tess is a novel, a piece of fiction written in prose, we can also look at it as a poem. As a poem, it is built on images, in a series of intricately related sensual visions. These rhythmic, sense- oriented impressions affect us on a deep, almost subconscious level, thus determining much of how we feel about the characters and the story.

Many readers see the influence of age-old ballads in Tess and point to the novel's musicality and coincidental and irrational occurrences. In ballads fate often is a very strong determinant of what happens to people, and doom is their almost certain end. Like Tess, the characters of ballads are heroic because they fight against evil and injustice to the bitter end. This emphasizes the belief that although life may not be fair or totally comprehensible, human attempts to battle for what is right are important and noble.

Tess is also one of the few tragic novels in the Victorian fictional tradition. A tragic novel is one in which a noble character is pitted against unfavorable fates and fights for her ideals against a world that is primarily beyond her control.

The most unusual thing about the structure of Tess is the way in which Hardy uses many narrative techniques. He uses balladry and folk tales one moment, and realism the next, sprinkling in weepy melodrama, poetry, dogmatic philosophizing, and classical Greek tragedy. As you read Tess, notice how sharply these different approaches collide. One moment Hardy brings us a close-up shot of insects and plants to teach us a parallel lesson on humankind and nature; the next moment he gives us a panoramic view of how a dairy farm operates. Yet we never feel that Tess is a hodgepodge of styles and sensations; it is a richly interwoven story of all humanity and the miraculous enormity of life.

Hardy divided Tess into seven large sections called phases. He then subdivided these phases into 59 chapters. It's interesting that Hardy chose the word phase to describe each of these sections. It seems to symbolize that Tess, like a plant, an animal, or the moon, goes through natural cycles of growth. The phases mark the major points of her emotional and spiritual growth, starting with "The Maiden" and ending with "Fulfilment." The titles of these phases will probably remind you of soap opera-type notions of sin and virtue. Hardy uses melodrama as a jumping-off point for a much deeper and less conventional analysis of true morality.


Tess is written from an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator's point of view. Sometimes the narrator reflects what the characters- particularly Angel and Tess- are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. Other times the narrator shows us aspects of their personalities or situations of which they aren't yet fully aware.

Many times Hardy takes us away from the immediate story of the novel in order to make philosophical comments on how his characters' situations illustrate far-reaching problems affecting society, religion, nature, or the universe. The tone of these philosophical sections is very different from that of the rest of the book, where poetry and storytelling share a visual beauty. Many readers have found Hardy's asides interruptive and distracting from the meat of the novel- as if he were afraid that the story couldn't be trusted to make his moral points for him. Other readers find these philosophical tracts necessary to take the novel beyond the confines of melodrama or balladry in which a pure woman falls from virtue and is condemned. They feel that Hardy's asides force the reader to deal with far-reaching social and cosmological considerations.

Hardy's poetic voice is his most enchanting and hypnotic. He describes landscapes as if they were metaphors for human experience. This poetic voice pulls us away from the story just as Hardy's philosophizing does, but it also makes us feel rather than think about all the pleasure and pain of life.



ECC [Tess of the D'Urbervilles Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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