Like most of Hardy's novels, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is conservative and unspectacular in its literary techniques. It uses the convention of the omniscient narrator with dexterity, providing, as do many Victorian novels, a cordial companion to help the reader interpret the action. As Hardy laments the folly of Joan and John Durbeyfield in mapping out an unfortunate future for Tess and her siblings, we as readers come to rely on Hardy's "voice" for guidance in interpreting the data. He is at his very best in panoramic scenes of social realism, such as the harvest scenes at Marlott and later at Flintcomb-Ash, or the "lady-day" removals that force the widow Durbeyfield and her family out of their cottage.
Like The Mayor of Casterbridge, this novel, although extensively revised from serial to book publication, still bears the impress of the serialized novel, the occasionally anticlimactic moment. Hardy emphasizes the smaller units of meaning by titling sections of the novel as "Phases," often with double or ambiguous meaning, such as "The Rally" for the section describing Tess's journey to Talbothay's to get away from the shame and sorrow at Marlott, in which she falls in love with Angel (thus a positive "rally") but is consumed by her unworthiness to be his life's partner (thus a reminder that her fate denies any rally). Similarly Hardy labels the final phase of the novel, chapters 53 through 59, "Fulfillment." In it he describes the idyllic...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Most group discussions will undoubtedly and productively focus on questions of guilt and responsibility. Other areas that can be productively explored are the issues of gender roles. How much of Hardy's representation to Tess as a victim of stratified gender roles is intentional? Several omniscient passages in the novel isolate certain behaviors as "feminine," and these are not usually complimentary. Do these passages undermine the sense of Tess as the victim of repressive attitudes toward gender roles? Here are some other questions.
1. At the end of Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, two figures, Angel and Liza-Lu, Tess's sister, pause and kneel to pray when the signal is given that Tess has been executed. Tess suggested to Angel that he marry her sister after she is dead. Does Hardy intend this as a fulfillment of Tess's hopes, an act of loyalty to her memory by both the people she most loved? Or is there a hint of irony here, that Angel and Liza-Lu will go on to the future Tess was denied? Does their implied future together honor or diminish Tess's memory?
2. One of the most impressive scenes in the novel takes place on the way to Flintcomb-Ash, when Tess sleeps in a grove and hears what she in the morning discovers to be pheasants wounded by hunters and left to die. To what degree are the pheasants representative of larger concerns in the novel? How do we account for Tess's systematically strangling all the pheasants she can catch?...
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In Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, his most influential novel and one that most emphatically offended the more pious Victorian sensibilities, Thomas Hardy directly challenged many of the most deeply seeded social beliefs of the late nineteenth century. Small wonder that many critics in the contemporary press attacked the novel as immoral, for it was little less than a calculated frontal attack on prevailing attitudes toward the social caste system, women's places in contemporary society, and the role of organized religion in maintaining empty social mores rather than addressing the real needs of human beings. The power of Hardy's attack can be appreciated if we consider for a moment that this indictment of those attitudes is simultaneously one of our culture's most forceful introductions to them.
By the late nineteenth century, England was in a turbulent transition between two competing orders of economy and governance. The long-enduring, essentially feudal aristocracy, in which ancient, landed gentry dominated the culture and economy of many communities, was challenged by those who believed that acquired wealth and civil accomplishment should be the basis for political authority. Although associations among wealth, power, and privilege continued to dominate, the concept of heredity as a source of cultural authority was in Hardy's time in the process of a well-deserved and long-overdue dismantling.
In Tess, the idea of inherited...
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The somewhat lengthy list of coincidences in the novel, which individual readers can extend to triple or quadruple its length, would indeed seem to support the assertion that Tess's life is fated, that she, like Frank Norris's McTeague (of the novel of the same name, 1899; see separate entry) is a plaything of fate and that her story is essentially a de casibus tragedy, or a tragedy of fate. Her confrontation with destiny would then be what an important character in King Lear (1605), the great tragedy often associated by critics with Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge describes in this stark simile: "As flies to wanton [naughty] boys are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport."
Of course this great description tells only a part of the theme of King Lear. While the Earl of Gloucester reads the text of his own error-filled life as a confirmation of his own hypothesis that we are all the playthings of fate, the true tragic figure, Lear himself, has to come to an even more painful self-knowledge that by the decisions we often make we set into motion sequences of events that can ultimately overwhelm us. An indication of the true tragic stature of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is that something quite like, but not identical, to this meditation on fate and character occurs in this, Hardy's greatest novel. Tess is indeed the victim of fate. But she is also the victim of foolish parents, perverse gender roles in Victorian...
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One of the most impressive adaptations of the Tess story occurred during Hardy's lifetime. Seymour-Smith and other biographers report that a prominent British banker, Baron D'Erlanger, collaborated with noted Italian librettist Luigi Illica for an operatic treatment. It was first staged in Naples in 1906, then in London four years later. The Queen attended the premiere, as did Hardy, his wife Emma, and Florence Dugdale, Mrs. Hardy's companion and Hardy's mistress!
There have been a few cinematic treatments of Hardy's novel, the most recent being Roman Polanski's Tess, released by Columbia studios in 1980. Nastassia Kinski portrays Tess. It is a solid adaptation of first half of the novel, but one that accentuates Tess's complicity in the affair with Alec much more than Hardy does and omits important details in Alec's return into Tess's life, particularly his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Although the film represents an inevitable simplification of Hardy's theme, this dramatization captures the rural countryside well, brings out Hardy's concern with the evolution of rural England from a peasant to a bourgeois culture visually, and lingers effectively over the hardships Tess undergoes as a rural peasant woman in the late nineteenth century—its most compelling visual images are the stark, cold, wretched harvest of the turnip field in Flintcomb-Ash, and the subservience to the new threshing-machine, what Hardy calls "the red tyrant whom they had...
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