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 status is satirized at the beginning of the narrative when Jack Durbeyfield, a ne'er-do-well beekeeper with a predilection for drink, learns from a meddling parson that his family is descended from the noble D'Urberville clan of the era when knights were economic, political, and social, forces. "Sir John" Derbyfield and his malapropistic spouse expose the sheer ridiculousness of caste, estate, and privilege when they not only take on airs among the Marlott village, but assume that their branch of a near-extinct family is better than other branches that have died out or have survived in some diluted fashion. The drunker Sir John gets while celebrating his new-found importance, the more impressive his ancestors become. He has "finer skillentons [skeletons (in his closet)] than any man in Wessex!"
Hardy mocks the automatic association of worth and respect with wealth and fortune through Jack's transformation, but his generally amusing wife Joan reveals a more mercenary side to the system of inherited wealth. She develops a plan to send their beautiful eldest daughter to "claim kin" with a wealthy distant relative, but her backup plan, as she divulges to the younger children, is finally to marry Tess off to Mrs. D'Urberville's son. And Joan is not particularly scrupulous about whether, or by how many months, this marriage precedes motherhood. After Tess departs to work as a poultry keeper, Joan remarks to her husband, "And if he don't marry her afore, he will after." Although Tess wants no part of this claiming kin arrangement, the lure of power and wealth, and her own guilt at carelessly causing the death of the family's only horse, are enough to propel her, innocent as she is, into the intrigues and expectations of a caste society.
The efforts to seduce Tess by the D'Urberville son also operate on assumptions about the rights of the privileged class. Alec constantly refers to Tess as his "poor cousin" and uses his wealth and class as bases for pressing his affections on her. He drives his carriage recklessly to force her into favors which we would today call sexual harassment, and he takes full advantage of her status as a poor relation to impose on her sexually. Even the scene in which Alec rapes Tess—and although Hardy does not use the word "rape," the liaison involves his forcing himself on a young woman who is exhausted and nearly asleep—is preceded by a show of hierarchical deference. Tess innocently arouses the ire of one Car Dutch, a formidable young woman dubbed the Queen of Spades who works at the D'Urberville estates, after an evening of carousing at which Alec offers to escort Tess home, but she demurs, citing her obligation to the group with whom she came. When the Queen demands that Tess engage in a fistfight over an unintended insult, Alec rides into the group and insists that the fighting stop. Despite her belligerence, the Queen and all the other country folk defer to Alec's hierarchical authority, although he has nothing except his horse and his name to enforce his power. Moreover, Car's mother jokingly predicts that Tess is headed "[o]ut of the frying-pan into the fire"; although they are drunk and Car has designated Tess "the other" by singling her out as an enemy, still the members of the working-class do not question her potential danger as a young woman riding on the heath with a known philanderer, nor do they think it is their obligation to protect, or even concern themselves with her probable fate. Additionally, it never occurs to Tess that she is in fact a victim of class inequity. She takes the whole encounter with Alec as her own responsibility, even though what happens in the Chase is really rape—but an assault whose foundation is at least as much a perception of the rights of the ruling class over the poor as the superior force of a cad like D'Urberville.
To underscore his criticism of the social system based on wealth and privilege, Hardy introduces two related ironies. The first and more obvious is that the D'Urberville family by whom Tess is mistreated are mercenary imposters. The omniscient narrator informs the reader that Alec's father was a successful merchant who literally "annexed" the tide to me family name Stoke in order to give his wealth a patina of respectability (when Tess introduces herself to Alec as a relative, he asks whether her name is "Stoke"). Thus the very social prestige Joan seeks through her daughter is an illusion. At a slightly more subtle level, Hardy has Angel Clare, a progressive thinker in many superficial ways, profess to despise all the decadent aristocratic families that still exist in Wessex, and by extension England. One of Hardy's little jokes is that the Hardy name is among those Angel despises as representative of a system of cultural parasitism. When before the wedding, Tess struggles to confess her past to Angel, she half-hopes that revealing that she is of aristocratic origins will render confession of her past with Alec unnecessary. Like most of his progressive ideas, however, Angel's contempt for systems of privilege is barely skin-deep. He not only "forgives" Tess her aristocratic ancestors, but plans to play this as a trump ace in addressing his parents' objections that he plans to marry a milkmaid rather than a respectable woman. If, after all, she's of the petit nobility, how can they possibly object to his marrying her?
In addition to his critique of Victorian sentiments about caste and privilege, Hardy addresses, perhaps less intentionally, the relation between gender and privilege. Tess's obvious means of rising in the caste system is through marriage, or through its antithesis whoredom. Although she is generous, hardworking, and by far the most moral character in the novel, her merits count for nothing in leading her out of the cycle of poverty and brutal, mind-dulling labor. Hardy is at his very best in describing the grind of tedious labor Tess must endure in order to survive, whether in harvest fields before her infant son dies, at the dairy farm at which she meets her husband Angel Clare, or especially at Farmer Groby's barren farm at Flintcomb-Ash. Although several critics associate the descriptions of the dairy with Edenic image clusters (and these certainly exist in the novel, as does a variation on the pastoral tradition of the aubade, or morning song of love), there...
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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...
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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...
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