Best remembered as the chronicler of the fictional Wessex, England, Thomas Hardy is considered one of the greatest novelists of the late nineteenth century. Born and raised in a small hamlet in Dorset, Hardy moved to London as a young man and spent most of the rest of his life as an urban professional. He remained part enthralled and part troubled about his native Wessex, however, and wrote with passion about industrialization, the movement of labor to the cities (or the exile of rural people in search of a living), the destruction of agricultural economies (and the ways of life dependent on them), and social dislocation. Almost all of Hardy’s best-known novels contrast the social conditions of urban and rural people. While his novels are complex and often deeply tragic, his poems often are eulogies to the rural landscapes he loved.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles was inspired by Hardy’s concerns over the fragility of the English rural worker’s livelihood. The novel was also shockingly honest for its day in its presentation of women’s sexuality and power. Tess’s unrelenting victimization, often considered the novel’s most serious flaw, is, in part, Hardy’s indictment of Victorian values, which put the blame of economic deprivation on the poor, and the blame for sexual exploitation on the exploited (women). The theme of sexual exploitation is closely interwoven with the story of Wessex’s decline.
Tess’s troubles begin with her parents’ economic condition; they are representatives of the disaffected and drunken villagers whose houses will soon fall to larger farms mass-producing crops for mass consumption. The novel is strewn with images of the Wessex countryside being gobbled up by machinery (the harvesting machine, for example, that is symbolically referred to as the “grim reaper”), rail tracks, and new farm enclosures. The uncertainty of Tess’s parents’ fate contributes to their irresponsibility. Since they are drunk at Rolliver’s Inn, Tess embarks on a journey with the beehives to the market; this is the journey on which she falls asleep and accidentally kills the family’s horse in a...
(The entire section is 877 words.)