Study Guide

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Themes

Themes

Fate and Chance
The characters in Hardy's novel of seduction, abandonment, and murder appear to be under the control of a force greater than they. Marlott is Tess's home and, as the name of the town implies, her lot in life appears be marred or damaged. As the novel opens, Tess's father, John Durbeyfield, learns that he is the last remaining member of the once illustrious d'Urberville family. The parson who tells him admits he had previously "resolved not to disturb [Durbeyfield] with such a useless piece of information," but he is unable to control his "impulses." This event, which starts Tess's tragedy, seems unavoidable, as do many others in the novel. In scene after scene something goes wrong. The most obvious scene in which fate intervenes occurs when Tess writes Angel a letter telling him of her past, but upon pushing it under his door, she unwittingly pushes it under the rug on the floor in the room. If only he could have found it and read it before they were married. If only Angel could have danced with Tess that spring day when they first met But for Hardy, like Tess, the Earth is a "blighted star" without hope. At the end of the novel, after Tess dies, Hardy writes, " 'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." Tess was powerless to change her fate, because she had been the plaything of a malevolent universe.

Culture Clash
During Tess's time, the industrialization of the cities was diminishing the quality of life of the inhabitants of rural areas. Hardy explores this theme in many ways. The contrast between what is rural (and therefore good) and what is urban (and therefore bad) is apparent in Tess's last names. When Tess is unquestioningly innocent she is "of the field," as the name Durbeyfield implies. D'Urberville invokes both "urban" and "village," and because it belongs to a diminished ancient family, the name is further associated with decrepitude and decay. It is significant that Angel's "fall" happens when he was "nearly entrapped" by a woman much older than himself in London. When Angel and Tess leave Talbothays to take the milk to the train, Hardy writes, "Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial." He uses the word "feeler" as if the train were a type of insect, indicating his disgust with the intrusion. Later, he calls the thresher at Flintcomb Ash "the red tyrant" and says "that the women had come to serve" it. As the old ways fade away, people serve machines and not each other.

Knowledge and Ignorance
Knowledge—whether from formal education or innate sensibility—causes conflict between those who see the truth of a situation, and those who are ignorant. Tess and Angel feel isolated from their...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)