Tess of the d'Urbervilles Themes


In the final paragraph of Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, Hardy reiterates his principal theme with an overtness that has caused some critics to regret his heavy-handedness: the "President of the Immortals, in the Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." In the serial version, the statement was even more overt: "'Justice' was done, and Time, the Arch-satirist, had had his joke out with Tess." What Hardy is describing is of course Tess's being hanged for murdering Alec D'Urberville, and with this portentous clause he revisits the question of determinism that has been woven in several ways throughout the novel. While the clause provides a fitting hyperbole to express the degree to which Tess as an innocent woman was the victim of a piously hypocritical and repressive society, it also inadvertently begs the question of personal responsibility. If, after all, Tess's fate was mapped out by the "President of the Immortals," indubitably one of the "purblind doomsters" of Hardy's great poem "Hap," her story can only evoke sorrow that she is the victim of undeserved misfortune. It is, however, the case that while misfortune dogs Tess's path at every turn and events as well as individuals seem to conspire against her happiness, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a traditionally tragic meditation on the relation between personal responsibility and unavoidable necessity.

Like most of Hardy's novels, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is at the plot level an improbable tissue of coincidences. In any schematization except for one predicated on the assumption of a deterministic cosmos, the frequency and impact of coincidence and fated event would seem melodramatic or at least highly improbable for an otherwise realistic narrative. Among the most unlikely coincidences are the encounters with characters that follow Tess through her life. One minor example is the meeting between Tess and Angel Clare, at a community festival on the green outside Marlott, while Clare and his insufferable brothers are on a walking expedition. Sending his stuffy brothers ahead, the "gentleman" dances with a few of the maidens, and Tess resents her not having been chosen. Some two years later, in a distant quarter of Egdon Heath, Tess takes work as a dairymaid at the farm at which Angel is serving an apprenticeship in dairy farming. Despite the fact that no word passed between the two during a brief afternoon two years ago, and that Tess has been through a horrid exploitation by Alec D'Urberville, the birth and wrenching death of her son, and the ostracism of the more pious among the Marlott community, they both recall the lost opportunity in detail.

At the opposite end of the coincidence scale, Tess, having made up her mind to appeal to Angel's father because of her wretched poverty and the enmity of Farmer Groby, who, as we saw in the previous section, harbored a grudge because Angel punched him for insinuating that he remembered Tess as a woman with a past—which in...

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles 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...

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