Can you explain the theme of MORALITY in Tess of the d'Urbervilles ?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In more modern criticisms of Hardy's novel, there are those who perceive Tess Duberyfield as a true Humanist,

...a human being free of supernaturalism...a part of nature [who] holds that values-be they religious, ethical, social, or political-have their source in human experience and culture.

Since Humanism derives the goals of life from need and takes responsibility for its own destiny, in this respect then, Hardy's full title, Tess of the D'Ubervilles: A Pure Woman is explicable. Tess is a young woman whose innate sensations are naturally good, but she comes into conflict with the "parochial conventions and superstition" of her mother and Christian dogma and fate. As a humanist, then, all that truly exists for Tess or is real is nature.

The ambiguous circumstances of the copulation of Alec D'Uberville with Tess can, perhaps, be best explained as more a natural result of a young male with a naive woman. That Tess does nothing unnatural is suggested by Hardy's references to the "primeval yews," "roosting birds," and "hopping rabbits." It is of note, also, that the other farm workers with Tess accept her and her baby without judgment. It is only when Tess clashes with society and with the "unnatural artifice of moral dogma," as one critic writes, that she experiences censure.

That Tess follows a natural law is evinced in her developing relationship with Angel, who finds her naturalness and simplicity attractive 

All the while they were converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale. (Ch.20)

Truly, Tess is the moral center of the Hardy's tale. She acts in a natural, Humanistic way to what occurs in her life and struggles against what Hardy termed the Immanent Will, an indeterminate destiny. Against this fate, Tess reacts with impulses or natural instincts that she cannot resist. Thus, Tess realizes that what happened to her was not her fault.

Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul –had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?  (Ch. 51) 

As narrator, Hardy himself insists several times that what occurs in Tess's life has offended not nature, but only society. In fact he observes that Tess's shame is "a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature." As a Humanist Tess is, indeed, "a pure woman," a woman always in accord with what is natural, and, therefore, moral.

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