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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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What is Hardy's tragic and ironic vision in "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"?

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As with any great author, it's hard to identify a single point or theme that is expressive of Hardy's overall vision. I would focus, however, on the "randomness" of the way the universe operates upon human life as one of the chief themes of all his major work.

Tess is...

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sent to meet the supposedly refined cousin, and the result is that she is raped. When she later finds a man whom she loves, things go wrong because, by chance, Angel does not see the letter she has written to him before the marriage. He then directs the double-standard accusation against her when, after he has admitted to a previous relationship, she thinks that telling him about Alec will not have negative consequences.

This last development and the story as a whole show that Hardy, like other 19th-century writers, depicts a situation in which a woman is victimized by the standards of the time. Another obvious instance is that of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It is open to debate whether either of those writers intended to criticize the system, or if they were simply reporting it as the tragic and, again, randomly unfair way the world is. In any event, the result for Tess, as for Anna, is unhappiness and death.

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Thomas Hardy was a fatalist. He believed that human life is out of the direct control of the human being. Every devastating or fortunate event that occurs is merely the result of fate. In "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", that tragic lack of hope is manifested in the guilt of a young rape victim. Tess feels immense guilt despite her inability to control what happens to her. The immense irony is that, while she feels guilt about being raped, she feels no guilt when she murders her rapist. This irony causes the reader to question the idea of justice. What is justifiable? What can we control? What is the purpose of guilt?

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What is Hardy's idea of tragedy that can be formed from the story of Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles?

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a highly controversial novel, so controversial, in fact, that after the public reaction (to Tess and to Jude the Obscure), Hardy gave up prose fiction altogether and wrote exclusively poetry for the remainder of his career. Tess does truly have a tragic end based on her Aristotelian tragic flaw. Tess's tragedy is precipitated by other circumstances beside her own inner flaw. From a brief examination of these narrative elements, we can infer something of Hardy's idea of tragedy.

Based upon what may be inferred through Tess's story, for Hardy tragedy required first an Aristotelian good, intellectually and morally elevated heroine who was governed by one flaw in thinking, perceiving, or behaving that led to her downfall, perhaps, for Hardy, downfall many times over. Tess's flaw is that she is naive and gullible. These combine to make her easily influenceable thus easily manipulated.

Circumstances that affect the precipitation of tragedy center mainly around three other characters: Angel Clare, Vicar Clare, Alec Stokes-d'Urberville. Their significance is described briefly below.

  • Angel Clare: Arrogance of superior intellect though softened under a kind and generous spirit. Given to extreme emotional reactions to adversity (e.g., his "eight-and-forty hours" of "dissipation" upon being disappointing about his future education). Influences Tess to higher intellectual thoughts. Influences Tess to betray her own wisdom through relentless pursuit. Reacts emotionally in the extreme and in accord with his childhood teachings when he rejects Tess after her confession (which she had learned not to to dread because of his own confession).
  • Vicar Clare, toward Angel: Staunchly adamant in old fashioned practices and narrow perspectives on good and right. Denies Angel a university education at Cambridge because Angel declines to be a clergyman. Angel becomes somewhat hardened in his own heart and somewhat bitter, both of which affect his behavior toward Tess.
  • Alec Stokes-d'Urberville: Cold, arrogant, demanding, unfeeling, unintellectual; no compunction about forcing his desires on Tess. He represents the standard of male mentality and behavior in the traditional England Hardy is criticizing.

[Tess] "And you had used your cruel persuasion upon me … you did not stop using it—no—you did not stop! ... And at last I believed you and gave way!"

Hardy's idea of tragedy starts in accord with the Aristotelian model of heroic qualities and ends in accord with the Shakespearean Renaissance variation demanding consequences so severe that they must end in the death of the principle character. Note that Hardy's idea of tragedy incorporates women's lives as principal tragic heroines as freely as Shakespeare holds to principal tragic heroes (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc). Some points that can be inferred about Hardy's idea of tragedy are:

1. good but flawed heroine.2. external influences beleaguering heroine.3. fate, coincidence, accident confounding heroine's best efforts and intentions.4. inability to separate moral necessity from human necessity; distrusting common sense thus acting wrongly; common sense represented by the "Fool" in Tess, Tess's mother. 5. final abandonment of personal belief when influenced, in the extreme adversity, by oppositional immoral, inhumane forces (i.e., Alec).  6. circumstance, fate, accident, coincidence breaking down heroine's reason and moral judgement as conflict between moral necessity and human necessity creates insupportable grief and despair.7. fatal ending of just desserts brought about by tragic unforeseeable circumstances mixing with tragic flaw.

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