A novel that is now recognized as a connection between the Victorian era and the modern, Thomas Hardy's poignant narrative of Tess of the D'Ubervilles contains Hardy's characteristic themes.
Prevalent throughout Hardy's fiction and poetry is the central vision of a universe governed by the purposeless movements of a blind, unconscious force that Hardy named the Immanent Will. Each event in people's lives is alienated from itself and swept up into the design. Certainly, in Tess's life her encounter with her cousin Alec falls under these purposeless movements as had it not been for the old horse's death and her mother's urging that she seek help from the wealthy d'Ubervilles that the father has recently learned they are related, her fate would not be such as it is. In another incident of chance, Alec comes back into her life just before the penitent Angel returns for her.
Throughout her life, Tess is a conduit for powerful and dangerous natural forces. She loses her child, her family loses its home, she is victimized a second time by Alec d'Uberville. And, when she finally has an opportunity for happiness, he blocks it. Recognizing her fateful position, Tess tells Alec,
"Whip me, crush me...I shall not cry out. Once victim, always victim—that's the law."
Desperate and still under the control of powerful forces, Tess then becomes violent in her attempt to stop fate, a condition that is characteristic of woman under Immanent Will.
When Angel Clare sees Tess at the dairy farm, he remarks that she has the "ache of modernism" which seems to refer to Hardy's dislike, as Marcelle Clements writes in the introduction of the Signet Classic, for "the repercussions of the industrial revolution, the extinction of rural life, the implacable roles of caste, gender, and morality in Victorian England" as well as the laws of Social Darwinism, which do not correlate with the religion of their childhoods as it has put an end to the pat answers of their religion. Instead, Angel puts his faith in "intellectual liberty" and greatly influences Tess with his ideas.
The Industrial Revolution has greatly altered the pattern of life for those like the Durbeyfields. Such inventions as the thrashing machine has taken away jobs hitherto performed by the peasants. With the train now reaching into the countryside, such places as the huge dairy farm of the Cricks come into existence because the milk can be shipped to London. Under Social Darwinism, a concept embraced by Herbert Spenser, the rich were better adapted to the socio-economic climate of the era, and it was natural and proper for the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak. Because Tess has no individuality at the Flintcomb Ash farm, when the season ends, she must return to her family which also is being uprooted and, thus, struggles to survive. On the other hand, Angel thrives by having a properous and more socially elite family.
Knowledge and Ignorance
Isolated from parents who seem unable to grasp new ideas, Tess and Angel leave home. Yet, there is more to knowledge than schooling, as Angel is able to recognize in Tess a goodness and chooses her over the young lady his parents want him to marry. Tess, too, possesses an intuitiveness. Critics perceive Tess as a new type of "proto-Christian heroine." She has a purity of spirit that allows her to rise from the ruin of her worldly assaults. This characteristic explains Hardy's subtitle.