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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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In the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, what are some of the implications of capitalism?

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This is a very creative question because it asks you to take a concept from economics, capitalism, and apply it to a critical work in the English canon, Tess of the d'UrbervillesIt is also a timely question. Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles in England at the end of the 1800s, when industrialization was on the rise and nations were having impassioned dialogues about the role of capitalism and the distribution of resources.

Capitalism refers to the way that goods and services are distributed in a society; in a capitalist society, goods and services are distributed according to the free market. In other words, private individuals own, trade, and manage the nation's wealth according to their needs and desires. In any capitalist society, accessing money is of the utmost import to both surviving daily life and achieving upward social mobility.

The implications of capitalism are paramount to Tess's experiences in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Writing in the late 1800s, Thomas Hardy's story of Tess, a woman who was raped and then abandoned because of it, ran against Victorian social norms of the time. While the novel is commonly interpreted as an exposé of gender-based double standards, it also reveals how Tess was both disadvantaged and advantaged in the capitalist system.

The opening of the novel reveals the extent to which capitalism is at the heart of the complicating events of the narrative. Tess's father drives by her and her friends in their family’s old, shabby cart; there is great concern over whether or not the family beehives will make it to market; and Tess blames herself for the death of their family horse, Prince. The name of the horse, "Prince," is ripe itself with symbolism. A prince, by definition, is a man born into a royal family. The use of this term underscores Tess's poverty and her lack of a wealthy suitor. So, at the very outset of the novel, the social class of the Durbeyfield family is directly in the forefront. Their poverty is thrown into further relief by Tess's father's critical discovery that they are far-off descendants of the noble and rich d'Urberville family.

The contrast between the Durbeyfields' home and the d’Urbervilles' home underscores the inequitable economic distribution that is inherent in any capitalist society. The Durbeyfields are presented as wholesome and hardworking, yet they have little; meanwhile, Alec is well-groomed and wealthy yet cruel to both Angel and Tess through mockery and sexual abuse. This relationship reflects the inequitable and often unearned distribution of wealth in capitalist societies.

The explanation, if there can be one, for Alec's rape of Tess is complex. But, one can say that the economic disparity between the two is at least one factor. When Tess goes to the d'Urberville family, she is both asking for money and working as a servant. Remember, Tess is very aware that both her family's well-being and her father’s health rely on her ability to make money. As such, Alec is in a situation of power, as he can give Tess money or even marry her. Instead, he commits an act of sexual assault. And he does so with the security of knowing that Tess, a woman without money, has minimal ability to defend herself or bring him to justice.

Capitalism plays a more positive role in Phase the Third. Tess is able to leave the prying eyes of her hometown to find work at Talbothays Dairy. Tess's ability to change her circumstances, find work, make money, and build a better life are considered to be the hallmarks of capitalism. Angel Clare’s character similarly presents a positive view. Even though he came from a well-off background, he is not required to join the clergy like his brothers. Instead, he can do what makes him happy: farming. These advantages of capitalism—freedom and the pursuit of happiness—are why many individuals immigrated to capitalist countries over the course of the late 1800s and 1900s.

The novel’s culmination, however, reveals yet another aspect of capitalism. Believing Angel will never return to her, Tess returns to Alec. Consider the dramatic tension at the start of Phase the Seventh: Angel does not yet know of Tess's transformative new wealth, and the readers, though suspect of her choice to return to Alec, are as shocked as he is to find her so richly clothed. It is no coincidence that once she has access to wealth she is able to have greater agency in life, killing Alec for his crimes against her. This reveals yet another aspect of capitalism, the inevitable equation of money to power.

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