Hardy's novel functions as an exploration of the dominance of men over women in the 18th and 19th centuries (while Hardy writes in the 19th century, the story is set in an earlier period). Hardy goes into great detail about the laborers's lives and opportunities (e.g., the work contract Tess signs at Flintcomb-Ash; the option for changing jobs at Old Lady Day in April; the colorful carts employers send to transport the belongings of newly contracted laborers, etc). He sets up significant contrasts between lives of villagers, clergy, and the new upper class. Tess of the d'Urbervilles was socially rejected and decried as an immoral and wrong-headed story, as an original yet unacceptable story.
Because of the novel's function (explore dominance of men over women), it lends itself quite naturally to feminist criticism. Because the novel details working life on three social and educational levels, it invites Marxist criticism. Because he was unable to publish Tess as originally written but was forced by public censure to radically alter the story as it was seen as something untraditional and horrible--though he eventually restored it to the original form, which is the form we read today--the novel is an excellent subject for structural criticism.
The foundational tenet of Literary Structuralism is that universal structure of text may be uncovered by examining the interior elements of a literary text and by connecting the results of the analysis to other texts. It is through the analysis-dependent connections that universal narrative structure is uncovered. Points for analytical examination include: values textualized ("valorization": what the text shows to be valuable); function of the text (not "meaning" since "meaning" is a subjective interpretation); cause and effect; parallels; repetitions; connotations of significant words and concepts; character; setting; imagery; metaphor, to name a few. Applied to Tess, we've already identified the function and suggested that what the text valorizes (values) is quite different from what society values. By applying Structuralism to Tess, you might find that your analysis contradicts or confirms the Structuralists's description of universal narrative structure.
The objective of Marxist criticism is to expose the unexpressed ideology of a society, an ideology that underlies texts since it is embedded in the expression of the setting's economic base and superstructure of philosophy, religion, laws, politics and art that arise out of the economic base and lend continuity and permanence to that economic base. In Tess, Hardy does much to expose the silent ideology that is shared without question by England's society and that is the result of the economic base and that is the foundation of the superstructure of law and culture. Application of Marxist criticism to Tess will do much to reveal the setting's economically based society and provide a strong comparison to our society.
Feminist criticism's historical primary aim is to expose and explore the male-female patriarchal hierarchy that fosters asymmetrical binaries that govern society. In other words, it aims to understand male dominance over women and to identify the oppositions in patriarchal presuppositions that define--and confine--women in unnatural relationships to themselves and to their culture and to men. Since Hardy's story centers around male dominance over women and the true representation of "pure" womanhood, application of Feminist criticism to Tess will help fulfill Hardy's intention and elucidate the "why he wrote this" behind the story: which was to influence a change in the accepted order of society.
This synopsis of each and of their applications to Tess ought to help you decide which critical approach you would be interested in and would find the most rewarding. It is clear that the depth of Hardy's text makes any of the three equally pertinent, applicable and revealing.
A feminist approach might work well with Hardy. I have seen a few journal articles already on this subject concerning his novels.
Hardy sets his stories in small villages and towns, and is drawn to experiences of disappointment and failure. His major novels end with the destruction of the main character, and the intense suffering of those characters often seems undeserved. There is no sense of poetic justice in Hardy’s world: Virtue is not necessarily rewarded, and vice may be punished excessively. This aspect of Hardy’s fiction is often identified with what critics call his “pessimism.”
One example will be Hardy’s most famous and popular novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Tess ends with the heroine’s execution for the crime of murder. There had been a few tragic novels in England—including Richardson’s Clarissa and Eliot’s Mill on the Floss—but Hardy is the first English novelist who consistently works in a tragic mode. The roots of Hardy’s pessimism may lie in his earliest experiences.
Hardy was born in 1840 and died in 1928. He was, in many ways, an outsider, distinctly different from other writers of his day. His father was a stonemason—not exactly a laborer, but not a professional either. Hardy’s early education was good, but instead of attending college, he was apprenticed to a local architect. Hardy’s marriage is another possible source of his later pessimism. By the time he reached his late 40s, he and his wife were leading separate lives.
In Tess, Hardy was testing the limits of what was considered acceptable. Central to the novel are issues of sex and sexual desire. The novel begins by placing Tess in a situation like that of Richardson’s heroines. Tess is first pursued by her wealthy employer and cousin, Alec Stokes-d’Urberville. But instead of being rewarded with an offer of marriage, Tess is seduced (the situation is unclear) and drawn into a brief sexual relationship with Alec, during the course of which she becomes pregnant. Through the rest of the novel, Hardy continues to challenge conventional attitudes.
After leaving Alec, Tess returns to live with her family. Her baby dies in infancy, and Tess learns that because it was never properly baptized, it cannot be buried in the churchyard. Throughout the rest of the novel, Hardy repeatedly insists that sexual desire should not be regarded as sinful. To stigmatize sex, he says, is to deny our own essential nature. When preparing the novel for its original serial publication, Hardy was compelled to remove some of the most controversial episodes in order to gain a publisher, a process he compared to dismembering a body. When it came time to republish Tess in volume form, he reincorporated the missing episodes.