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In one of his novels, Thomas Hardy quotes the German author Hardenberg, declaring that "character is fate." Indeed, there may be no character in literature to whom this better applies than Hardy's tragic protagonist, Tess Durbeyfield. Tess is truly a fated character; she is an archetypal anti-heroine, a country girl from Wessex, who is born during the Long Depression of the 1870's; then, after the family's horse which pulls her father's work wagon is killed, she must seek work away from home. Misfortune seems to strike her at every turn after she enters the world outside her home.
Here are some main elements of her characterization:
- She is pure and ingenuous, completely innocent of the world and the behavior of men. After her tragic experience of Alec's rape, she asks her mother, "Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk?"
- Tess has qualities that rise above the natural; at times she seems almost divine. The narrator Hardy describes her effect upon her siblings as "transfiguring." When she goes to work at the dairy farm of the Talbothays, Hardy describes her appearance in the morning, an appearance that captivates Angel Clare:
Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess' eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls. When the day grew quite strong and commonplace these dried off her; moreover, Tess then lost her strange and ethereal beauty
- Yet, Tess is a complex character who is, at times, enigmatic; even her mother Joan says of her, "I have never really known her." In some ways, it is as though she senses what Hardy termed the Immanent Will, a preternatural force that controls lives by influencing events. For instance, she is not amused by the tale of Dairyman Mr. Crick in Chapter 21. While others find it a humorous tale, Tess is affected tragically by it, even to the point of sensing the cruelty of the universe:
...not one knew how cruelly it touched the tender place in her experience. The evening sun was now ugly to her, like a great inflamed wound in the sky.
- Although Tess carries the burden of having lost her innocence as well as a beloved baby, she is strong and compassionate to others. For example, she knows that her friends are infatuated with Angel Clare and she hopes that one of them will be chosen by him.
- She passionately and completely loves Angel; hers is almost a martyr's love as she offers to commit suicide to free Angel from their marriage, and she loves him even when he abandons her. It is only when there is no other option left to her that she goes with Alec d'Uberville in order to save her destitute family. When Angel finally comes for her, she tells him it is too late, hoping to drive him away and save him from any more misfortune.
- Tess is Thomas Hardy's medium for criticizing a Victorian society that victimizes its women. For, Tess believes in the Victorian stereotypes and blames herself after she is raped; she feels she is unworthy of Angel and, therefore, deserving of his rejection; further, she feels that she is a fallen woman, so it does not matter that she goes back to Alec because she must help her family. Even her act of murdering Alec is one done to try to purify herself in the eyes of Angel and to prevent Alec from doing anything to Angel; she asks, "...will you forgive me of my sin against you, now that I have killed him?"
Tess always acts under the cloud of the patriarchal society of Victorian England in which brides must be pure, and any actions of the woman are not the result of anything that has happened to her; they are simply her own and she is to blame for the consequences.
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