What is the role of the fate in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

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It's difficult to know whether or not the term "fate" accurately describes the philosophy at the center of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and other works by Hardy. Fate implies a force beyond human control that directs our actions. I would tend to see it as not so much fate as a kind of randomness that causes the decisive (and tragic) turns of the plot in Tess. Added to this is the deliberate and very human folly present in the story.

Whether intentionally or not, Hardy is making a statement about the vulnerability of women in the nineteenth-century world. This is not fate, but the gender dynamic that has been dominant throughout history. Angel Clare cannot accept Tess's having had a previous relationship because this is the way most men thought at the time. The randomness of human events can be considered responsible for his not seeing the letter she has written to him. But even if he had seen it, the result would have been the same—he would have rejected Tess.

The other crucial point is that Tess never tells Angel that her relationship with Alec d'Urberville was non-consensual. The reticence on this point of not only Tess but of Hardy himself as narrator is typical of the time. But the whole story is also a chain of chance happenings beginning with the death of Tess's horse and concluding with Tess's returning to Alec and, finally, killing him. The overall point, however, seems to be that tragedy is caused by both human folly (and its corollary of cruelty) and the randomness of the cosmos.

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Near the beginning of the novel, Joan, Tess's mother, consults a book called The Fortune Tellerwhich leads her to believe that her daughter could marry a nobleman. This leads her to say to her husband, "I tried her fate in the Fortune-Teller, and it brought out that very thing!...You should ha' seen how pretty she looked to-day; her skin is as sumple as a duchess'" (12). This reference of consulting a type of magazine is typical of the lower social classes of the day and it is also a foreshadowing of what is to come. However, just believing that marrying a nobleman will fix it so a girl will have a wonderful life is completely the opposite of what actually happens to Tess. From Homer to Shakespeare, anyone believes that a character will end up happy due to Fate's prophecy is usually disappointed. Tess does marry a nobleman, but it doesn't turn out happy for her. Characters in stories seem to focus on the end result rather than the journey and this is where Fate is tricky. Through Tess experiencing one disappointing set-back to another, Hardy shows that Fate is more about the journey rather than the end result. Tess is a figure pitted against the Victorian society in which she finds herself living as a victim, but she never truly knows it.

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