Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2372
Alec Stoke-D’Urberville: the young son of a wealthy merchant, a dashing, gallant, forceful ladies’ man
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Mrs. D’Urberville: an eccentric blind widow and the reluctantly loving mother of Alec
Car Darch: nicknamed Queen of Spades, coarse, aggressive, jealous woman, once linked romantically to Alec.
Nancy Darch: nicknamed the Queen of Diamonds, Car’s sister, also a former favorite of D’Urberville
Car Darch’s mother: a laconic peasant woman with a moustache
Tess is pressured by her mother to approach Mrs. D’Urberville, a rich lady living not far from Marlott. The Durbeyfields believe she is of a junior branch of the D’Urberville family and thus will render the Durbeyfields some material assistance in their time of need. Tess undertakes an initial visit to see Mrs. D’Urberville.
Tess is unsettled by what she sees at the D’Urberville manor, an estate called The Slopes. The house does not fit into its environment; it has been built solely for pleasure and not at all for agricultural functionality. “Everything looked like money—like the last coin issued from the Mint.” The manor exists primarily to show off the wealth of its nouveau riche owners. Tess is disappointed that when she sees the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, he compares unfavorably to the mental picture she had of her “D’Urberville” relatives as dignified, ancient, and bearing traces of their illustrious past.
Alec announces that his invalid mother cannot see Tess, but that he might be able to help her. Tess feels that her appeal for aid must sound foolish but manages to explain her family’s financial need, occasioned, she admits, by her killing the family’s horse. Alec’s roving eye lights upon Tess’s beauty, her “luxuriance of aspect,” and he keeps her on the estate for a few hours, feeding her freshly-picked strawberries and adorning her with roses.
Tess travels home to report on the visit but finds a letter offering her a job tending the estate’s fowls has preceded her arrival. The letter appears to be in a masculine handwriting. Tess has misgivings, but for the sake of the family, she decides to take the job.
Two days later, Alec D’Urberville arrives for Tess and her belongings. Joan and her children follow along to the edge of town, where Joan has a fleeting moment of doubt about the path on which she has set her daughter.
Alec angers Tess by driving too fast down an incline, which forces Tess to put her arms around Alec so as not to fall out of the carriage. When Tess criticizes Alec, he shows a flash of anger. Alec asks to place just “one little kiss on those holmberry lips.” Tess capitulates icily, offering her cheek to Alec, and he gives her “the kiss of mastery.” To avoid further close contact, Tess lets her hat blow off and will not remount the carriage after picking it up. She angrily walks the rest of the way to The Slopes as Alec drives the carriage alongside her.
Once working at The Slopes, Tess is surprised to learn that Mrs. D’Urberville is blind. She never learns that Mrs. D’Urberville has not heard of their supposed family relation. Tess does her best to fit in and do a good job tending the fowl. Mrs. D’Urberville assigns Tess the odd job of whistling to her pet bullfinches to keep them entertained. Alec, attracted to Tess but biding his time, teaches Tess to whistle.
After several weeks of working, Tess is persuaded to go to a dance one Saturday night in the nearby town of Trantridge. She has been up working since early in the morning and is physically exhausted. When her friends consent to leave the dance, an unfortunate accident results in everyone laughing at Car Darch, a woman who was once favored with D’Urberville’s affections. Car and her sister, Nancy, start a fight with Tess. Along rides Alec D’Urberville, who offers Tess an escape via his carriage. Feeling pleased to remove herself from danger, Tess climbs in.
Alec rides in circles through the dark night, tracing an aimless path through the Chase, in order to spend more time with Tess. He asks to be treated as a lover (suitor) by Tess, but she evades this demand. Alec informs her that her brothers and sisters have new toys and her father a new cob. Tess is embarrassed by having to be grateful to D’Urberville. Eventually, he admits he is lost and stops his horse. He gives his overcoat to Tess as he goes off to find his bearings. When he returns, Tess is asleep. When Alec discovers this fact, he takes her bodily. Tess is without any protector. Her suffering has started, and a “chasm” separates her past from her future life.
Throughout these chapters, Hardy continues to emphasize Tess’s highly developed senses of diligence and responsibility towards her family. Tess is both the oldest daughter and the only functioning parent in the Durbeyfield clan. Everyone else in the family is a “waiter upon Providence”; that is, they prefer to hope that God or fate will provide them some help, instead of having the initiative to better their situation through their own efforts. In contrast to such shiftlessness, Tess’s principal, and frequently mentioned, motivation in this early part of the novel is to make enough money so that the family can buy a new horse and re-establish their ¬business.
Each time she questions the idea of appealing to the D’Urbervilles for help, she remembers that, because she was responsible for the death of Prince, she must make amends and has no right to dispute her parents’ plans. Such renunciation of her own misgivings culminates in a famous moment of passivity, in which Tess consents to be dressed up by her mother for the journey to Trantridge, saying “Do what you will with me, mother.” All too eagerly, Joan cleans Tess up and adorns her with a large ribbon. It is as if Tess is made pretty prior to being offered up as a sort of sacrifice. Joan views her daughter’s beautiful face as an asset in securing a marriage with these rich relatives. Though Joan vulgarly exploits her daughter for her own financial benefit, she has, of course, no idea of the villainous behavior Alec will deal to Tess.
Lionel Johnson, a nineteenth-century scholar on Hardy’s writing, defined his principal theme as one of “urban invasion”: the destruction of rural Southern England and its way of life by the economic power of industrial, urbanized North England. Tess fits this theme. Simon Stoke, Alec Stoke-D’Urberville’s recently deceased father, made a fortune in the North of England, either as a merchant or as a money-lender—the narrator professes indecision on this point. Whatever his means of becoming rich, Stoke feels that his newly acquired money allows him to set himself up as a country man of leisure and to be addressed not by the common name of his birth but by a more exalted one. Stoke comes upon an ancient, historical name once common in Wessex, and simply appropriates it for his own use as if having money means he can lay claim to a more distinguished, socially esteemed past.
The scene of Tess’s first encounter with Alec presents us with several striking and memorable visual images. In addition to providing interesting plot and characters, Hardy frequently concentrates on describing visual moments. Two such images are Alec feeding Tess strawberries, and Tess, bedecked with roses, being pricked by their thorns. While such events are important as plot, they are also meant to present images that can be fixed in our minds.
Although Tess’s behavior in the strawberry scene may seem oddly unquestioning, we should remember that a certain dreamy disconnection from reality has already marked the behavior of Joan (with her eagerness for drunken relief from degrading actuality) and John (with his wild schemes for re-asserting his aristocratic heritage). Hardy draws our attention several times to his belief in heredity as a force in human character. To Hardy, traits, behaviors, and personality features can be passed down from parent to child. Thus, when she eats the strawberries “as one in a dream,” in a “half-pleased, half-reluctant” condition, Tess is exhibiting behavior consistent with her Durbeyfield lineage. She herself has also been described as “lost in a vague interspace between a dream” and the real world, and it is her “reverie” which leads to her falling asleep prior to the accident with Prince.
Chapter Five closes with a famous passage in which the narrator adopts an Olympian distance from current events and speculates on the tragedy and mischance that will characterize Tess’s life from the point of her meeting with D’Urberville. Hardy tells us that Fate is conspiring against Tess and her chances for happiness. From the standpoint of infinite knowledge of the future, he lets us know that things will get far worse for Tess; what looks like just another day is truly a portent of disaster: “Thus the thing began. Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all respects—as nearly as humanity can supply the right and desired…In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say ‘See!’ to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing…in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came.” Tess Durbeyfield is the doomed plaything of a cosmic irony, a tragic victim of pre-ordained mistiming.
Hardy’s language reveals that Tess’s tragedy lies beyond social causality: “We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us around and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible.” Tragedy, mischance, and unhappiness cannot be corrected by tinkering with the standards, morality, or procedures of society. The probability of misery inheres in life itself.
Yet throughout the novel, Hardy makes clear also that the social and historical environment—the particular conditions of late nineteenth-century, rural England—aid Tess’s downfall. The lack of need for Durbeyfield’s occupation in a changing economic order puts his family at the financial mercy of the Stoke-D’Urberville family, which is representative of the new, sometimes unscrupulous business classes then rising in Victorian England. Tess is a poor, relatively uneducated woman, who is limited in her options for making money, and is placed at the mercy of the men with whom she must deal.
Tragedy usually requires an inevitable cause, some force which unalterably opposes human possibility. A problem for the reader of Tess is to determine the one inevitable cause of Tess’s tragedy. Hardy is not always clear about which factors are the most influential in Tess’s life-story, and which are most responsible for her apparently foreordained and unalterable misery. Is it her struggle against a cruel social and economic system in which, as a young, poor, innocent woman, she cannot find a position guaranteeing her safety from a powerful rich man like D’Urberville? Or is this historical, social reading a sort of red herring or false clue, and her struggle is simply one against a cruel world, actively set against the possibilities of human happiness? Hardy suggests one perspective and then others.
Hardy does not take us very far into Alec’s past or psychology. How Alec got to be Alec, in short, is left unexplained: he simply is what he is. Readers are not left in suspense over his villainous role in Tess’s story. The innocent Tess cannot guess what Hardy tells us, that Alec was “potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama—one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her life.” That he is a gallant or a lover is apparent from his first words: “Well, my Beauty, what can I do for you?” His reputation as a “gallant,” or a lady-killer who pursues his desires in a self-centered fashion, is already well-established in the Trantridge area. He exhibits a casual air of command, an ease
with the power, particularly that over women, that his social and economic position gives him.
Chapter 11 provides a famous example of the Hardy narrative style and language at its best. The steady accumulation of physical detail about Tess’s fatigue, early in the chapter, leads into the poetic evocation of the dark, silent, isolated forest. Alec shows the full range of his behavior, moving from male self-confidence to class arrogance (calling Tess a mere chit) to a brutally timed reminder of his generosity to Tess’s family. Forces of all sorts trap Tess. Poised above the pair, writes Hardy, are “gentle roosting birds in their last nap.” Like these birds, Tess is sleeping and vulnerable.
“Where was Tess’s guardian angel?” Hardy goes on to ask. Of course she has none and will never have one. God, or some other force which should protect the innocent, seems to be absent from at least this part of the world. Or perhaps the God above Tess simply has better things to do: He might be talking, or taking a trip, or sleeping. Alec’s appropriation (a word with legal connotations of theft) of Tess’s innocence is inexplicable by any morality. In the face of such unaccountable divergence of the ideal from the actual, the only appropriate comment might be the fatalistic folk wisdom Hardy quotes: “It was to be.” The disasters of life cannot be explained, only endured.