Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles Characters

The main characters in Tess of the d'Urbervilles are Tess Durbeyfield, Alec Stoke-d'Urberville, and Angel Clare.

  • Tess Durbeyfield is a poor young woman whose father discovers that their family may be descended from the noble d'Urberville line.
  • Alec Stoke-d'Urberville is Tess's rich employer, who rapes her. He later becomes a preacher but abandons his religious conversion to take advantage of Tess again.
  • Angel Clare is a young intellectual who falls in love with and marries Tess, then abandons her upon learning of her past. After a change of heart, he returns to Tess too late and ultimately witnesses her hanging for murder.

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Generally the novel's minor characters sometimes come to life with quick, deft strokes of defining habits or idiom, such as Joan Derbyfield's charming penchant for malapropisms and her outrageously funny fund of historical misinformation, contrasted with her streak of mendacity, even in consenting (implicitly) to Tess's becoming D'Urberville's concubine in order to keep the family afloat economically, or the bitter vindictiveness of Farmer Groby, who is as deferential when questioned by Angel Clare as he is cruel in his treatment of Tess, or the good-natured drunkenness of Marian. But our responses to the novel really depend on how we view the triad of central characters, whom Donald Hall, at the risk of allegorizing the narrative, labels thus: Alec represents the emerging bourgeois mindset and controls the novel's action; Angel represents a pious but superficial liberalism reacting against an oppressive orthodoxy, but one untested by actual experience; and Tess represents "the soil" and "the dead past." As we saw in the past section, the characters form a triangle on the theme of free will and inescapable destiny.

Alec D'Urberville is, at the simplest level, a stock character from popular Victorian fiction tracing back to late eighteenth-century narratives, the "cad" who seduces innocent young women. But far more than a stock character, he personifies the worst traits of the emerging merchant culture grafted onto the worst mannerisms of the passing country gentry. Acquisitive and ruthless, he has come to expect deference by his social inferiors as his due by virtue of inherited wealth and acquired status. When his strategies of lavish gifts and semi-aristocratic charm, mixed with a substantial dose of condescending sexual harassment, fail to win Tess's affections, he takes by force what he cannot achieve by merit. In addition to this portrayal of D'Urberville as a stereotypical male predator, Hardy also imbues him with the trait of metanoia, which is to make a strong statement of intent, then lessen its force or consequence later on. When Tess meets Alec at the revival service, he appears to be a changed man, a fundamentalist clergyman who has been converted by the charitable example of Mr. Clare, who returned kindness for Alec's insolence. Although Hardy tells this story from several perspectives, it never becomes quite believable. Presumably the zeal and fanaticism of the seducer have been sublimated to a religious zeal, but the terms of the transformation are not spelled out convincingly. True to form, however, Alec makes his backsliding a matter of Tess's allure, not his weakness, and his succumbing to the woman he calls a "dear damned Witch of Babylon" renders his own moral collapse someone else's fault. He quickly abandons his clerical calling to resume his semi-aristocratic pose and his pursuit of Tess, one so intense and obvious that her friends Izzy and Marian write an anonymous note warning Clare that his wife is subject to pursuit and temptation.

To dismiss Alec as a one-dimensional stereotype, however, would reduce Hardy's "plot-mover" to a mere caricature. Hardy invests Alec with some complicating emotions. He does not know that Tess is pregnant when she leaves the D'Urberville estate. Upon learning, after the chance reunion, of her status when last they parted, he seems genuinely repentant, and claims that, had he known, he would have done the honorable thing. At one point, he speaks of his current wish to marry her and set things right. His resentment of Clare is in part based on Tess's loyalty in the face of Angel's abandonment, but Alec pursues Tess with the same self-centered determination with which he had seduced her in his rakish days. After Tess reluctantly accepts his help in saving her family from financial disaster, he reverts fully to type; he does not act out of lofty charitable motives. For his help there is a price, and the price is Tess.

Alec is, thus, an improvement on the literary type; he is a cad who has a residual conscience, but also someone with a high potential for rationalization and someone who insists that the world conform to his needs and wishes. Angel Clare is a somewhat more complex character, but one whom it is in the long run somewhat harder for the reader not to despise. While Angel is moral to the point of exasperating the modern reader, his piety proves to be, at least until after his near-fatal expedition to Brazil, little more than skin-deep. While Angel takes on a familiar role in the Hardy canon as one who points to the in effectuality and pretentiousness of Victorian Christianity, he is imbued with much of the self-righteousness he so thoroughly deplores. Most readers find his rejection of Tess cruel and prudish. As she, usually docile in accepting Clare's view of things, is quick to point out, Angel's having had a deliberate past affair to confess, even if it was one of short duration, makes his shunning her for having been raped by D'Urberville somewhat hypocritical. His rationalization, that she is not the "same woman" with whom he fell hopelessly in love at Talbothay's dairy, is self-serving and intellectually frivolous. His offer, although immediately retracted, to take Izzy as his mistress to Brazil underscores his double standard in the area of sexual morality. It is moreover cruel to yet another woman who is overcome by Angel's somewhat inexplicable charms. But the principal indication of his defective moral character is his treating Tess, who loves him without reservation, with less dignity and concern than the liberal minded chap he aspires to be would use to treat a common strumpet. He does provide for material care, but his insensitivity to her pride, which will prevent her from asking his family for help, is one indication of how little he has in him to provide for her soul. Critic Frederick Carpenter has called Clare among the most "modern" of Hardy's male heroes, one who suffers from "ambiguous and contradictory motives." It is clear that he loves Tess passionately, but it is also true that he cannot liberate himself from his moral sensibility that causes him to despise a sin in Tess that he might forgive in almost anyone else.

As in the case of D'Urberville, Clare is a dynamic rather than static character, but his metanoia is both credible and moving. After his own brush with mortality in the Brazilian interior, and after burying a fellow English colonialist who has pointed out the utter ridiculousness of his position to him, Clare undergoes one of the more moving moral transformations in recent fiction. In the face of death he re-thinks his own Hellenism, his own liberalism, the foundations of morality; he discovers that "the good" as a category needs to be re-thought. As he re-thinks it, Tess's virtues, obvious to the reader, become evident to her estranged husband. When he returns to England, with every intention of correcting his past error and building a future with Tess, it is too late. But unlike D'Urberville's, his transformation does not result in immediate backsliding. When he finds, after a long search that has led him among scenes of Tess's suffering and shame, that she has taken refuge as Alec's mistress, he does not retreat to his moral high horse. With some humility, "broken of heart and numbed," he accepts that this is his, not her, fault, and he despairs because of her situation and his complicity in it.

He holds true to his repentance even upon learning that Tess has murdered Alec. He never considers the scandal this act will bring, or the inconvenience hiding out from the law involves. His only thoughts are getting Tess to safety, eventually by finding a port in north-central England from which they can escape to a new life in a new world. But the novel proves this to be yet another of Clare's illusions, one that, significantly, Tess does not share. Although Tess never really believes in his plan to escape, their brief stay in the abandoned estate, where their true honeymoon takes place, constitutes her one week of true happiness. She echoes another tragic figure whose experience with love was profoundly adverse, Shakespeare's Othello, who cried out before he came to doubt his love, "If it were now to die,/'Twere now to be most happy" when Tess too comments on the brevity of intense human happiness: "What must come will come .. . All is trouble outside there; inside here content." Angel may even recognize the inevitability of Tess's capture and the value of her having what little happiness she can when he respects her wish to sleep longer at Stonehenge, where she is captured. He has grown in the novel from a superficial figure to a person of stature, one who can at least appreciate the value of his beloved.

When it comes down to hard cases, however, it is upon Hardy's characterization of Tess that the novel finally depends. While most critics and readers rightly approach her as a victim of society, fate, and the changes occurring because of the Industrial Revolution (as has been the assumption in the previous two sections of this analysis), in this section we shall take our cue from The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886; see separate entry), in which Hardy insists that character is fate, and inquire into two aspects of Tess's character that are often minimized in the critical discussions, her pride as a contributor to her suffering, and the very nearly contradictory degree to which she herself accepts the very restrictive gender associations that victimize her.

It is not often observed that what sets Tess apart from her milieu is her pride. In this she is different from the boastfulness of her parents, who draw their pride from the illusion of aristocratic past. In a small and sympathetic way, her pride asserts itself when she assumes the responsibility for making the family's fortunes right after she has an accident in which the family horse is killed. While the accident is her fault—she was daydreaming—the family misfortune is not. Moreover, her disdain for Alec D'Urberville contains a significant element of injured pride at his presumptions about the privilege of class and gender. Although these assertions of pride are admirable in the abstract, they cause much harm in practice; not informing Alec of her pregnancy after his assault deprives Tess of whatever legal recourse may have been available to her. Furthermore, they subject her and her family to economic hardship, as well as forfeiting legitimate relief from her torturer.

Much more disastrous is Tess's pride after Angel has abandoned her. Unable to face her family because she is a shunned bride, Tess has to settle for demeaning and brutal work in a distant part of Wessex, barely enough for basic sustenance. Although Angel has provided for an economic safety valve with his father, she is too proud to seek out the family; when she at last does, out of utter despair, a chance encounter with Angel's pompous brothers and Mercy Chant makes her feel too ashamed to approach the vicar for the very economic relief to which she is entitled. Perhaps the saddest moments of the novel occur, however, when Tess is forced to swallow her pride, to live with Alec as his mistress in spite of her distaste for him and for being a concubine. Thus her pride has a dual nature in Hardy's construction. It does contribute to her growing material and spiritual misfortunes; but it is also a source of our empathy with and admiration for Tess. Her pride is not only an aspect of her character as a fictional creation. It is also an achievement of character.

While Tess is the victim of gender and moral stereotypes, part of her tragedy is that she firmly believes in the stereotypes that work against her happiness. After she has been raped by Alec, she blames herself as the typical Victorian fallen woman and patiently accepts her own inevitable damnation. When she and Clare become interested in one another, she feels profoundly unworthy of his love, and goes so far as to try to persuade him that Izzy or Netty or Marian is more deserving, though as the novel makes clear no character is so fully imbued with a moral purpose as Tess, and it is Angel, not she, who is unworthy. Throughout their long estrangement, her letters are, with one important exception, apologetic for her having wronged him, when it is clear that she is the one wronged. She accepts this subservient position because she believes herself a fallen and unworthy woman. Even upon killing Alec, she hopes through a ritual of violence to have purified herself in Angel's eyes: "will you forgive me of my sin against you, now that I have killed him?" Even her most self-defining act, the revenge against Alec for ruining her life, is motivated by assumptions central to a patriarchal system, that all brides must be pure and that whatever happens, it is always the woman's fault.

On the whole, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is a powerful, empathic story of a noble, generous, natural woman who is the victim of society, fate, and a changing culture. But like the great tragic figures, she is also victim of her own character: her innocence, her pride, her kindness, her idealization of love, and her inevitable acceptance of the repressive ideals of Victorian sexual mores.

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