Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
Best remembered as the chronicler of the fictional Wessex, England, Thomas Hardy is considered one of the greatest novelists of the late nineteenth century. Born and raised in a small hamlet in Dorset, Hardy moved to London as a young man and spent most of the rest of his life as an urban professional. He remained part enthralled and part troubled about his native Wessex, however, and wrote with passion about industrialization, the movement of labor to the cities (or the exile of rural people in search of a living), the destruction of agricultural economies (and the ways of life dependent on them), and social dislocation. Almost all of Hardy’s best-known novels contrast the social conditions of urban and rural people. While his novels are complex and often deeply tragic, his poems often are eulogies to the rural landscapes he loved.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles was inspired by Hardy’s concerns over the fragility of the English rural worker’s livelihood. The novel was also shockingly honest for its day in its presentation of women’s sexuality and power. Tess’s unrelenting victimization, often considered the novel’s most serious flaw, is, in part, Hardy’s indictment of Victorian values, which put the blame of economic deprivation on the poor, and the blame for sexual exploitation on the exploited (women). The theme of sexual exploitation is closely interwoven with the story of Wessex’s decline.
Tess’s troubles begin with her parents’ economic condition; they are representatives of the disaffected and drunken villagers whose houses will soon fall to larger farms mass-producing crops for mass consumption. The novel is strewn with images of the Wessex countryside being gobbled up by machinery (the harvesting machine, for example, that is symbolically referred to as the “grim reaper”), rail tracks, and new farm enclosures. The uncertainty of Tess’s parents’ fate contributes to their irresponsibility. Since they are drunk at Rolliver’s Inn, Tess embarks on a journey with the beehives to the market; this is the journey on which she falls asleep and accidentally kills the family’s horse in a collision. The loss of the horse, in turn, prompts Tess to work for her family’s upkeep. The events that follow, culminating in her psychological disintegration and final criminal act, are rooted in a cause that is not Tess’s fault—her parents’ drunken irresponsibility—and perhaps not even her parents’ fault; rather, the tragic plot is set in motion by an economic set of circumstances. These economic conditions have social and psychological effects. Hardy’s frankness regarding money was also denounced in his day. Tess, abandoned by her husband, returns to Alec only when she is at a loss to care for her mother and younger siblings.
This is not to say that all the mistakes and wrongs perpetrated in the novel have an economic basis. The rural-urban dislocations generated by England’s economic circumstances play a large part in Tess’s life. Alec D’Urberville is the city-bred, cultured, streetwise man who takes advantage of Tess. Her rape and later seduction can be read as a metaphor for the city’s ruthless exploitation of the country. Angel Clare is educated in the city, and he develops fine sensibilities that unrealistically construct Tess into an ethereal and pure being (he likens her to Demeter). The unrealistic nature of Angel’s expectations makes him unable to forgive her for not being a virgin. Alec and Angel both manipulate Tess: the former through sexual and economic exploitation, and the latter through myths and idealistic moral constructs. Hardy continually draws readers’ attention to, and calls on readers’ compassion for, his female protagonist. The men who exploit her—representative of the deeds and words, respectively, that oppress women—are brought under the readers’ critical gaze. In a broad sense, the female is associated with the rural. For example, in one of the first scenes traveling students, of whom Angel is one, survey and “penetrate” the countryside in which Tess dances with the village maidens. Hardy’s imagery evokes conceptions of power in the act of the urban gaze focusing on the rural, doubling as Angel’s gaze on Tess.
The novel ends a tragedy. Unlike the protagonists of classic tragedies, the protagonist in this tragedy bears very little of the blame for her fate. Her mistakes are at best innocence, helplessness, and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility toward her loved ones. For many critics, such helplessness makes Tess a flawed, almost unrealistic, character. In any case, her fate must be read as a symbolic representation of the social power dynamics that Hardy criticizes. The novel is more than a simple realistic account of a fallen milkmaid.
Hardy is considered to be a realistic, naturalistic writer. His style has been described as cinematic, painterly, and pictorial because of its elaborate and meticulous renditions of landscape and architecture. Some of the ways in which readers make meaning of his narratives—for example, Tess as a symbol—do not fall into the realistic tradition, however, and Hardy’s best novels may be read on many levels in addition to those of realistic or naturalistic fiction. Tess of the D’Urbervilles may also be read for its historical, moral, satirical, and aesthetic concerns.