Suggested Essay Topics
Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 1–4
1. One of Hardy’s concerns in the novel is to describe the customs and manners of England’s rural life, which he felt were being lost to industrialization and modernization. What descriptions and incidents in the first four chapters build a picture of rural life in the late nineteenth century?
2. What parts do Fate, Chance, and sheer accident play in the beginning of Tess’s life story?
3. How is Tess contrasted to her parents?
4. How does Hardy make Tess appear as a representative example of her native environment and her gender?
Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 5–11
1. Research the historical phenomenon of newly rich families buying titles or adopting aristocratic names in Victorian England. How common were such practices? How closely in accordance with these historical facts is Hardy’s fictional presentation of Simon Stoke?
2. Thomas Hardy frequently indicates which of his characters he morally approves of by describing their attitude to hard work. Pick three characters from Phase the First and analyze how Hardy judges them by portraying their differing attitudes to work and labor. Devote one paragraph to each character and include several quotes from the novel in each paragraph. Write an introductory paragraph with an appropriately worded thesis statement and end the essay with a conclusion restating your findings and assessing their importance.
3. At two important moments in Chapters Five and 11, Hardy departs from describing events and shifts into an omniscient narrative voice which makes philosophical pronouncements. How do these shifts of narrative voice add to our experience of the novel?
4. Literary critics frequently describe characters as being either round or flat. Round characters are constantly changing, evolving, maturing, presenting new, unpredictable aspects to readers. Flat characters are defined more in terms of several focused and unchanging characteristics, making them easily memorable but not, perhaps, so interesting for the reader to spend time with. (The English novelist E. M. Forster formulated this distinction in his book Aspects of the Novel, published in 1927, a number of years after Hardy wrote Tess.) Assess whether Tess, Alec D’Urberville, Angel Clare, or Joan Durbeyfield are round or flat characters. Can a flat character compel our interest?
5. How many times does the thought of Prince’s death affect Tess’s behavior? Describe how Tess constantly shows responsibility for the well-being and reputation of her family.
Phase the Second: Maiden No More, Chapters 12–15
1. Hardy presents two characters associated with organized religion. What criticisms does he make of these characters and of their religion?
2. Trace and analyze the references to death in this Phase. What does Hardy mean to suggest through these references?
3. How do the landscapes presented in the end of Chapter 13 and throughout Chapter 14 reflect Tess’s state of mind? Discuss the details through which Hardy builds informative, and psychologically appropriate portraits of these natural and agricultural environments.
Phase the Third: The Rally, Chapters 16–19
1. Research the Victorian reaction against organized religion, especially as embodied in the Articles of Faith of the Church of England. How typical were Angel Clare’s misgivings about religion and religious faith?
2. Hardy writes of Angel, “[H]e made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly—the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters, and mists, shades and silence, and the voices of inanimate things.” Citing and analyzing several passages descriptive of nature, argue that this quotation names those things Hardy most wants us to perceive and appreciate as we read the novel.
3. How does Angel misjudge and misperceive Tess even as he first begins to be attracted to her?
Phase the Third: The Rally, Chapters 20–24
1. Trace the connections Hardy suggests between the natural environment at Talbothays, the summer season, and the growing love of Angel and Tess.
2. Analyze Hardy’s language in this passage: “The air of the sleeping-chamber seemed to palpitate with the hopeless passion of the girls. They writhed feverishly under the oppressiveness of an emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature’s law—an emotion which they had neither...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)