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

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Darwin and Social Darwinism The last fifty years of the nineteenth century saw innovations in science and technology that changed society to a greater degree than ever before. The theory of evolution popularized by naturalist Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859, had enormous cultural implications. The idea that humans were descended from apes changed accepted views of religion and society. It shook belief in the Biblical creation story and, therefore, all religious beliefs. It shocked the Victorians (those who lived during the reign of the British Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901) to think that their ancestors were animals. They glorified order and high-mindedness, and thought themselves, as British subjects, the pinnacle of culture.

To make Darwin's theory more palatable, a complementary theory called Social Darwinism was formulated. Proponents of this social philosophy argued that Darwin's ideas of "survival of the fittest" also applied to society. The existence of lower classes could be explained by their inferior intelligence and initiative in comparison to that of the upper classes. Angel refers to this theory when he expresses his surprise that there is no "Hodge" amongst the workers at Talbothays. "The conventional farm-folk of his imagination—personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge—were obliterated after a few days' residences." He is surprised to discover in Tess "the ache of modernism." For Tess, Angel, and others of their era, the God of their childhood was no longer able to answer their questions. Darwin's book ended forever the security of a society that could offer unalterable answers to every question; like Angel, many began to put their faith in "intellectual liberty" rather than religion.

Industrialization and Rural England When the railroad came to the area of southwest England where Tess was born, the area still led an isolated, almost medieval existence. The railroad made it easier for country folk looking for work to leave the towns where their families had lived for centuries. The railroad also fostered new types of agricultural use of the land. Large dairies such as Talbothays, where Tess worked as a milkmaid, could flourish only because the rapid trains allowed transport of fresh milk to heavily populated areas. When Tess and Angel take milk cans from the dairy to the nearest train station, Tess reflects that the next morning in London "strange people we have never seen" will drink the milk. The trains converted a closely-knit society into one where consumers never met the producers and where strangers lived together in larger and larger groups.

England entered an agricultural depression in the 1870s, brought on in part by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States in 1869. (This made it easier and cheaper for American goods to complete with British goods.) Rural workers unable to get jobs, flocked to British cities, causing urban population to double between 1851 and 1881. Less profitable farming, meant farms had to become larger in order to turn a profit, so smaller farms were bought out by larger farm owners. Machines, like the steam threshing machine at Flintcomb Ash, made agricultural workers less in demand. The large landowners felt no connection with the families living on their land, so to not renew their leases—as was done to Tess's family on Old Ladies Day—was a question of economic good sense, nothing more. Hardy criticized this practice in "The Dorsetshire Labourer," an essay published in Longman's magazine in July 1883 quoted in Martin Seymour-Smith's biography of Hardy. "But the question of the Dorset cottager," Hardy notes, "here merges...

(This entire section contains 894 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in that of all the house less and landless poor and the vast topic of the Rights of Man."

Women in Victorian Society In Tess Hardy considers both the "Rights of Man" and, with equal sympathy, the rights of women. Women of the Victorian era were idealized as the helpmate of man, the keeper of the home, and the "weaker sex." Heroines in popular fiction were expected to be frail and virtuous. The thought that Hardy subtitled his novel "A Pure Woman" infuriated some Victorian critics, because it flew in the face of all they held sacred. For while the Victorian era was a time of national pride and belief in British superiority, it was also an age best-remembered for its emphasis on a strict code of morality, unequally applied to men and women. The term Victorian has come to refer to any person or group with a narrow, uncompromising sense of right and wrong. Women were not only discriminated against by the moral code, but they were also discriminated against by the legal code of the day. Until the 1880s married women were unable to hold property in their own name; and the wages of rural workers would go directly to the husband, even if he failed to provide anything for his family. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 granted the right to a divorce to both men and women on the basis of adultery but, in order to divorce her husband, a women would have to further prove gross cruelty or desertion. Women who sought divorce for whatever reason were ostracized from polite society. Women, like children, were best "seen, but not heard," or as Seymour-Smith observes, "The Victorian middle-class wife...was admired upon her pedestal of moral superiority only so long as she remained there silently."

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

NarratorTess of the d'Urbervilles tells the story of a girl who is seduced and has a child who dies. When she meets another man whom she wants to marry, she is unable to tell him about her past until after their wedding. Her husband abandons her, and Tess is driven by despair into the arms of her former seducer. When her husband returns, Tess kills the man she is living with. Hardy uses a third-person ("he/she") narrator with an omniscient (all-knowing) point of view to tell Tess's story. Thus the narrator not only describes the characters but can reveal their thoughts Hardy also uses his power as narrator to offer his philosophical insights on the action. The novel's closing paragraph, which begins " 'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess" is a good example of how Hardy comments on the action. Some critics believe the novel would have been better if Hardy could have remained silent and let the actions of the characters tell the story. At several spots in the novel, Hardy's narrator loses his omniscient ability and comments on the story through the eyes of a storyteller of local history. For example, when he tells the story of Tess and Angel's first meeting, when Angel chooses another girl to dance with him, the narrator says he does not know the lucky girl's name. "The name of the eclipsing girl, whatever it was, has not been handed down," he notes.

Setting The story takes place in Wessex, an invented territory based on the Dorset countryside where Hardy was born and which fascinated him his entire life. Hardy gives Wessex its own vitality by depicting the region's folk customs (such as the "club-walking" in the scene in which we meet Tess), the "folklore dialect" with its colorful expressions like "get green malt in floor" (meaning to get pregnant), and its superstitions (such as the story of the d'Urberville coach). Hardy's settings seem to mirror the emotions of his characters. Talbothays Dairy, where Angel and Tess's love grows, is described as "oozing fatness and warm ferments" and there "the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization." Everything about Talbothays drips with the moisture of fertility and sensuality. In stark contrast to the dairy are scenes at Flintcomb Ash where Tess goes after she is abandoned by Angel. It is "a starve-acre place" where the fields are "a desolate drab" color and the work is exhausting and demeaning. The scene of Tess's capture is Stonehenge, the famous prehistoric ruins on the Salisbury Plain, consisting of large upright stones surrounding an altar stone. Significantly, it is on this altar stone, thought to have been the site of bloody sacrificial offerings, that Tess lies when the police come to arrest her for Alec's murder. Through his choice of settings Hardy is able to make additional comment on the action of the story without further narrative intrusions. By placing Tess on the sacrificial altar Hardy makes clear that he believes she is an innocent victim. Time of year is also important in the novel as Hardy uses the changing of the seasons over the period of about five years as representative of the changing fortunes of his heroine. It is "a particularly fine spring" when she goes to Talbothays; summer as Angel courts her; and finally winter at Flintcomb Ash where she tries to once more avoid Alec's advances. Time of day is equally as important: unhappy events usually happen in the evening or night.

Symbolism The settings in Tess of the d'Urbervilles function as symbols in that their names have meanings more important than just geographical points. Mar-lott, Tess's birthplace, for example, alludes to her "marred" or disfigured lot or destiny. Flintcomb Ash, as its name implies, is a hard, barren place. Several characters have symbolic names as well, including the girl that Angel's parents want him to marry, Mercy Chant, who is depicted as religious to a fault, and Angel Clare, who seems to be an "angel" to Tess and her three milkmaid friends, and even plays a harp. The harp, however, we are told is secondhand, and it symbolizes Angel's imperfect character. Throughout the novel Angel and Tess are symbolically associated with Adam and Eve of the Bible. In one of the most commented on scenes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Tess approaches Angel, who is playing his harp, through the wildflowers and weeds in an unkempt garden with an apple tree. As she approaches, she is unaware of the "thistle-milk and slug-slime" and other disagreeable natural secretions that coat her skirts and arms. Even though Talbothays may seem like Paradise, the reader understands that this Garden of Eden is one that has been spoiled. Later in the novel, more references appear that, again, equate Tess with Eve and Angel with Adam. Alec, on the other hand, appears to Tess as she plants potatoes in a Marlott field. Amid the fires of burning weeds, he appears holding a pitchfork and he says, "You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you." Tess is also repeatedly identified with a captured bird. Other important symbolic images in the novel include a bloodstained piece of butcher paper caught in the gate of the Clare residence as Tess attempts to contact Angel's parents in Emminster, the bloody heart-shaped stain on the ceiling at "The Herons" after Tess kills Alec in the room above, and the capture of Tess on the stone of sacrifice at Stonehenge.

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Wessex. Hardy’s fictionalized version of the region around Dorset, a coastal county in southern England, taking its name from the West Saxon kingdom of the sixth to tenth centuries. Hardy introduced Wessex in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). In later fiction, he layered a detailed topography modeled on actual locations with archetypal symbolism. The capital city of Wessex, Casterbridge, mentioned several times in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is Hardy’s version of Dorchester.


Marlott. Village in the north of Wessex on a plain called the Vale of Blackmoor (or Blakemore), modeled on Marnhull, that is Tess Durbeyfield’s original home. Even before she is forced to leave this “fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry,” mishaps and catastrophes in its environs indeed seem destined to mar her lot in life.


Trantridge. Town east of Marlott, based on Pentridge, where the Durbyfieldses’ supposed D’Urberville relatives live in a redbrick lodge. At the edge of this newly rich estate, Hardy places the Chase, a forest dating back to the time of the Druids that he bases on Cranbourne Chase, once a royal hunting ground. There, primeval shadows and modern corruption collude in Alec D’Urberville’s rape of Tess.


Chaseborough. “Decayed market-town,” located two or three miles southeast of Trantridge, whose hard-drinking looseness drives Tess into Alec’s company.

Talbothays Dairy

Talbothays Dairy. Destination of Tess’s second journey from home, in the Great Dairies region, which Hardy alternately calls Var Vale and Froom Valley after its double-named river. Lying symbolically in almost the opposite direction from Trantridge, the fertile valley is the scene of Tess’s summer healing and rebirth after her rape. At times, Talbothays seems to be Eden after the Fall, at others a pagan pastoral idyll.


Emminster. Little town surrounded by hills in which the religious family of Tess’s husband, Angel Clare, lives. A dominant church tower signals the contrast to Talbothays’ natural, pagan lushness.


Wellbridge. Village in which Tess and Angel honeymoon in a farmhouse. There her ancestors’ looming portraits represent Tess’s entrapment by her past, and Angel leaves her after she finally reveals part of her past to him.


*Brazil. South American country to which Angel flees to gain new farming experience after he is disillusioned by Tess’s revelation. In addition to reflecting a trend among British agriculturists of the period, Angel’s stay in the New World serves to liberate him from England’s narrow conventions.


Flintcomb-Ash. Bleak “starve-acre place” about fifteen miles southwest of Marlott where Tess works at swede-hacking during a harsh winter. Hardy explicitly contrasts Flintcomb-Ash, his fictionalized Nettlecombe-Tout, with “Talbothays Dairy, that happy green tract of land where summer had been liberal in her gifts.” At Flintcomb-Ash, Tess simultaneously endures seasonal hardship, renewed sexual predation by Alec, and mechanical oppression by a demoniac, black threshing machine.


Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill. Former home of Tess’s highborn D’Urberville ancestors, now buried in its churchyard. The migration of Tess’s family from Marlott to Kingsbere (modeled on Bere Regis) exemplifies village depopulation caused by seasonal work but also symbolizes how Tess’s heritage has a death-grip on her fate.


Sandbourne. Fashionable resort modeled on Bournemouth where Angel finds Tess after returning from Brazil. Hardy uses this “city of detached mansions; a Mediterranean lounging-place on the English Channel” to emphasize his rural heroine’s sense of alienation in living as the wife of the newly rich Alec, whom she kills after she turns away Angel.

New Forest

New Forest. Setting for Tess and Angel’s delayed consummation of their marriage, contrasting with the antiquity of the Chase.


*Stonehenge. Circle of stone monoliths placed in prehistoric times on a plain about eight miles northwest of Salisbury, which Hardy calls “ancient Melchester,” in the county of Wiltshire. In this pagan setting, which Angel associates with human sacrifices to the sun, Tess rests on a stone slab before her arrest for Alec’s murder. As the police close in around her, the setting makes her not merely the law’s victim but also a sacrifice to some unjust, even cruel, universal power beyond natural phenomena.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Casagrande, Peter J. Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focuses on Hardy’s intertwining of beauty and ugliness, of moral and aesthetic issues. Examines Victorian attitudes toward women, Tess’s “terrible beauty” and parallels between her suffering and the horse’s death. Analyzes Angel as a mix of convention and newness.

Kramer, Dale, and Nancy Marck, eds. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Discusses Hardy’s plots and rhetoric, with focus on individual novels. Good essay on Hardy’s understanding of Tess as a woman, examining Victorian debates and postromantic ideas. Treats awareness of language as a shaping force.

Moore, Kevin Z. The Descent of the Imagination: Postromantic Culture in the Later Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Uses language and cultural dominance issues to discuss Tess’s quest for beauty and freedom.

Vigar, Penelope. The Novels of Thomas Hardy: Illusion and Reality. London: Athlone Press, 1974. Analyzes Hardy’s techniques and style. Examines Tess of the D’Urbervilles in terms of Hardy’s notion of imaginative flights that emerge from visual effects. Analyzes the novel’s structure in terms of its contrasts—Tess’s purity and guilt, reality and perceptions.

Wright, Terence. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1987. Summarizes critical approaches to Tess of the D’Urbervilles: social, character, ideas, formal, and genetic. Gives overview of criticism on the novel. Synthesizes the best criticism, emphasizing importance of place, ambiguity of causes, human insignificance, and the inevitability of human tragedy, with Tess representing individual and larger tragedy.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1890s: The rural population was forced to move toward urban areas as low prices and industrialization of farm equipment made smaller farms less profitable.

Today: Family-run farms are disappearing across the United States at the rate of several hundred a year, primarily due to large corporations controlling food production and pricing.

1890s: The advent of rail transportation from rural to the teeming cities of the late nineteenth century made dairy farming more attractive than crop farming, since production was less weather dependent, costs were lower, and an ever-expanding customer-base was within easy reach.

Today: While small dairies still exist, increasing production costs and lower prices have forced many dairy farmers to sell out to larger concerns, with an average dairy in the western United States milking one to two thousand cows.

1890s: Women could not divorce their husbands, even for having an affair, unless they could prove their husbands had treated them cruelly or abandoned them.

Today: All fifty states permit couples to divorce by mutual consent, although in twenty, pro-family groups have proposed, and in several cases passed, legislation for making divorce harder to obtain when children are involved.

1890s: State supported education was provided for all children, with education being compulsory to age eleven.

Today: Increasing dissatisfaction with public schooling has led to exploration of alternative educational methods, including independent public charter schools and 1.2 million students in home-schools.

1890s: Teacher, rural worker, domestic helper, and nurse were some of the positions open to women seeking financial independence; those who chose nontraditional career paths, such as medicine, were ridiculed.

Today: Although on the average women still earn less per hour than male workers, unlimited career opportunities are now available to them; in 1997, Madeleine Albright became the first woman to ever serve as U. S. Secretary of State, eliminating yet another barrier to advancement for women.

1890s: Women who bore children out of wedlock were considered "ruined"; they and their children could hope for little more than social marginalization.

Today: Single parenting has become commonplace, with more than 30% of U.S. children being born to fathers and mothers who are not married.

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Like most of Hardy's novels, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is conservative and unspectacular in its literary techniques. It uses the convention of the omniscient narrator with dexterity, providing, as do many Victorian novels, a cordial companion to help the reader interpret the action. As Hardy laments the folly of Joan and John Durbeyfield in mapping out an unfortunate future for Tess and her siblings, we as readers come to rely on Hardy's "voice" for guidance in interpreting the data. He is at his very best in panoramic scenes of social realism, such as the harvest scenes at Marlott and later at Flintcomb-Ash, or the "lady-day" removals that force the widow Durbeyfield and her family out of their cottage.

Like The Mayor of Casterbridge, this novel, although extensively revised from serial to book publication, still bears the impress of the serialized novel, the occasionally anticlimactic moment. Hardy emphasizes the smaller units of meaning by titling sections of the novel as "Phases," often with double or ambiguous meaning, such as "The Rally" for the section describing Tess's journey to Talbothay's to get away from the shame and sorrow at Marlott, in which she falls in love with Angel (thus a positive "rally") but is consumed by her unworthiness to be his life's partner (thus a reminder that her fate denies any rally). Similarly Hardy labels the final phase of the novel, chapters 53 through 59, "Fulfillment." In it he describes the idyllic week of honeymoon Tess and Angel steal at a closed estate (the stealing a fairly heavy-handed symbol for the concept that their happiness in this world of sorrow must be stolen), but he also describes the murder of Alec and eventually Tess's death by hanging—which ironically fulfills the death wish she has harbored since she returned pregnant to Marlott and which manifested itself especially in the powerful scene in which she visits the graves of her D'Urberville ancestors.

Finally, the novel employs the archetypal myth of the scapegoat. Carpenter efficiently describes this dimension as an "archetypal folk tale of the wronged maiden who cannot escape from her past, who finally turns on her seducer to destroy him, and who loses her own life as a result." Most critics and readers would find much with which to agree in this description.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was adapted as a film directed by Roman Polanski, starring Nastassja Kinski, Leigh Lawson, and Peter Firth, 1980. The film received many Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture, it won Oscars for best cinematography, best art direction and best costume design. It is available from Columbia Tristar Home Video.

It was also recorded on audio cassette, narrated by Davina Porter, published by Recorded Books, 1994.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Most group discussions will undoubtedly and productively focus on questions of guilt and responsibility. Other areas that can be productively explored are the issues of gender roles. How much of Hardy's representation to Tess as a victim of stratified gender roles is intentional? Several omniscient passages in the novel isolate certain behaviors as "feminine," and these are not usually complimentary. Do these passages undermine the sense of Tess as the victim of repressive attitudes toward gender roles? Here are some other questions.

1. At the end of Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, two figures, Angel and Liza-Lu, Tess's sister, pause and kneel to pray when the signal is given that Tess has been executed. Tess suggested to Angel that he marry her sister after she is dead. Does Hardy intend this as a fulfillment of Tess's hopes, an act of loyalty to her memory by both the people she most loved? Or is there a hint of irony here, that Angel and Liza-Lu will go on to the future Tess was denied? Does their implied future together honor or diminish Tess's memory?

2. One of the most impressive scenes in the novel takes place on the way to Flintcomb-Ash, when Tess sleeps in a grove and hears what she in the morning discovers to be pheasants wounded by hunters and left to die. To what degree are the pheasants representative of larger concerns in the novel? How do we account for Tess's systematically strangling all the pheasants she can catch?

3. A highly celebrated passage of the novel concerns the "lady-day" removals that take members of the old peasant class from one job and home to another. Discuss the sociological implications of this passage. Is it a lament for a lost, stable peasantry? A call for reform in England's labor practices? A recognition of an inevitable social change?

4. Murder is never justified. How near is Tess's killing Alec an exception to this generalization? Is it an act of fate, or an act of choice?

5. How successfully does Hardy account for the love the three dairymaids, as well as Tess, feel for Angel Clare? It is clearly something more than puppy-love. What about "Mr. Clare" so spellbinds the young women?

6. Compare Tess's stay at Talbothay's dairy with that at Flintcomb-Ash as variations on Hardy's vision of England's disappearing rural economy. Although there are clear and pronounced differences, are there similarities behind them?

7. What elements of Tess's character or situation might be emphasized by a reader influenced by modern feminist theory or concerns? How consistent with Hardy's assumptions at the time the novel was written do you think such interpretations would be?

8. How credible is Alec D'Urberville's conversion to evangelical Christianity? Does Hardy make this transformation convincing? Or is this change part of Hardy's unrelenting critique of Christianity? Or is the conversion necessary to the plot, that is, simply needed to set up Alex's inevitable backsliding?

9. Tess explores the crypt of the local church, where she finds the burial chamber of the D'Urberville family and the unregenerate Alec, which is the last time we see her before Angel locates her as Alec's mistress. How much credibility does the crypt scene, with its lugubrious associations with mortality, offer to support Tess's capitulation to Alec's demands?

10. At what points in the novel did Tess make real decisions concerning her future life? Was her fate determined by chance, economics, culture, or destiny? Were the choices she made themselves conditioned? Which of these decisions in turn sets into motion a series of incidents that seem to conspire against Tess's happiness?

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources Harold Bloom, "Introduction," in Thomas HardyModern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987, pp 1-22.

Butler, Lance St. John, Thomas Hardy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Donald Davidson, "The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy's Fiction," in Hardy A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963 pp.

Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. London: Heinemann, 1975.

Gregor, Ian. The Great Web. London: Faber, 1974.

Guerard, A. J. (ed.). Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Albert J. Guerard, "Introduction," in his Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp 1-9.

Florence Emily Hardy, "Background Hardy's Autobiography," in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, 2nd edition, edited by Scott Elledge, Norton, 1979, pp. 343-63.

Hardy, F. E. The Life of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Norton Critical Edition, WW Norton, 1979.

John Holloway, "Hardy's Major Fiction," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp 52-62.

Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy A Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1994

Review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in Anthenaeum, January 9, 1892.

Review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in Times (London), January 13,1892.

Dorothy Van Ghent, "On Tess of the d'Urbervilles," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp 77-90.

For Further Study Byron Caminero-Santangelo, "A Moral Dilemma: Ethics in Tess of the d'Urbervilles," in English Studies, Vol 75, No 1, January, 1994, pp. 46-61. Caminero-Santangelo begins by noting that the world of Tess is a post-Darwinian one in which ethics have no basis in nature. He then goes on to argue that the novel's "ethical center" can be located in a "community of careful readers" who will recognize the injustice in the novel and emulate Tess in challenging it.

Peter J. Casagrande, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Unorthodox Beauty, Twayne's Masterwork Studies, 1992. In this book-length study, Casagrande argues that Hardy, in exploring the question of why innocents suffer, finds beauty in Tess's suffering at the same time that he deplores that suffering.

Graham Handley, in Thomas Hardy,Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Penguin, 1991. Handley analyzes Tess in terms of "narrative structures." He gives particular weight to the roles of the characters in the novel, and also examines the novel in terms of such things as its "figurative patterns" and "themes."

Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, 1967. Howe provides a lengthy discussion of Tess, including a comparison between Hardy's novel and Bun-yan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Lionel Johnson, "The Argument," in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, 2nd edition, edited by Scott EUedge, Norton, 1979, pp. 389-400. A portion of poet Lionel Johnson's acclaimed early analysis of Hardy's fiction in which he examines Hardy's attitude toward Nature, his depiction of the Wessex country folk, and his fatalistic view of life.

Hugh Kenner, "J. Hilhs Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, September, 1971, pp. 230-34. In the course of reviewing a book by scholar-cntic J. Hilhs Miller on Hardy, Kenner provides his own perspective on Hardy's merits and importance.

Andrew Lang, review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in Longman's, November, 1892. An early review in which the critic finds little to praise in the novel.

Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, University of California Press, 1980. A landmark study focusing mainly on the visual arts in Renaissance Italy, and first published in 1873.

Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, Viking Penguin, 1990. Showalter's study discusses gender issues in 1890s Britain and draws several parallels with the U.S in the 1980s.

Peter Widdowson, editor Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Macmillan, 1993. A collection of essays meant to represent a response to Hardy's novel from a range of critical positions, in particular Marxism, feminism, and poststructural-lsm.

Terence Wnght, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Macmillan, 1987. This short book is divided into two parts. In the first, Wnght surveys various critical approaches to the novel, which he divides into five basic categories In the second, he attempts to synthesize what he considers to be the best elements of all these approaches into a single reading of the novel.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Casagrande, Peter J. Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focuses on Hardy’s intertwining of beauty and ugliness, of moral and aesthetic issues. Examines Victorian attitudes toward women, Tess’s “terrible beauty” and parallels between her suffering and the horse’s death. Analyzes Angel as a mix of convention and newness.

Kramer, Dale, and Nancy Marck, eds. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Discusses Hardy’s plots and rhetoric, with focus on individual novels. Good essay on Hardy’s understanding of Tess as a woman, examining Victorian debates and postromantic ideas. Treats awareness of language as a shaping force.

Moore, Kevin Z. The Descent of the Imagination: Postromantic Culture in the Later Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Uses language and cultural dominance issues to discuss Tess’s quest for beauty and freedom.

Vigar, Penelope. The Novels of Thomas Hardy: Illusion and Reality. London: Athlone Press, 1974. Analyzes Hardy’s techniques and style. Examines Tess of the D’Urbervilles in terms of Hardy’s notion of imaginative flights that emerge from visual effects. Analyzes the novel’s structure in terms of its contrasts—Tess’s purity and guilt, reality and perceptions.

Wright, Terence. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1987. Summarizes critical approaches to Tess of the D’Urbervilles: social, character, ideas, formal, and genetic. Gives overview of criticism on the novel. Synthesizes the best criticism, emphasizing importance of place, ambiguity of causes, human insignificance, and the inevitability of human tragedy, with Tess representing individual and larger tragedy.

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, his most influential novel and one that most emphatically offended the more pious Victorian sensibilities, Thomas Hardy directly challenged many of the most deeply seeded social beliefs of the late nineteenth century. Small wonder that many critics in the contemporary press attacked the novel as immoral, for it was little less than a calculated frontal attack on prevailing attitudes toward the social caste system, women's places in contemporary society, and the role of organized religion in maintaining empty social mores rather than addressing the real needs of human beings. The power of Hardy's attack can be appreciated if we consider for a moment that this indictment of those attitudes is simultaneously one of our culture's most forceful introductions to them.

By the late nineteenth century, England was in a turbulent transition between two competing orders of economy and governance. The long-enduring, essentially feudal aristocracy, in which ancient, landed gentry dominated the culture and economy of many communities, was challenged by those who believed that acquired wealth and civil accomplishment should be the basis for political authority. Although associations among wealth, power, and privilege continued to dominate, the concept of heredity as a source of cultural authority was in Hardy's time in the process of a well-deserved and long-overdue dismantling.

In Tess, the idea of inherited status is satirized at the beginning of the narrative when Jack Durbeyfield, a ne'er-do-well beekeeper with a predilection for drink, learns from a meddling parson that his family is descended from the noble D'Urberville clan of the era when knights were economic, political, and social, forces. "Sir John" Derbyfield and his malapropistic spouse expose the sheer ridiculousness of caste, estate, and privilege when they not only take on airs among the Marlott village, but assume that their branch of a near-extinct family is better than other branches that have died out or have survived in some diluted fashion. The drunker Sir John gets while celebrating his new-found importance, the more impressive his ancestors become. He has "finer skillentons [skeletons (in his closet)] than any man in Wessex!"

Hardy mocks the automatic association of worth and respect with wealth and fortune through Jack's transformation, but his generally amusing wife Joan reveals a more mercenary side to the system of inherited wealth. She develops a plan to send their beautiful eldest daughter to "claim kin" with a wealthy distant relative, but her backup plan, as she divulges to the younger children, is finally to marry Tess off to Mrs. D'Urberville's son. And Joan is not particularly scrupulous about whether, or by how many months, this marriage precedes motherhood. After Tess departs to work as a poultry keeper, Joan remarks to her husband, "And if he don't marry her afore, he will after." Although Tess wants no part of this claiming kin arrangement, the lure of power and wealth, and her own guilt at carelessly causing the death of the family's only horse, are enough to propel her, innocent as she is, into the intrigues and expectations of a caste society.

The efforts to seduce Tess by the D'Urberville son also operate on assumptions about the rights of the privileged class. Alec constantly refers to Tess as his "poor cousin" and uses his wealth and class as bases for pressing his affections on her. He drives his carriage recklessly to force her into favors which we would today call sexual harassment, and he takes full advantage of her status as a poor relation to impose on her sexually. Even the scene in which Alec rapes Tess—and although Hardy does not use the word "rape," the liaison involves his forcing himself on a young woman who is exhausted and nearly asleep—is preceded by a show of hierarchical deference. Tess innocently arouses the ire of one Car Dutch, a formidable young woman dubbed the Queen of Spades who works at the D'Urberville estates, after an evening of carousing at which Alec offers to escort Tess home, but she demurs, citing her obligation to the group with whom she came. When the Queen demands that Tess engage in a fistfight over an unintended insult, Alec rides into the group and insists that the fighting stop. Despite her belligerence, the Queen and all the other country folk defer to Alec's hierarchical authority, although he has nothing except his horse and his name to enforce his power. Moreover, Car's mother jokingly predicts that Tess is headed "[o]ut of the frying-pan into the fire"; although they are drunk and Car has designated Tess "the other" by singling her out as an enemy, still the members of the working-class do not question her potential danger as a young woman riding on the heath with a known philanderer, nor do they think it is their obligation to protect, or even concern themselves with her probable fate. Additionally, it never occurs to Tess that she is in fact a victim of class inequity. She takes the whole encounter with Alec as her own responsibility, even though what happens in the Chase is really rape—but an assault whose foundation is at least as much a perception of the rights of the ruling class over the poor as the superior force of a cad like D'Urberville.

To underscore his criticism of the social system based on wealth and privilege, Hardy introduces two related ironies. The first and more obvious is that the D'Urberville family by whom Tess is mistreated are mercenary imposters. The omniscient narrator informs the reader that Alec's father was a successful merchant who literally "annexed" the tide to me family name Stoke in order to give his wealth a patina of respectability (when Tess introduces herself to Alec as a relative, he asks whether her name is "Stoke"). Thus the very social prestige Joan seeks through her daughter is an illusion. At a slightly more subtle level, Hardy has Angel Clare, a progressive thinker in many superficial ways, profess to despise all the decadent aristocratic families that still exist in Wessex, and by extension England. One of Hardy's little jokes is that the Hardy name is among those Angel despises as representative of a system of cultural parasitism. When before the wedding, Tess struggles to confess her past to Angel, she half-hopes that revealing that she is of aristocratic origins will render confession of her past with Alec unnecessary. Like most of his progressive ideas, however, Angel's contempt for systems of privilege is barely skin-deep. He not only "forgives" Tess her aristocratic ancestors, but plans to play this as a trump ace in addressing his parents' objections that he plans to marry a milkmaid rather than a respectable woman. If, after all, she's of the petit nobility, how can they possibly object to his marrying her?

In addition to his critique of Victorian sentiments about caste and privilege, Hardy addresses, perhaps less intentionally, the relation between gender and privilege. Tess's obvious means of rising in the caste system is through marriage, or through its antithesis whoredom. Although she is generous, hardworking, and by far the most moral character in the novel, her merits count for nothing in leading her out of the cycle of poverty and brutal, mind-dulling labor. Hardy is at his very best in describing the grind of tedious labor Tess must endure in order to survive, whether in harvest fields before her infant son dies, at the dairy farm at which she meets her husband Angel Clare, or especially at Farmer Groby's barren farm at Flintcomb-Ash. Although several critics associate the descriptions of the dairy with Edenic image clusters (and these certainly exist in the novel, as does a variation on the pastoral tradition of the aubade, or morning song of love), there is little doubt that milkmaids work long, hard, and tedious hours.

By contrast to the conventional romanticized image of milkmaids, however, the cold and back-breaking work in the north is something anyone would want to escape. Tess's friend Marion does so by drinking too much, and even the normally reticent Tess has a nip or two to block the cold, pain, and drudgery. But the harder she works, the more mired she becomes in her poverty, with no means of advancement based on her merit. This entrapment is in part due to her pride, in not going to her clerical father-in-law for help, and in part to the sullen enmity Farmer Groby feels toward her because her fiance punched the farmer for insolently claiming to have known Tess when she was believed to be Alec D'Urberville's mistress. A portion of the blame for Tess's increasing poverty must be her improvident and needy family, who generate little revenue but have few compunctions about asking their daughter, married to the son of a modestly well-to-do clerical family, for financial assistance to meet the unending series of crises that face the last surviving D'Urbervilles.

But the central facts of the novel support the interpretation that women's merits are defined exclusively as domestic ones to be associated with marriage and that the way a woman can escape the traps of the caste system is to marry or whore her way out of it. Tess's mother sends her either to marry Alec or become his mistress, and after Tess has refused his later overtures to marry, the family is in absolute despair, with no home in which to live and no reasonable hope that she and her husband Angel can be reunited, and she has no alternative to save her family from starvation than to become Alec's mistress. This pattern is reinforced by the three love-sick dairymaids who compete for Angel's affections at Talbothay's. While this is an amusing picture of puppy love (one teases another about kissing a wall upon which Angel's shadow had been!), it is also a disturbing portrait of female subservience, perhaps one that presses our interpretation beyond the novelist's conscious intentions. None really has any hope of marrying Clare, but all invest heavily in a fantasized future with him, except for Tess, who feels unworthy of his affection because of her past association with Alec. While none of the milkmaids expresses resentment of Tess's success—on the contrary, they triumph vicariously in her marriage—they individually respond with expressions of despair. Marian's drinking increases, and she explicitly associates her dependency with her lost hopes for Clare, wondering how Tess can understand unhappiness because Angel married her; Izzy Huett agrees to Clare's impulsive suggestion that she accompany him to Brazil as his mistress after he has decided that he cannot remain with his new bride Tess; and Netty Priddle simply vanishes from the novel, but the two remaining milkmaids assume she too despaired over Angel's marriage. Thus the milkmaids form a microcosm for the novel; individually and collectively they suggest Hardy's motif that female happiness and worth are dependent on male approval.

The only two powerful women in the novel, oddly enough, reinforce rather than contradict this generalization. Joan Durbeyfield is the decision-maker in Tess's home, but her limited power is the result of Sir John's stupidity, laziness, and drunkenness. She has what little power she has because of a defective male who cannot exercise the patriarchal authority he ironically claims from his feudal ancestors. Mrs. D'Urberville, Alec's mother, has power because of inherited wealth, the legacy of an industrious man. She is, however, significantly blind and therefore limited in her apprehension of the world. Specifically, she is unable, despite her material authority, to control her son's immoral and exploitative behavior. She probably does not even know the extent to which Alec usurps her authority in negotiating on her behalf with their poor relations.

The third central social concern of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the hypocrisy of the genteel Victorian clergy. The most casual reader will note the number of clerics in the novel, from the meddling parson who starts the foolish "Sir John" on his down- ward course of ancestor-smitten egotism, to the briefly regenerated Alec D'Urberville as a nonconformist evangelical preacher, to Angel Clare's utterly pompous brothers with their equally silly names, both heading for a vocation in the church. At the heart of Hardy's inclusion of so many satirical parsons is his belief that orthodox Christianity in Victorian England reflected rather than addressed many of the culture's main problems. With the possible exception of Angel's brothers, who are little more than stereotypical hypocrites, the pastoral characters in Tess of the D 'Urbervilles are well-meaning but ineffectual. About the only concrete achievement by a cleric in the novel is the unlikely and temporary conversion of the insolent Alec D'Urberville by the elder Parson Clare. And one measure of the effectiveness of this is that it does not survive Alec's second encounter with Tess, although Alec blames Tess's being irresistible for his fall, not his own weakness. Although it is true that the omniscient narrator laments that Tess, when she took the long journey to Emmister to seek help from her absent husband's family, chanced upon the pompous sons rather than the kindly father, and thereby Hardy qualifies his adverse judgment of organized religion as well as all parsons in the novel, in general it may be said that Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a work of art despairs that organized religion is an institutional support for the problems of oppressed people in England rather than a means of helping people deal with the problems they face.

A minor case in point is the local vicar in Marlott, whom Hardy represents as well-intentioned enough to come to the Durbeyfield cottage to baptize Tess's infant when it appears inevitable that the child will die; but he is not strong enough to insist, over Durbeyfield's drunken refusal to permit him to enter because the family's good name has been shamed by Tess's pregnancy, that the spiritual preparation of an innocent child for eternity takes precedence over family pride, real or imagined. After the novel's most poignant scene, in which Tess desperately performs a secular baptism while her child is literally dying, the vicar is decent enough to acknowledge to the guilt- and grief-stricken teenager that the baptism is valid and that the baby can enter heaven on the basis of it. But he is not brave enough to permit the child to be buried in the churchyard because this would offend the parishioners. Tess is forced to a clandestine burial in a corner near the churchyard, but the contradiction between the parson's assurance of a valid baptism and the denial of burial in sanctified ground weighs heavily on Tess. Finally, when Tess returns to her family from Flintcomb-Ash to take care of her ailing mother, the parishioners object violently to a woman of "her kind" worshiping in the community and especially trying to restore the pitiful, marginalized grave of her child lugubriously named "Sorrow." Apparently the vicar has not been successful in getting the message of charity or forgiveness across to his parishioners.

Important as this village cleric is to the motif of organized religion's failure, it is of course in the Clare family that the indictment ultimately stands. Angel's brothers are fools, and arrogant ones at that. His father is kindly but unimaginative. He is afraid of the theological innovations of the 1860s and 1870s which so profoundly affected Hardy, preferring a conservative and risk-free vocation. And although he is kindly, he makes no secret of his disappointment that Angel did not follow his brothers into the clergy, or marry the equally vapid Mercy Chant, whom the Clares selected as the proper bride for their wayward son—his brother Cuthbert is eventually condemned by Hardy to that fate.

More to the point, however, is that Angel has inherited much of the narrowness of Victorian Christianity despite his pretensions to modernist or pagan thinking. He rhapsodizes over Tess's intuitive queries into orthodoxy and teaches her enough preliminary criticism of organized religion during their courtship that she impresses Alec with her religious sophistication during his brief time as an evangelical. As much as Angel thinks he has sloughed off the empty pieties of conventional religion, however, he cannot transcend his religious orthodoxy when it really counts. After she confesses her past relationship with Alec, he finds that he cannot forgive her and value her as the person she is, in fact a victim of Alec's sexual aggression. Despite her perfectly reasonable plea that he too has confessed a past liaison, one significantly more voluntary than hers, he spurns her because he believes she is not the same person with whom he fell in love. How very similar to the "fallen woman" image so relentlessly renounced by society and the church! Angel may fancy himself a pagan philosophically, but it is part of Hardy's construction of his character that he is as much a prude as the most conservative country vicar.

This point is most graphically illustrated in one of the most melodramatic scenes Hardy ever wrote, and quite possibly the only overwritten scene in this splendid novel. During the brief stay in the cottage intended for their honeymoon, Tess receives a gruesome nocturnal visit from her self-estranged husband. The sleepwalking Angel carries her over a considerable distance, including the fording of a small river, to a nearby ruined monastery in which he places her in a coffin, the symbolism of which is almost embarrassingly obvious. For the present purpose the location, not the plausibility, of the scene, should concern us. It is a holy ground, a once-sacred place in which the somnambulist would bury the scarlet woman his priggish Christian morals require that he scorn, even while he loves the person he can no longer recognize. It requires a transatlantic journey, a near-brush with his own death, and conversations with a progressive English colonist who points out that Clare is fettered to past value systems, for Clare to put his prudishness behind him. By then it is too late for both him and Tess.

One final social concern unique to Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is Hardy's commentary on the British Empire's vast foreign colonies. While the British Empire flourished throughout the late nineteenth century and imposed its systems of government and economics on third world countries, men like Angel Clare went abroad to exploit cheap land and local labor while bringing enlightened British agricultural methods to places like South America, Australia, and Africa. Hardy truly excels in brief scenes describing what another writer, Joseph Conrad, would shortly label the twin devils of rapacity and folly that were involved in this colonialist enterprise. With a brilliant stroke of description, Hardy lets Angel's ignominious retreat from the Brazilian interior, feverish and accompanied by a fellow colonist who dies on the way back, stand for the "crowds of agricultural labourers who had come to the country in his wake, dazzled by representations of easy independence ..." Although Hardy does not develop our own contemporary theme of the arrogance of much of colonialism, he effectively does develop a portrait of the human cost in dashed hopes and expectations.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The somewhat lengthy list of coincidences in the novel, which individual readers can extend to triple or quadruple its length, would indeed seem to support the assertion that Tess's life is fated, that she, like Frank Norris's McTeague (of the novel of the same name, 1899; see separate entry) is a plaything of fate and that her story is essentially a de casibus tragedy, or a tragedy of fate. Her confrontation with destiny would then be what an important character in King Lear (1605), the great tragedy often associated by critics with Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge describes in this stark simile: "As flies to wanton [naughty] boys are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport."

Of course this great description tells only a part of the theme of King Lear. While the Earl of Gloucester reads the text of his own error-filled life as a confirmation of his own hypothesis that we are all the playthings of fate, the true tragic figure, Lear himself, has to come to an even more painful self-knowledge that by the decisions we often make we set into motion sequences of events that can ultimately overwhelm us. An indication of the true tragic stature of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is that something quite like, but not identical, to this meditation on fate and character occurs in this, Hardy's greatest novel. Tess is indeed the victim of fate. But she is also the victim of foolish parents, perverse gender roles in Victorian culture, a dysfunctional clergy, and as the poet Donald Hall so persuasively argues, "an industrial tragedy" in which the peasant culture is being assimilated into the evolving bourgeois society. Most critical for this argument, however, is that Tess's own pride, naivete, and poor decisions set into motion events that overwhelm her—much as happens in the greatest of Elizabethan tragedy. One of Hardy's most respected biographers, Carl Weber, states that while preparing to write his newly-contracted novel about a fallen milkmaid, he "clarified his thoughts as to what 'heroic stature' was by re-reading Sophocles and by meditating on the essence of tragedy in literary art."


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

One of the most impressive adaptations of the Tess story occurred during Hardy's lifetime. Seymour-Smith and other biographers report that a prominent British banker, Baron D'Erlanger, collaborated with noted Italian librettist Luigi Illica for an operatic treatment. It was first staged in Naples in 1906, then in London four years later. The Queen attended the premiere, as did Hardy, his wife Emma, and Florence Dugdale, Mrs. Hardy's companion and Hardy's mistress!

There have been a few cinematic treatments of Hardy's novel, the most recent being Roman Polanski's Tess, released by Columbia studios in 1980. Nastassia Kinski portrays Tess. It is a solid adaptation of first half of the novel, but one that accentuates Tess's complicity in the affair with Alec much more than Hardy does and omits important details in Alec's return into Tess's life, particularly his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Although the film represents an inevitable simplification of Hardy's theme, this dramatization captures the rural countryside well, brings out Hardy's concern with the evolution of rural England from a peasant to a bourgeois culture visually, and lingers effectively over the hardships Tess undergoes as a rural peasant woman in the late nineteenth century—its most compelling visual images are the stark, cold, wretched harvest of the turnip field in Flintcomb-Ash, and the subservience to the new threshing-machine, what Hardy calls "the red tyrant whom they had come to serve."

Curiously enough an important portion of Tess is itself adapted from Emma Hardy's novel, The Maid on the Shore (date uncertain, possibly around 1875; Hardy preserved his wife's typescript). In that manuscript Claude elopes with a peasant girl and eventually gives his bride a casket of valuable jewels, willed by his dead mother to whoever would become his bride. This is undoubtedly the source for the casket of jewels willed him by his godmother that Angel gives Tess on their wedding night.


Critical Essays


Short-Answer Quizzes