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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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What is the significance of the past's presence in Hardy's 'Tess of the D'urbervilles'?

Quick answer:

The past has a profound effect on the present, something most evident in Tess Durbeyfield’s story. Her naivety and lack of social graces lead her to make mistakes that affect the rest of her life. Her desire for a father’s love leads her to accept Alec Stoke-d’Urberville’s advances, even though she knows he is a married man. She does this thinking that she will be able to escape afterwards without Alec’s knowledge, but Mr. d’Urberville finds out about their meeting and rapes her.

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In Thomas Hardy’s novel, the idea of descent from a noble family is the primary way that the past manifests itself in the present. This idea is a preoccupation, even an obsession, for John Durbeyfield. He becomes convinced that their family can be traced back to the 11th-century Norman Conquest of Britain. He believes that “Durbeyfield” is a corruption of the old French “d’Urberville.” John’s desire to connect with the higher-class side of the family is what propels Tess into the dangerous situation with Alec Stoke-d’Urberville. Her accepting the position on their estate is the event that sets in motion all the other events, culminating in her demise and death. The capture of Tess at Stonehenge, one of Britain’s most ancient, revered sites, emphasizes the importance of olden times.

A conversation with the village curate gives John the idea that his family has a noble connection. Although he is from a peasant farming family and ekes out a small living as a peddler, he draws solace from the notion that they are of noble descent. It seems romantic to him to think that they were once “somebodies” who have fallen on hard times. This notion does not combine well with his persona problems, among which alcoholism is primary. His drinking indirectly causes the death of their horse, which in turn sends his innocent, naïve daughter out to work. John’s attachment to the idea of their relationship to the area’s richest family, the Stokes-d’Urbervilles, is the reason that Tess goes to their home to seek assistance.

Thomas Hardy injects irony into the idea of old nobility by revealing that the Stoke family is actually not related to the d’Urbervilles; instead, the older Mr. Stoke had added the name to make his family seem more distinguished. Even the wealthy families, Hardy emphasizes, use connections to the past to enhance their status in the present.

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