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

Editor's Choice

Is the ending of Tess of the d'Urbervilles justified?

Quick answer:

The ending of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is debated in terms of justification. One perspective argues that Tess's execution is unjustified as she was more sinned against than sinning, having suffered greatly at the hands of Alec and Angel. Another view holds that while murder is not right, Tess's hardships and lack of protection make her actions understandable, thus justifying the ending within its historical context.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If by justified we mean, does Tess deserve to be hanged for killing Alec, I would say no.

The subtitle of the novel, which causes controversy at the time, is "A Pure Woman," and I agree that Tess was a pure woman, more sinned against than sinning. That said, the issue is complicated. Alec ruined Tess's life when she was too young and innocent to know how to protect herself. He raped and impregnated her when she was 15, leaving her a shamed, fallen woman in their culture. Later, when Angel, her husband, comes back from Brazil, Alec's presence as her lover threatens to ruin Tess's life a second time. One can understand how the anger against him welled up inside her.

On the other hand, as Alec says, people like he and Tess "pay to the uttermost farthing" for what they have done, and this is true. Both pay with their lives, but Angel Clare, who hurt Tess even more profoundly than Alec with his hypocrisy and double standard, rejecting her for having a sexual past when he had one too, gets away with his misdeeds scot free, and in fact, watches Tess hang. It seems unfair that both the lower class Tess and the lower class Alec have to pay such a high price while the middle class Angel is allowed to go on living as if he is a good and upright person.

I would find it easier to justify Tess's execution if Angel also had to pay a legal price for what his narrow-minded sanctimoniousness did to Tess. However, since he paid nothing, I believe Tess's death was unjustified.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main character Tess, of course, is certainly a dynamic character. The novel is not only a bildungsroman, which emphasizes the rites of passage that each one of us makes during our youth, but it is the story of a young girl who must grow up and face life without much guidance in her life. Tess goes through so much hardship on her own at such a young age that she was bound to break down sooner or later. In the novel's case, she breaks at the climax of the story and murders a man who tormented her for years. Murder is not right, but any abused woman can certainly empathize with her plight. Tess is hanged for her murderous deed, so yes, the ending is justified; she is punished for killing Alec. If the question, however, is if Tess herself was justified when she killed Alec, the answer would be "no" in the real world. On the other hand, for the 18th century soap opera that it was for its time, the answer would be "yes!" Tess did have a right to kill a man who terrorized her during a time when women had no where to turn for legal or social protection. Any woman who has been terrorized in like manner would certainly champion Tess in her heart.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to 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
Approved by eNotes Editorial