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

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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The influence of Tess's noble lineage on her character depiction and the novel's commentary on social stereotypes


Tess's noble lineage significantly influences her character depiction, highlighting the novel's commentary on social stereotypes. Despite her noble ancestry, Tess remains a victim of social prejudices, illustrating the harsh realities faced by lower-class individuals. Her lineage contrasts with her social status, emphasizing the novel's critique of rigid class structures and the often arbitrary nature of social hierarchies.

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What does Hardy's Tess of the D' Urbervilles suggest about social stereotypes and Tess’s noble lineage?

Hardy shows aristocratic lineage to be a fraud in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Although Tess's parents are delighted to discover what they believe to be aristocratic ("knightly") roots through their pastor's research and then aristocratic relatives, it happens that these "relations" have adopted the D'Urberville name as a pretense. Alec, who most decidedly does not come from aristocratic roots, uses the elder Durbeyfields' desire for patronage to take sexual advantage of Tess. As Tess comes to understand, such ancestry is a product of wishful thinking and fantasy:

examining the mesh of events in her own life, she seemed to see the vanity of her father’s pride; the gentlemanly suitor awaiting herself in her mother’s fancy; to see him as a grimacing personage, laughing at her poverty and her shrouded knightly ancestry.

Hardy is illustrating as well in in the novel, both through Alec and Angel Clare, that supposed superiority in the class hierarchy does not lead to ethical or moral improvement. Lower-class Tess is morally superior, despite her fallen and lower-class status, to either of these men.

This connects to Hardy's notion of naturalism. If humans at the dairy and elsewhere are no more than insects in a vast, indifferent universe, the superimposition of aristocratic or middle-class status on certain individuals is certainly not going to elevate these humans in any real way.

Tess becomes a victim of her parents' bedazzlement at the false allure of aristocracy and later a victim of Angel's middle-class double standard regarding female purity. The closest the novel comes to an ideal society is the largely classless or leveled society at the dairy, where everyone lives in a simple abundance, unstrained by pretensions about class and hierarchy.

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What does Hardy's Tess of the D' Urbervilles suggest about social stereotypes and Tess’s noble lineage?

In the Victorian Age, an era in which social class directed one's life, the three main characters of Hardy's novel, Angel Clare, Tess Durbeyfield, and Alec D'Uberville are marked by confusion and contradictions with their own social classes. These contradictions are a main concern of the novel.

The introduction of the Industrial Age effects some of this change in social class. While those of wealth, power, and privilege continue to dominate society, the concept of heredity as the origin of cultural authority begins to become dismantled, as demonstrated by the ridiculousness of John Durbeyville's thrill when he learns that his name is aristocratic. Yet, it is this aristocratic name that drives Tess to seek help from her upper-class relatives, who are not true gentry, but only wealthy. Placed in this situation which her parents believe will aid Tess, she is, unfortunately, victimized by lust and hypocrisy.

Later, Angel Clare, who is from a respectable family and a graduate of Cambridge, decides he wants to work at the dairy farm of the Talbothays. There Angel finds Tess enticing because she contradicts the stereotype of the "Hodge," the dull, farm worker.  Moreover, he is enthralled with Tess's apparent innocence, finding her a "fresh, virginal daughter of nature."

Much to his surprise, he took, indeed, a real delight in their companionship.  The conventional farm-folk of his imagination...were obliterated after a few days' residence. At close quarters no Hodge was to be seen.

But, after Angel and Tess are married, when she reveals her loss of innocence taken from her by her cousin, Angel rejects her. Ironically, it is the lowly Tess whose intense desire to survive transcends all social defining. 

This tenacity of Tess is in line with the theories of Charles Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest." Social Darwinism causes Angel to see the "ache of modernism" in Tess and ends the absolutes of Victorian society as it dismantles the concept of the superiority of the aristocracy.

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How does Tess's noble lineage influence her character depiction in Tess of the d'Urbervilles?

It is interesting that both noble and the more humble lineage Tess receives from her mother play a very important part of helping to develop the character of Tess, and it is important not to overlook the more rural, rustic lineage Tess receives from her mother. In particular, this links to the pagan history of Britain, which Tess feels very strongly connected to. Note the connection Tess feels with the stone circle:

One of my mother's people was a shepherd hereabouts, now I think of it. And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home.

This is a connection that is stressed from the beginning of the novel. It is interesting that examining the relationship Tess has with her mother further, she receives her beauty from her mother. However, this is viewed as an "unknightly, unhistorical" gift as her mother was a commoner. However, Hardy seems to stress that just because her mother wasn't of noble lineage, this doesn't mean she didn't have a history. In fact, Hardy seems to go out of his way to stress the way that Tess's beauty is something that is timeless. Note the way that her mother collects ancient ballads that symbolise the ancient culture of Britain. A perfect example of this is the May Dance, which is actually an ancient pagan fertility ceremony. In some ways, therefore, the connection that Tess has with her mother's family and lineage is more important to her than her connection with her father's lineage. It certainly seems to have more impact in terms of developing her character.

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