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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What does Hardy's "ache of modernism" mean in "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"? How does modernism affect Tess?

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This phrase occurs  in "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" when Angel remarks that Tess has the "ache of modernism" which seems to refer to Hardy's dislike, as Marcelle Clements writes in the introduction, for "the repercussions of the industrial revolution, the extinction of rural life, the implacable roles of caste, gender, and morality in Victorian England" as well as the laws of Social Darwinism. 

 In the novel, Angel Clare, of the upper class and son of a vicar, upon arriving at the dairy farm of the Talbothays, is surprised that there are no "Hodges" at this farm.  ("Hodge" was the personification of the conventional farm-folk as portrayed in newspapers of the time.)  Instead, Angel discovers in the educated Tess one who feels, as he does, the "ache of modernism."  For Angel and Tess and others of their age, the God of their childhood is no longer able to answer their questions about life.  Social Darwinism has put an end to the pat answers of their religion.  Instead, Angel puts his faith in "intellectual liberty" and greatly influences Tess with his ideas.

After her abandonment by Angel after their marriage and because of the position into which Tess is fated she is, as she tells her brother Abraham on the night that their horse dies, "a blighted star."  With the instillation of railroads, farms such as that of the Talbothay's is able to ship milk and produce in larger quantitites.  With this expansion of dairy farms as well as the Flintcomb Ash farm with its thrashing machine--a product of the Industrial Revolution--the farmers hire people whom they do not know or care about.  They feel no connection with the people living on their farms as they had heretofore.  For this reason, not renewing the leasing of the resident farmer becomes a matter of economics, nothing more, and the Durbeyvilles, who have long lived in their cottage, are thrown out after the father dies.  Also, Tess has no individuality at the Flintcomb Ash farm; so, when the season ends, she must return to her family which also is being uprooted. 

Equally repressed by the Victorian age, Tess is constantly made to feel that she is inferior because of her "sin." Constantly reminded of her immorality by men who recognize her, Tess feels she must hide from society. So, in a desperate effort to provide for her family uprooted by modernism, the fated Tess resigns herself to going with Alec d'Urberville, who has returned to take her.

It is these fateful burdens of modernism that have poisoned the thinking of Angel.  And, when he finally realizes that he has unreasonably condemned his beautiful, undefinable wife, he returns; however, it is, tragically, too late.  With the greatest ache of all in her heart as she recognizes that if Alec had not returned, she would have been free to go with Angel, Tess retaliates against her "blighted star," and murders Alec, the cause of all her misery.

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