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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Tess of the d'Urbervilles Themes

The three main themes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles are coincidence, determinism, and personal responsibility.

  • Coincidence: The novel is full of coincidences, both minor and major, that shape Tess’s life.
  • Determinism: Tess’s fate is, in large part, determined by forces beyond her control.
  • Personal responsibility: Tess is responsible for her own choices, even when they lead to disaster.


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Fate and Chance The characters in Hardy's novel of seduction, abandonment, and murder appear to be under the control of a force greater than they. Marlott is Tess's home and, as the name of the town implies, her lot in life appears be marred or damaged. As the novel opens, Tess's father, John Durbeyfield, learns that he is the last remaining member of the once illustrious d'Urberville family. The parson who tells him admits he had previously "resolved not to disturb [Durbeyfield] with such a useless piece of information," but he is unable to control his "impulses." This event, which starts Tess's tragedy, seems unavoidable, as do many others in the novel. In scene after scene something goes wrong. The most obvious scene in which fate intervenes occurs when Tess writes Angel a letter telling him of her past, but upon pushing it under his door, she unwittingly pushes it under the rug on the floor in the room. If only he could have found it and read it before they were married. If only Angel could have danced with Tess that spring day when they first met But for Hardy, like Tess, the Earth is a "blighted star" without hope. At the end of the novel, after Tess dies, Hardy writes, " 'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." Tess was powerless to change her fate, because she had been the plaything of a malevolent universe.

Culture Clash During Tess's time, the industrialization of the cities was diminishing the quality of life of the inhabitants of rural areas. Hardy explores this theme in many ways. The contrast between what is rural (and therefore good) and what is urban (and therefore bad) is apparent in Tess's last names. When Tess is unquestioningly innocent she is "of the field," as the name Durbeyfield implies. D'Urberville invokes both "urban" and "village," and because it belongs to a diminished ancient family, the name is further associated with decrepitude and decay. It is significant that Angel's "fall" happens when he was "nearly entrapped" by a woman much older than himself in London. When Angel and Tess leave Talbothays to take the milk to the train, Hardy writes, "Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial." He uses the word "feeler" as if the train were a type of insect, indicating his disgust with the intrusion. Later, he calls the thresher at Flintcomb Ash "the red tyrant" and says "that the women had come to serve" it. As the old ways fade away, people serve machines and not each other.

Knowledge and Ignorance Knowledge—whether from formal education or innate sensibility—causes conflict between those who see the truth of a situation, and those who are ignorant. Tess and Angel feel isolated from their parents, who appear set in their ways, unable to grasp new ideas. The intellectual gap between Tess, who has gone to school, and her mother is enormous, but Tess's strong sense of right and wrong widens the gap even more. With Angel, in particular, Hardy recognizes that true knowledge is not just a product of schooling. He contrasts Angel, who alone in his family is not a college graduate, with his brother Cuthbert Clare, a classical scholar who marries the "priggish" Mercy Chant. Although Angel has less formal education, he alone recognizes Tess's worth and wisely chooses her over Mercy's religiosity. When he rejects Tess after...

(This entire section contains 1186 words.)

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their marriage, he does so because her confession "surprised [him] back into his early teachings," the strict moralistic beliefs of his father. True knowledge, therefore, is understanding one another and one's self, and is an essential ingredient for happiness. The village parson refuses to preside at a Christian burial for Tess's infant because he "was a newcomer, and did not know her." When Angel leaves Tess, "he...hardly knew that he loved her still."

Natural Law Hardy's contrast between false knowledge and knowledge that allows insight into the needs and desires of others, is also seen in his insistence on a natural law that exists independent of humanity. He repeats several times in the novel that what has happened to Tess has not offended nature, but merely society. When she returns pregnant to her home in Marlott from her visit with Alec, she likes to walk in the countryside in the evening away from the disapproving eyes of the townsfolk, but feels that because of what has happened she should not enjoy the beauty around her. "She had been made to break an accepted social law," Hardy observes, "but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly." Later, Hardy notes that Tess's shame was "a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature." Victorian society, with its strict code of appropriate and inappropriate social behavior, was anything but natural.

God and Religion The "arbitrary law of society" that Hardy criticizes is a product of organized religion. His religious characters are pious hypocrites, except for Angel's father, who appears to have a good heart. The local parson's hypocritical attitude forces Tess to bury her child in the section of the cemetery reserved for drunkards and suicides. Alec's appearance as a preacher is a thinly disguised criticism of religious convictions that are held for appearances only. After seeing Tess again, Alec's true nature is again revealed. The stifled atmosphere of the Emminster parsonage where Rev. Clare and his wife live is contrasted with the lively warmth of the Talbothays dairy. In one of the novel's few humorous incidents, Angel sits down to eat with his parents and brothers, expecting to feast on the black puddings (a sausage made of blood and suet) and mead Dairyman Crick's wife had given to him when he left the dairy. On the contrary, he is told that the food has been given to the poor and the drink would be saved for its medicinal properties and used as needed. His disappointment is obvious.

Sex Victorian society preferred to avoid talking about sex, but Hardy believed the elimination of sex from popular writing produced "a literature of quackery." In Tess sex is often associated with nature; it is presented as a natural part of life. The scene of Tess's seduction by Alec takes place in The Chase, an ancient stand of woods that dates from before the time of established societal morality. The valley of the Froom, where Talbothays is located, is described as so lush and fertile that "it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate." Tess and Angel fall in love there. Tess's three milkmaid friends toss and turn in their beds, tortured by sexual desire. "Each was but a portion of the organism called sex," Hardy asserts. Later, when Tess forgives Angel his "four and twenty hours dissipation with a stranger;" Angel cannot forgive her similar fault. Hardy condemns such unequal treatment.


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In the final paragraph of Tess of the D 'Urbervilles, Hardy reiterates his principal theme with an overtness that has caused some critics to regret his heavy-handedness: the "President of the Immortals, in the Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." In the serial version, the statement was even more overt: "'Justice' was done, and Time, the Arch-satirist, had had his joke out with Tess." What Hardy is describing is of course Tess's being hanged for murdering Alec D'Urberville, and with this portentous clause he revisits the question of determinism that has been woven in several ways throughout the novel. While the clause provides a fitting hyperbole to express the degree to which Tess as an innocent woman was the victim of a piously hypocritical and repressive society, it also inadvertently begs the question of personal responsibility. If, after all, Tess's fate was mapped out by the "President of the Immortals," indubitably one of the "purblind doomsters" of Hardy's great poem "Hap," her story can only evoke sorrow that she is the victim of undeserved misfortune. It is, however, the case that while misfortune dogs Tess's path at every turn and events as well as individuals seem to conspire against her happiness, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a traditionally tragic meditation on the relation between personal responsibility and unavoidable necessity.

Like most of Hardy's novels, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles is at the plot level an improbable tissue of coincidences. In any schematization except for one predicated on the assumption of a deterministic cosmos, the frequency and impact of coincidence and fated event would seem melodramatic or at least highly improbable for an otherwise realistic narrative. Among the most unlikely coincidences are the encounters with characters that follow Tess through her life. One minor example is the meeting between Tess and Angel Clare, at a community festival on the green outside Marlott, while Clare and his insufferable brothers are on a walking expedition. Sending his stuffy brothers ahead, the "gentleman" dances with a few of the maidens, and Tess resents her not having been chosen. Some two years later, in a distant quarter of Egdon Heath, Tess takes work as a dairymaid at the farm at which Angel is serving an apprenticeship in dairy farming. Despite the fact that no word passed between the two during a brief afternoon two years ago, and that Tess has been through a horrid exploitation by Alec D'Urberville, the birth and wrenching death of her son, and the ostracism of the more pious among the Marlott community, they both recall the lost opportunity in detail.

At the opposite end of the coincidence scale, Tess, having made up her mind to appeal to Angel's father because of her wretched poverty and the enmity of Farmer Groby, who, as we saw in the previous section, harbored a grudge because Angel punched him for insinuating that he remembered Tess as a woman with a past—which in fact she had—journeys a long half-day to Emminster, only to overhear the vapid yet condescending conversation of Angel's brothers and Mercy Chant, subsequently to lose her nerve and miss the opportunity to present her case to Mr. Clare, who, Hardy assures us, would have been kinder than the insolent brothers. Walking in despair back to Flintcomb-Ash, she overhears an evangelical parson preaching a revival in a tent, who turns out to be none other than D'Urberville, who reformed after an encounter with Mr. Clare.

Although everyone's life is to some degree ruled by coincidence, few are so profoundly governed by chance as Tess's would appear to be. Even Angel's grave illness in Brazil accentuates Tess's poverty and despair over his ever returning to her, while extending their separation long enough that her father dies, her family is dispossessed, and she reluctantly becomes Alec's mistress in order to spare her brothers and sisters from homelessness. Conversing with a liberated British settler in Brazil, the ailing Angel has at last recognized his priggishness and his harmful affiliation with the Victorian culture he so despises; therefore he forgives Tess and is in a hurry to be reconciled with her. But his sickness delays his return and his receipt of key information, Tess's first letter containing complaints about his cruelty and overt concerns about her own material as well as spiritual position. At one point, Hardy overtly laments Tess's plight before the forces of fate: "Tess hoped for some accident which might favor her, but nothing favored her."

This issue of Hardy's balancing individual responsibility and fate can best be illustrated by concentrating for a moment on the scene most critics have found to provide a cornerstone for the plot and theme of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. While at Talbothay's farm, Tess overcomes her many scruples concerning the imminent love between herself and Angel. Although she firmly feels unworthy of his love because of her former relationship with Alec, she cannot bring herself to confess directly. As the love matures toward marriage, she makes repeated attempts to confess, each time to be put off by Angel's confident assertions about their future or by her own competing wish not to confess. Less than a week' before the marriage date, Tess takes the less direct option of writing Angel a letter disclosing all the pertinent details of her past and sliding it under his door. Taking his not even mentioning the epistolary confession as a sign of forgiveness, Tess proceeds confidently toward the marriage, more at peace than she has been since she realized how irresistible (and reciprocated) her love was. The day before the marriage she chances to discover that the letter slipped beneath a carpet, that Angel never saw it. This act of fate, the letter's being unread, leads to the catastrophe of Angel's overreacting to Tess's confession the afternoon after the wedding has taken place.

It is of course bad luck that the letter slipped under the rug. But Tess has understandably avoided confession for several weeks, hoping that things will work out. In any Hardy novel, they seldom do. She considers acting on her mother's practical, if not highly ethical, recommendation that what Angel does not know will not hurt him (or Tess). But the point is that Tess does have options. She can force the confession, or she can refuse to disclose information, hoping that Angel will strike all the Farmer Grobys in Wessex if they speak up. It is her choice to take the indirect method of confession, and this choice sets into motion the catastrophic series of events that lead to her fall. Although Tess's options are severely limited by fate and circumstance, it is of the essence of Hardy's tragedy that she makes choices, often the wrong ones, that lead her toward a sorrowful destiny. If she were simply another victim of the "President of the Immortals," we might have sympathy for her, but the novel would offer no tragic catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear. Because we recognize her as, in Conrad's great phrase, "one of us," one who does the very best she can to live ethically within restrictive circumstances, and because her choices, made with the best intentions, often produce disastrous results, Tess of the D 'Urbervilles approaches the power of real tragedy.


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