Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 2,398 words.)