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The Tragedy of Tess in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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The Tragedy of Tess

       The tale of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is filled with would-have-beens. Time and again, as Tess's life branches off onto yet another path of sorrows, the narrator emphasizes the sadness of the moment with a would-have-been or an if-only. When her husband, after learning of her past, determines that they must not live together, the narrator mentions a reply to his arguments that "she might have used...promisingly" (245), but she does not, and they part. At their parting, Hardy writes that "if Tess had been artful, had she made a scene, fainted, wept hysterically, in that lonely lane, notwithstanding the fury of fastidiousness with which he was possessed, he would probably not have withstood her" (255). But owing to a combination of pride and a long-suffering mood, she does not. When the abandoned wife, having fallen on hard times, attempts to seek her father-in-law's help, we are told that "her present condition was precisely one which would have enlisted the sympathies of old Mr. and Mrs. Clare" (304), but measuring the father by his less compassionate sons, she fails to call on him. Angel, having reconsidered her situation while in Brazil, misinterprets the lack of letters from his wife: "How much it really said if he had understood! That she adhered with literal exactness to orders which he had given and forgotten: that despite her natural fearlessness she asserted no rights, admitted his judgement to be in every respect the true one, and bent her head dumbly thereto" (345-46). But he fails to see the true reason of her silence, or he might have returned to her sooner, before it was too late. Angel himself joins the narrator in pronouncing would-have-beens upon the sad events of Tess's life. Hav...

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... at last from murder at Sandbourne to sacrifice at Stonehenge-symbolic of her execution at Wintoncester. Hardy then sums up Tess's tragedy in an allusion to other tragedies: that "the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess" (405). Yet in this novel, Tess's troubles are less the President's sport than the clashing of Tess's humanity with the universal harshness of reality: her will to enjoy life, her desire for love, her noble character and her fatal flaws, against what, in the words of the fatalistic country-folk, "was to be," and "there lay the pity of it" (73).


Works Cited

Hadas, Moses, ed.. Greek Drama. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman. New York: Penguin Signet Classic, 1964.

Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

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