Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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One of Thomas Hardy’s greatest works: ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘ was
first published in 1891, a novel set in the fictional county of Wessex,
Britain. By the time of its appearance, Hardy was considered to be on
of England’s leading writers and had already published several well
known novels including ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘The
Woodlanders’ as well as numerous other short stories.

However in spite of his reputation and fame, Hardy had immense
difficulty finding a publication prepared to publish Tess when he
offered it for serialization to London reviewers. The subject matter
and content was considered to be- in the eyes of Victorian society,
unfit for publications in which young people may read. A storyline
depicting a young girl seduced and raped by a man, then married and
rejected by another and then eventually murders the first man was
considered to be exceptionally scandalous and inappropriate. Finally
in order to pacify potential publishers, Hardy took the book apart and
rewrote and edited several of the scenes before any of the weekly
journals would take it as a serial. When the time came to publish the
novel in book form, Hardy reassembled it was it was originally

The novel’s subtitle- ‘A Pure Woman’ came also under a great deal of
attack. Victorian critics argued that Tess could not possibly be
termed of as ‘pure’ after a downfall such as hers and should instead
be labeled as a ‘Fallen’ woman. Hardy’s frank (at least for the time)
depictions of sex, his criticism and questioning of religion and his
doubt within the narrative were too denounced to such an extent that
though the story did in the end bring him immense fame and fortune,
its reception at the start caused Hardy to lose confidence and the
novel was one of his last.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy uses a variety of narrative
techniques in order to convey his own impressions of the society in
which both he and his character Tess lived. The narrative technique of
an author in any novel is crucial to the readers understanding of the
narrative. The way in which a novel is written influences the way in
which the reader interprets the events which occur throughout the
novel and allows the author to convey the feeling of time, place, and
people in the society in which the author is attempting to impart to
his or her readers. Hardy’s use of a third person omniscient narrator
who knows all and sees all allows the readers indirect insight into
the actions and emotions of specific characters. The omniscience of
the narrator allows the reader to not be influenced by the character

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in the interpretations of the character's behaviour and feelings and
also encourages the reader to sympathise with Tess in her tragic and
unfortunate predicament. Using such a narrative technique, Hardy
allows himself to be somewhat detached from his characters, often
appearing as though he himself does not sympathise with his heroine’s
plight. The result of the novel not being narrated by Tess is that we
as the reader are given an insight of the lives of other characters
which Tess herself is oblivious of. It allows us to understand for
ourselves the predicaments which characters other than Tess are placed
in through our own eyes with the influence of Hardy and not through
Tess. However, this style of narration prevents the reader from
having a direct line into the thoughts and feelings of Tess and other
characters, and does not permit the character to directly communicate
with their readers in a way which would inform the readers of the
workings of the character's mind, what they do, and why they do it. By
using an omniscient narrator Hardy is able to influence us in our
opinions of the all the characters without directly seeming to,
indirectly manipulating us with his views to who we consider is to
blame for Tess’s downfall. For example the two key characters in
Tess’s life who ultimately lead to her destruction- Alec D’Urberville
and Angel Clare, are presented by Hardy in such a manner that as the
novel progresses, his own opinion of the characters are unmistakable
to see.

We first come across Alec D’Urberville in chapter five, Tess having
been forced to claim kin with his family due to the death of her
family’s horse and her mother’s determination to “put her into the way
of wealthy men” and a “grand marriage”. Alec appears out from the
darkness of a garden tent- a tall man, smoking. In out first meeting
with Alec, Hardy the narrator takes little time in forewarning us of
D’Urbervilles character as the to be ‘villain’ of the story.

“He had an almost swarthy complexion with full lips, badly moulded
though red and smooth, above which was a well-groomed black moustache
with curled points, though his age could not have been more then four
and twenty. Despite the touched of barbarism in his contours, there
was a singular force in the gentleman’s face, and in his bold rolling

Hardy has presented to us the description of the ideal melodramatic
‘rogue’ in his depiction of Alec on encountering Tess. From just the
one paragraph on Alec’s appearance we are given warnings that Tess
should be wary of this character. His appearance from a dark door
indicates evil - “touches of barbarism” “swarthy complexion” and “well
groomed black moustache with curled points”. Hardy’s description of
Alec leaves us in little doubt of the character he is to play and is
done deliberately in order to prime the reader to what is to come.
Alec’s forceful appearances through the lack of morality are described
by Tess as “a singular force in the gentleman’s face and in his bold
rolling eye” overshadowing his wealth from the point when they first

On the other hand Angel Clare, the man Tess is fated to meet, fall in
love with and eventually marry, is presented by Hardy to be the exact
opposite of Alec. Tess had come across Angel at the start of the
novel- even before her encounter with Alec, when she was dancing on
the green in her home village of Marlott when she was 16 years old.
When they meet again in chapter seventeen, both working in Talbothay’s
dairy, she as a milkmaid and he as the dairyman’s pupil, two years had
passed in which Tess had been seduced and raped by Alec when working
for his family and subsequently bore a child which soon after died.
From the moment Angel is reintroduced into Tess’s life, he is
described by Hardy as not a realistic figure but again as more of an
idealized, perfect ‘cardboard cut out’ hero. The name ‘Angel’, the
description of his appearance- “...young mans shapely moustache and
beard- the latter of the palest straw colour where it began on his
cheeks and deepening to a warm brown farther out from its root.” His
clothing and general attire; “He wore the ordinary white pinner and
leather leggings of a dairy farmer when milking, and his boots were
clogged with the mulch of the yard” unlike Alec, Angel is not
fashionably dressed and carries no pretences of such. Hardy presents
him to be a handsome, naturalistic, goodly young man, who we
immediately link to Tess not only because of the past meeting, but
because of the links to nature and purity which they both share. Angel
even plays the harp- an instrument associated with heavenly beings-
cherubs and angels. Angel’s description and affect upon the reader and
Tess are intensified more then they would have been, due to having
been subjected to Alec’s character and his actions towards Tess
earlier in the novel.

From the first time Tess and Alec met, he took advantage of her. The
first incident showing the sexual attitude toward Tess is when Alec
forces the strawberry into Tess mouth: "...and in slight distress she
parted her lips and took it in” Alec's sexual attraction toward Tess
continued in the carriage towards Trantridge and he purposely went
fast forcing her to "clutch d'Urberville's rein-arm." This affection
by Tess was not enough for him and he told Tess to "Hold on around my
waist, or we shall be thrown out." Tess is no match for Alec. Whereas
she is naive, inexperienced and innocent, he is worldly, sophisticated
and cunning. While she is burdened with the responsibility of
providing for her family, he feels an obligation to no one but
himself. Throughout her stay at Trantridge, Alec wears Tess down to
take advantage of her, stalking her, trying to win over her trust- by
offering her help and teaching her to whistle- yet his ulterior
motives constantly come through, though Tess continued to try to
rebuff his advances at every opportunity. It is not until he rescues
her from a fight, in Chapter 10, with other Trantridge workers that
her fate is sealed. Sensing a chance to finally have her in his power,
Alec purposefully becomes lost in a trek through the woods. He rapes
Tess while she sleeps awaiting his return.

"It was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue....there should have
been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive." Alec's
intentions for the rape were all planned. His determination to master
Tess was so great that at one point in the novel he even offers to
marry Tess regardless of the restrictions of society.

Alec does not appear in Chapters 12–43. Nevertheless, we cannot say
that he doesn’t impact the story during these chapters. First, his
earlier actions (specifically the rape) impact everything that
follows. But his impact is not simply confined to the readers’
understanding of the part he has played in Tess’ current situation.
Hardy brings Alec back to the story through Reverend Clare, who shares
with his son (who later shares with Tess) Alec’s conversion and
ministry. Alec returns physically to the book in Chapter 44 as a
street minister and by a twist of fate again meets Tess- married yet
due to her confession, abandoned by Angel her husband and in bad

Alec is a “sunshine convert,” renouncing his newfound faith almost as
soon as he sees Tess again. Using twisted logic, Alec accuses Tess of
causing him to stray from his ministry, “But you have been the means-
the innocent means- of my backsliding, as they call it.” He soon
cannot suppress his passion for Tess, calling her a “temptress.” Hardy
notes that “The corpses of those old fitful passions which had lain
inanimate amid the lines of his face ever since his reformation seemed
to wake and come together as in a resurrection.” Tess feels guilty for
Alec’s plight, and he uses the situation to his advantage again,
making her swear to leave him alone at a place called “Cross-in-Hand,”
the scene not of religious conversion, but of conversion to the ways
of the dark side, with Satan. Cross-in-Hand is a symbol of evil, not
good, ‘’Tis a thing of ill-omen,” Tess is warned.

Alec further lures the unsuspecting Tess by talking her out of
remaining true to her marriage to Angel. He will not accept her
rejection of him. Alec, who has already been perceived as the social
evil, literally haunts her until she agrees to live with him. Her
seduction by Alec is slow and methodical, much like his seduction of
her early in the novel. He used his profound art of psychological
manipulation to persuade Tess that Angel has left her forever. He
further enhanced the seduction by telling her that even if her husband
returned, she should never look upon him as a husband. "Leave that
mule you call husband for ever." Alec even threatens Tess by telling
her that "I [Alec] was your master once! I will be your master again.
If you are any man's wife you are mine." Finally he plays his trump
card and as he had earlier in the novel, and he convinces her to live
with him as a d’Urberville by aiding her family who had been kicked
out of their home due to Jack Durbeyfield death. Thus, Alec persuaded
Tess to live a life of sin. This deception results in his death when
Angel appears back on the scene after finally accepting Tess for who
she really is and returns to find her living with Alec. Tess reacts to
Angel in a manner of anger and resentment. However knows in her heart
of hearts that she is still in love with Angel and decides to confess
her love for him to Alec. Needless to say, Alec does not take the news
very well and proceeds to cast insults toward Tess and of Angel. Tess,
in a fit of emotional passion kills him melodramatically with a knife
and flees.

Angel and Alec have very different attitudes toward Tess. Angel first
loved Tess for her innocence and purity: "What a fresh and virginal
daughter of Nature that milkmaid is." As their relationship furthers,
he begins to idealise Tess to such an extent that when Tess finally
tells him of her past on their wedding night, he could not accept that
the pure perfect Tess he had constructed in his mind did not exist.
Angel referred to Tess as a Goddess. "A visionary essence of woman - a
whole sex condensed into one typical form”. He called her Artemis,
Demeter, Artemis was the virgin goddess of hunting, and Demeter was
goddess of crops and vegetation. Figures that represent purity,
virginity, fertility and beauty. Tess’s revelation that she was in
actual fact not a ‘pure’ virginal innocent girl horrifies him. Hardy
here shows off the double standards in Victorian society. Angel
himself had been involved in a sexual relationship before Tess- and
did not tell her until after their marriage for fear of losing her-
the exact same reason which Tess had not told him her past. Tess
completely forgave him, yet on hearing of her sins Angel feels utterly
deceived and horrified. Nothing about Tess had changed except of his
perception of her as pure but this is the foundation of his ideal Tess
and the shattering of it made him believe that is was not the real
Tess he loved.

Though Alec is undoubtedly the more obvious villain of the story,
Hardy seems to blame Angel more for Tess’s downfall then the latter
more obvious candidate. Yes Alec raped and seduced Tess, but he had
been prepared to help Tess should ‘’circumstances arise’’ and did not
shun away from his responsibility. He also had made it quite clear
that he was not a ‘’good man’’ and of his sexual intentions towards
her. Alec also helped Tess and her family- true for the wrong reasons
(in order to weaken Tess’s resolve to reject him and make her feel
obliged to him) but at least he took care of her. And whereas Alec is
forcefully and physically destructive of Tess, Angel proves to be even
more so for he betrays Tess in a way which is much more destructive
then anything Alec could have conceived. With his double personality-
the projection of himself he wanted to be, and his real self, Tess had
been led to believe that his reaction to her past would have been less
due to his supposedly loving and kind nature. She had not expected
Angel to be so unforgiving and horrified by her past that he would
seemingly cease to love her completely. Angels actions after he
abandons her, vilifies him even more if possible. His actions alone
towards her in person were bastardly enough, but Angel’s proposal to
the dairy maid Izz, that she accompany him to Brazil with him as his
mistress shows him to be thoroughly selfish and insensitive to not
only Tess but Izz too- who is distraught at losing the man she loved
for a second time. Hardy is unforgiving towards Angel for his
cruelty. He is scathing of Angel’s actions and almost bitter. “But
over them both there hung a deeper shade then the shade which Angel
Clare perceived, namely the shade of his own limitations. With all his
attempted independence of judgement this advanced and well meaning
young man… was yet a slave to custom and conventionality when
surprised back into his early teachings.”

Both Alec and Angel are aware of their social status and superiority
to Tess but Hardy is much more damming of Angel because of his
presentation of himself and belief that he is enlightened, modern
minded and sensitive in his views- without prejudice. In reality
however Angel is hypocritical, snobbish and self deceiving. “I do so
hate the aristocratic principle of blood before everything, and do
think that as reasoners the only pedigrees we ought to respect are
those spiritual ones of the wise and virtuous. Without regard to
corporeal paternity” so states the man who wishes to postpone taking
Tess home to his parents until he has sufficiently trained and taught
her society’s ways.

However Alec and Angel are not the only ones blamed for Tess’s
downfall. After Alec’s attack of her in The Chase, Tess blames her
mother for her naivety regarding men's power and intentions. "How
could I be expected to know?" "Why didn't you tell me there was danger
in men-folk? Why didn't you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands
against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but
I never had the chance o' learning in that way, and you did not help
me!" One could argue that were it not for Mrs. Derbeyfield’s
selfishness and greed to put Tess in the way of a good marriage which
would benefit the family in wealth and social standing, Tess would
never have been made to claim kin with Alec D’Urberville and would
have retained her purity and innocence. Tess tragic fate would have
been averted. Indeed the influence of Tess’s family are undoubtedly a
main factor in her descent for throughout the novel Hardy throws to
light the great responsibility Tess is forced to bare for the
wellbeing of her family and also the way she is used by them for their
personal gain- by her mother especially. At the very start of the
novel, we see Tess as being the backbone of the family. She chides her
mother for letting her father go to the pub when he has a journey to
undertake later that evening. She feels responsible for her father’s
actions and makes up excuses for his drunken disorderly behaviour. She
is more educated then her mother and therefore seems the wiser and
most intelligent of the family.

Her mother is a central figure in Tess’s life and actions. It was her
mother who pressurized and used the guilt and responsibility Tess felt
over Prince’s death to the family’s advantage- putting her unwarned
and naively in the path of Alec in the hopes of wealth. It is her
mother also who forbids Tess to tell Angel of her past- the disastrous
consequences we later see. Had Tess not taken notice of her mother’s
advice and had told him, Angel may well have forgiven her and loved
Tess for herself. In fact it is almost certain that he would have for
he himself says “O Tess! If only you had told me sooner, I would have
forgiven you!” Not only does her mother use Tess for her own schemes,
but afterwards when her advice and schemes fail, blames Tess as being
the one at fault and is unsupportive and disappointed with her
daughter. As the novel continues Tess is further burdened with the
responsibility of her family when her father dies and the family is
evicted from their home. In order to save her family, she is forced to
take up Alec’s offer and become once again his possession. Her own
happiness is sacrificed for that of her family’s.

Another factor which Hardy definitely holds as being influential in
Tess’s demise is Fate. Hardy's characters are greatly influenced by
the religious and social environments in which they live. Religious
and mythological allusions enable Hardy to convey these aspects of his
society to his readers. In the opening of the novel, the first
character the readers are introduced to is Parson Tringham. No
physical description is given and his dialogue is limited, creating an
alluding and mysterious figure. The parson represents the religiosity
of Hardy's society and communicates to the readers that this is a
religious society, whilst also setting the scene for Tess's
introduction to the readers and for the events to come. At the start
of the second phase of the novel "maiden no more", Tess is seen
burdened with a heavy basket and a large bundle. This can be regarded
as the metaphysical symbol of oppression and hardship. Some time later
as Tess and Angel depart from the dairy after their wedding ceremony,
a cock is heard crowing. Such is an omen of bad luck, and according to
biblical references, the cock crowing three times as it had done
intensifies the omen even more. This religious allusion represents the
religious implications and consequences for Tess's decision not to
inform Angel of her past, whilst also creating suspense for the reader
as to the events to come.

The belief that the order of things is already decided and that
people's lives are determined by this "greater power" is called fate.
Many people believe in this and that they have no power in determining
their futures and this is especially true of Hardy’s era and is
heavily depicted within the novel with Tess as its scapegoat. Her life
seems to be totally controlled by the whims and wishes of Fate.
“Justice was done and the President of the immortals in AEshylean
phrase had ended his sport with Tess”

When determining who is to blame for Tess’s downfall, one almost
certainly ponders upon whether Tess herself is the one most
responsible for her fall. Surely it was the choices she chose to make,
the actions she chose to take which resulted in her tragedy. Her many
flaws in character- her overwhelming self pity: “the image raised
caused her to take pity upon herself as one who was ill used. Her eyes
filled as she regarded her position further, she turned round and
burst into a flood of sympathetic tears” Her great pride which hinders
her so many times throughout her life- for example it was her pride
which prevented her asking one of her partners from the dance in
Marlott to drive her beehives to market in place of her father, had
she done Prince would never have died and she would never have met
Alec. Her pride also prevents her from asking her Angel’s parents for
help when she most needed it. Ashamed to be forced to beg cap in hand,
she instead suffers great hardships to survive and it is in that state
which she again encounters Alec and is once again mastered by him. Her
weakness in mind and body means she is easy prey to the insensitive,
bullying and egotistical Alec, who again and again manages to break
her weak resolve and take advantage of her. Similarly with Angel she
eventually breaks down and consents to marry him, even though she
knows it to be wrong yet could not help herself due to her love for
him and her yearning to make him happy. Hardy however does not
implicate Tess in the slightest for her own fall, and does a
convincing job of exonerating her and her social sins. Hardy (if not
Angel Clare), is convinced, not only of her purity but also of her
capacity for ascendancy. Although her society chastised such behavior,
Hardy bestows upon his protagonist the ability to overcome the moral
and social stigma and thus Tess maintains her dignity and sense of

However, in many ways Tess's downfall is not due to self-perception of
her own beauty, but due to those of others. Tess of the D'Urbervilles
is extremely voyeuristic, not just through Hardy's characters Angel
and Alec, but also the narrator, who essentially makes everything
about Tess available for looking at. This is seen after the rape and
Tess's return to Marlott to work in the cornfields. Hardy's narrator
states “... the eye returns involuntarily to the girl in the pink
cotton jacket, she being the most flexuous and finely-drawn figure of
them all.” In this way not only is Tess exploited by Angel and Alec,
but by the narrator, because she exists merely as a spectacle for the
masculine eye. We are not just invited to look at her, but notice her
'soft arm', its 'feminine smoothness' the taste of whey and the smell
of butter and eggs on her breath.

Even her ordeal with Alec D'Urberville at The Chase is written from
the point of view of the observer- her feelings are not narrated and
she is silent in the months she lives with D'Urberville after this, up
to the baby's death. In this way we are even more inclined to believe
that this was 'rape', it is such a huge part of Tess's life yet her
feelings are not even documented in this story of her life. Nor are
her reasons for killing Alec D'Urberville evidenced and documented in
her defence.

For Tess, her sexuality for others is the source of her guilt through
her life, her 'tragic flaw'. Hardy the narrator objectifies Tess- as
Irving Howe a critic said “He is as tender to Tess as Tess is to the
world. Tender and helpless”, but Hardy also violates her at the hands
of her two lovers, and this violent imagery is persistent throughout
the novel. “A bit of her naked arm is visible and as the day wears on
its feminine smoothness becomes sacrificed by the stubble and bleeds”.
Tess’s purity and self are constantly marred by streaks of red- the
colour of sin and danger. The red ribbon in her hair when dancing in
Marlott, Prince's death- where his neck is pierced and Tess covers the
wound with her hand only to be covered in his blood, the scratch she
gains from the roses given to her by Alec. Signs and warnings of
danger lurking around the corner- fore shadows of the ‘tragic
mischief’ to come. Her plight is also symbolised by the death of the
birds in chapter, freedom and flight are stolen from them and are
shown mercy in Tess wringing their necks, just as Tess becomes free in
killing Alec and in her own hanging.

Tess herself is almost less a personality than a beautiful portion of
nature violated by human selfishness. In many senses the narrator puts
this across “her breathing was now quick and small, like that of a
lesser creature than a woman” at the scene at Stonehenge. Her
unwillingness to live unmarried to Angel and Alec shows her innocence
of morals and perhaps this is the reason for Hardy's afterthought of a
sub-title for Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 'A Pure Woman'. Tess is like
Hardy's moral argument that Tess is pure and good regardless of
chastity and as Angel says to her. “I wish half the women in England
were as respectable as you”. Tess is the idealised heroine, Hardy's
attempt to voice his opinions of the value and dignity concerned in
being female, in the setting of his fictional 'Wessex'. In this way
Tess is not real, in the sense that she is the embodiment of Hardy's
ideal woman, when in reality no one remains so selfless, so innocent
as Tess in the consequences of her life, which ultimately plague her
until her death. In the end Hardy does not ultimately blame Tess, nor
Angel, Alec, her family or even fate for Tess’s downfall but the
society itself.

In the murder of Alec, Hardy has Tess committing a deliberate act of
social evil for the first time. She has taken a human life. But even
now after Tess has committed murder the one cannot help but asking,
was the murder not committed for the sake of love? Could it not be
justified? The bewitching innocence and purity Tess displayed
throughout the novel- the suffering and misery which was cruelly
administered to her at the hands of Alec, Angel, fate- everyone and
everything she encountered in someway. Surely love, innocence and
purity would justify the taking of a human life. Hardy has exposed
Tess to almost every evil of society and of mankind. He placed upon
her every conceivable moral and social dilemma that mankind could
experience and yet through all of her trials she remained a saint, a
pillar of virtue, spirit and self-reliance. Tess is not evil, those
around her were evil. By placing their moral and social evils upon
her, her demise was the murder of a human being.

The novel reaches its climax when Tess and Angel reach the area known
as Stonehenge, a heathen temple known for its immense healing powers.
It is incredibly ironic that Hardy would have his heroin and heroines
complete their life's social journey at such a mystical temple. For
Tess, the site is a destination, a sanctuary, and the ancient court
seems to pass judgment and absolve her, for she awakens completely at
peace. Tess is peacefully and willingly apprehended by the local
townspeople and subsequently executed for her act of murder.

In conclusion I believe that Hardy did not find Tess at all at fault
in her story. Yes everything and everyone she encountered played their
part in condemning her to her fate, but in Hardy’s eyes the main fault
and blame lies in the constant moral and social demands placed upon
her by his peripheral characters and their roles in society. Tess
began the novel as a pure woman and in Hardy’s eyes that is also how
she ended it.
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