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She can flirt, she can listen, she can sympathize, she can work with her hands. (Hardy 131)
The above line from Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles demonstrates a great deal about the themes of the novel as well as the character of Tess. The line reprinted above is supposed to reveal the versatility of Tess' character. However, it also reveals a good deal that helps us understand Hardy's central theme of the book. This is because the versatility of Tess' persona is what makes her unique. However, she is purity, fortitude, woman and suffering personified. Nonetheless, she is herself and no other person, unlike any other woman. This contrast of her universal qualities but her individual differences is significant to understanding one of Hardy's core themes if not the core theme in the novel: Tess is a symbol of the common predicament of all mankind-we are meant to suffer, love and endure. However, despite this universality Tess' pain is made to seem unique by Hardy's skill. In her unique vitality and versatility we understand the universality and unique phenomena of tragedy.
The character of Tess is one that symbolizes the positive aspects of life, but she represents the unrealized potential that is within all human beings as much as she comes to symbolize how so very often we end up differently than we might. Of course, her universality is also embodied within the Christian community wherein she exists, but she also represents as do others in the novel the pagan nature of mankind underneath the surface of social appearances. Like the line reprinted at the outset, Tess' unique nature despite being an example of common mankind is also evidenced when she rejects the vicar and his church. The vicar refuses to give her child a Christian burial and Tess replies, "'Then I don't like you!', she burst out, 'and I'll never come to your church again'" (Hardy 147). However, this is not meant to show Tess rejecting God or men of God, but, instead, it is designed to show us how sensitive and clear-headed Tess is when facing those who are so heartless that even when they are a man of God they could heartlessly act. She once again symbolizes the common lot of mankind (to be sensitive to heartlessness and human deprivation), but she also symbolizes a
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Further, Tess' character is very important in conveying another theme that Hardy seems to be promoting in the novel. Tess is versatile and unique not only because of her skills but also because of her ability to recognize the insignificance of mankind in the larger scheme of things. This is why she is able to understand that man is insignificant or trivial when it comes to our bigger concerns, especially things like pondering our final destiny in life. However unique Tess may be in this ability, what Nietzsche might label an ability to overcome man(woman), she still is representative of the universality of human beings. She is so because she understands on a deep level that everything is not insignificant despite man's insignificant nature in the larger scheme of time and space. This awareness is what gives her the power to endure, the desire to love and the ability to make the best of a bad situation within the scope and parameters of her own unique character. Tess is universal in that she shares the lot of all mankind, but she is also able to transcend this condition by being able to rise above it while alive, albeit for brief moments. She is able to experience a transcendental moment in the here-and-now, like when she explains how she has the ability to allow her soul to move outside of her physical body, "'A very easy way to fell 'em go', continued Tess, 'is to lie on the grass at night and look straight up at some big bright star; and, by fixing your mind upon it, you will soon find that you are hundreds and hundreds o' miles away from your body, which you don't seem to want at all'" (Hardy 75). We also see this when Tess listens to Angel playing his harp, a moment during which she is conscious of neither time nor space. In other words, despite her suffering the human condition, there are moments of music, love and spirituality in the here-and-now during which Tess appreciates life on a higher realm than the sum of mere mortals (a sack of physical, chemical substances) would suggest is possible.
In summation, Tess' character is meant to represent the best that mankind has to offer. She is neither a paragon of virtue nor absolutely reprehensible. Instead, she is faced like most human beings with doing the best she can from situation to situation as she moves through life. Her versatility and unique character enable her to do great as well as not great things, but they are an example of how well-meaning and sensitive people with a basically decent set of values are thrown into a world wherein they must survive-a world that all too often has little concern or makes little allowance for individual values. Thus, the opening line reprinted here that demonstrates Tess' versatility is meant to give us a deeper understanding of the conflict of being an individual that must formulate some type of skills and values while trying to endure and find love in a world that often is indifferent to those skills, values or goals. This is comparable to Tess' own declaration when she is persecuted by Alec d'Urberville, "Whip me, crush me; you need not mind those people under the rick! I shall not cry out. Once victim, always victim-that's the law!" (Hardy 411). That may be the law of human existence in the larger scheme of things, but Tess' unique nature and versatility enable her to love and endure despite the universal dilemma.
Hardy, T. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Skilton, D. (ed.) New York, Penguin, 1978.