Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Margaret Randolph Higonnet
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Soon after he completed Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891, Thomas Hardy wrote of the novel’s heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, “I lost my heart to her as I went on with her history.” Sadly for Hardy, his affection for his protagonist did not translate into an immediately loving popular reception for his book. Now regarded as a masterwork of realist fiction, Tess of the D’Urbervilles stunned Hardy’s Victorian readership with its frank portrayals of sexual desire and its candid indictment of both divine and human injustice. Today, long after the scandal that surrounded Tess has faded into history, the majesty of Hardy’s artistic achievement endures.
The “fine and handsome” daughter of a poor country peddler, with evidently little more than her brimming emotions and her “large innocent eyes” to distinguish her from the other girls in her home village of Marlott, Tess Durbeyfield might have looked forward to a happy, if uneventful, life. Instead, her father’s poverty and her family’s vain desire to exploit a recently discovered ancestral link to nobility cause Tess to fall under the destructive influence of Alec D’Urberville, a libidinous, unprincipled rake who steals her innocence and impregnates her. With slow, painful effort, Tess strives to recover her reputation and self-respect, and she resolves never again to surrender to passion. Then, into her life walks the captivating Angel Clare, the free-thinking but staunchly virtuous son of an Anglican vicar. Despite her efforts to rein in her sensuous nature and tremendous vitality, Tess falls worshipfully in love with the young man, and he with her. Yet an ominous complication looms: will Angel continue to return her affections once she reveals the disgrace of her sexual past?
Set against the vivid, tempestuous natural canvas of Hardy’s beloved Wessex, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a gripping tragic romance, as well as an elegiac portrait of a pastoral way of life already under threat from the encroachments of the machine age. But it is also more than this. It is one of the most probingly philosophical novels ever written, meditating deeply on the irresistible forces that drive us toward both passion and pain. With superbly crafted prose, a peerless eye for beauty, and an astonishing moral ruthlessness, Thomas Hardy dissects the emotions of vanity, guilt, desire, and love that dwell deep within us all, elevating the seemingly commonplace struggles of an apparently unexceptional young woman to the very heights of tragedy.
The preeminent British novelist of the late Victorian era and one of only a handful of authors to achieve distinction both as a novelist and as a poet, Thomas Hardy was born in Upper Brockhampton in the county of Dorset in 1840. Although he initially considered a career in the ministry, he lost his religious faith in his early twenties and, for a time, pursued a career as an architect. While still an architect, Hardy published such novels as Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The latter of these was so successful that he was able to give up architecture and support himself solely as a writer. As a novelist, he is best remembered for his “Wessex” novels, so called because they are set in stark rural landscape of the southwest counties of England, which Hardy renamed Wessex in his fiction. Along with Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), these novels include The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), and Jude the Obscure (1896). In these often sublimely pessimistic novels, Hardy persistently explores the struggle of humankind against the indifferent natural forces that he perceived to dominate life and to thwart our best hopes. Following the deeply hostile receptions that greeted Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy abandoned the novel for poetry. He went on to publish more than nine hundred poems, in which he continued to express his concerns about human frailty and the power of fate. Hardy died in 1928 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.
- The title of Hardy’s novel describes Tess as “a pure woman.” Does Tess, in fact, remain pure? In what respects? Why does Hardy highlight this quality in his title?
- In the “Explanatory Note” that precedes the novel, Hardy writes that Tess of the D’Urbervilles represents “on the whole a true sequence of things” and grew out of his wish “to have it said what everybody thinks and feels.” Can Tess of the D’Urbervilles fairly be called a “truthful” piece of fiction? Are its characters and situations believable? Do you find its underlying philosophy persuasive?
- Some who read Tess of the D’Urbervilles when it was first published in 1891 argued that Tess was a “little harlot” who deserved her death by hanging. Modern readers are rather less likely to respond to Tess so harshly. How do you think the overall change in social mores between 1891 and today affect how you respond to Tess?
- Alec wrongs Tess through his lack of principles. Angel wrongs her with his excess of principles. Which do you see as the more unforgivable betrayal?
- While it may be tempting to think of Alec as a “bad” character and Angel as a “good” one, both experience an inner struggle between spiritual purity and erotic desire—a struggle that neither man wages successfully. Moreover, it is Alec the scoundrel—not Angel the moralist—who is there for Tess when she is in need and who supports her family in a time of crisis. What are the real differences between Alec and Angel? How does Hardy use the two characters to complicate the categories of good and evil?
- Why does Hardy divide his novel in “Phases”? What apparent transformations separate each phase from the last? How does this term encourage us to think about Tess, and what does it say about what Hardy meant to accomplish in his novel and about his view of human development?
- In classical tragedy, the hero is destroyed from within by a tragic flaw in his or her character. Does Tess have a tragic flaw, or is she better understood as a victim of external circumstances?
- Tess’s tragedy is set in motion by her father’s discovery of his noble ancestry. Although Tess herself possesses a kind of natural nobility in addition to her noble heritage, the men in her life continually see her as somehow inferior to them. What does Hardy suggest about the hierarchies that people observe among themselves, whether arising from ancestry, wealth, or gender? What hierarchies seem to exert the greatest influence, and why?
- Today, in most communities, Tess mothering a child out of wedlock would probably be far less of a scandal than it was in Wessex in 1891. While this greater social acceptance would be good news for a modern Tess, it would considerably impact Hardy’s plot. What is the range of tragic art as its traditionally forbidden content becomes acceptable? Can tragedy as a genre exist in a tolerant, permissive culture?
- Many of Hardy’s characters are defined either by their religious beliefs or lack of them. What forms of spirituality are represented in the novel? Which does Hardy appear to favor? Are there any belief systems in the novel that do not, at some point or another, cause harm to the believer or to others? Does Hardy give us any guidance in distinguishing beneficial beliefs from harmful ones?
- Hardy never explains why Tess, after being drugged and raped by Alec, remains with him for several months. How might you account for her decision not to leave him at once?
- When describing Tess’s “moral hobgoblins” in Chapter XIII, Hardy writes, “It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she.” How do you respond to Hardy’s suggestion that civilized society is a moral failure because it is out of tune with the “actual,” or natural world? What, as Hardy sees it, is the essential conflict between society and nature? What would a “natural” morality look like, and would it be an improvement?
- In Chapter XV, Hardy quotes a striking statement from Saint Augustine: that God has “counseled a better course than [He has] permitted;” in other words, God demands more decent conduct from people than can be practiced in the world where he has placed us. How does Hardy’s novel as a whole support this assertion? Do you find it to be true?
- Later in the same chapter, after Tess’s rape by Alec and the death of her baby, Hardy writes that his heroine has “changed from simple girl to complex woman.” Her eyes “more eloquent” and her mind more reflective, she has become a “fine creature.” Hardy even suggests that her mistreatment might be deemed “simply a liberal education.” Is Hardy right to make the seemingly outrageous contention that Tess’s abuse has aided in her growth and improvement? What does he appear to be saying about the natures of suffering and human morality?
- Hardy offers a marked contrast between the pastoral tranquility of Crick’s dairy and the mechanized fury of Groby’s farm, shown particularly in Chapter XLVII. What is Hardy’s opinion of modern technology?
- Is Tess of the D’Urbervilles more accurately seen as a protest against unjust moral and social tenets, or an acknowledgment that such structures will always exist?
- What, finally, is to blame for Tess’s tragedy? Does it stem principally from sexual desire? From her own ready acceptance of the victim’s role? From poor communication? From despicable timing? From her parents’ benighted ambitions? Or does it result, as her brother Abraham suggests, from living on a “blighted” star?
- Near the end of the novel, the doomed Tess suggests that Angel should marry her sister, ’Liza-Lu. Do you think this would be a successful marriage? State your reasons.
- Imagine that you are Tess’s lawyer in her prosecution for the murder of Alec. What arguments would you use, and do you think they would succeed?
- Hardy once wrote, “The best tragedy . . . is that of the worthy encompassed by the inevitable.” Using this definition, or substituting your own, assess whether Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the “best” kinds of tragedy.