Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a heartbreaking portrayal of a simple country girl named Tess Durbeyfield, who is driven by poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a share of their fortune.
The novel tells a story of love, betrayal, and tragedy, as Tess’s encounter with her “cousin” Alec proves to be her downfall, while Angel Clare, a very different man, offers her love and salvation. Its sensitive portrayal of Tess and its powerful critique of social convention make Tess of the D’Urbervilles one of Hardy’s most moving and poetic novels.
Table of Contents
The Tragic Tale of Tess Durbeyfield
The novel’s opening scene introduces the drunken John Durbeyfield, who is informed by old Parson Tringham that he is descended from the noble D’Urbervilles, who had once owned land at Kingsbere. Thrilled by the news, John celebrates by becoming even drunker.
At a May Day dance that evening, a young stranger “of a superior class” notices John’s 16-year-old daughter, Tess Durbeyfield, but does not dance with her. Later, while Tess is driving the family carriage to market, their horse, Prince, bleeds to death when an oncoming mail-cart hits them, and Tess blames herself bitterly for the accident.
Tess is sent to pay a visit at Trantridge, where she meets Alec D’Urberville, an insistent, coarse young womanizer who is attracted to Tess and who arranges for her to work on the farm. After quite a scene of flirtation, Alec “seduces” Tess. The following October, Tess decides to leave Trantridge, so she carries her belongings home to Marlott. En route, Alec overtakes her but she will not return with him. She had become pregnant the night Alec “seduced” her, and she wonders why her mother never warned her about men.
In August, Tess works at the reaping machine and takes time out to nurse her infant son, whom she calls Sorrow. When the boy falls ill, she baptizes him. The child dies, and after the vicar refuses to give him a Christian burial, Tess buries him herself. A year and a half later, Tess leaves home again to work as a dairymaid at Talbothays Dairy, where she meets Angel Clare.
The Love Story of Tess and Angel
At the dairy, Tess begins to feel hopeful again when she is treated well and makes friends with the other dairymaids, Izz, Retry, and Marian. Also working there is Angel Clare, the stranger who had not danced with her on May Day and who is now an apprentice farmer. He and Tess are strongly attracted to each other, but the other dairymaids are also attracted to Angel. Tess knows that she loves him, but is troubled by her past.
Angel proposes to Tess at Talbothays. She confesses her love but invents reasons for refusing him (differences in their families) and even recommends that he marry one of the other girls. After struggling in vain to tell him about her pregnancy, she finally agrees to marry him at New Year’s.
On their wedding day, Tess finds that Angel has not read the letter she slipped under his door, in which she had attempted to confess her past. When she finally does tell him the truth, Angel feels she is “another woman” from the one he thought he was marrying.
The Tragic End of Tess
Tess goes to her parents, and Angel leaves for Brazil to look for farmland. On his way, he meets Izz and impulsively asks her to accompany him on his journey, but withdraws his offer when she admits that she could not love him any more than Tess still does.
Tess sets out to look for work and ends up at Flintcomb-Ash, where she works with Marian and is treated harshly by her employer. Anxious because she has not heard from Angel, she walks to Emminster to appeal to his parents for money but overhears his brothers speaking disparagingly of him and his marriage.
Disheartened, Tess returns to the farm and is amazed to hear a familiar voice preaching in a barn—it is Alec D’Urberville! Alec overtakes Tess, saying he has reformed and wants to “save” her. She tries to escape, but he persists and proposes marriage. Tess tells him she is already married and begs him to leave her. During the rat-catching after the threshing at the farm, Alec reappears, and Tess, desperate, writes to Angel, imploring him to come to her.
Angel returns and reads Tess’s letter, which had been waiting for him at his parents’ house. He tries to find Tess but her mother will only say that she is at Sandbourne, on the coast. Angel goes looking for her and finds her living as Alec’s mistress in a seaside boarding house. Moments after Angel leaves, Tess has an argument with Alec and stabs him to death. The landlady discovers Alec dead, while Tess rushes into town to tell Angel what she has done.
Angel promises to protect her, and they spend a few happy days together in a deserted house. They leave the house and walk to Stonehenge, where they stop to rest. Tess suggests that Angel marry her sister, ‘Liza-Lu, who would make a fine wife in the event that something should happen to Tess. While she is sleeping, officers arrive to arrest her. Awakening, Tess gets up and says quietly, “I am ready.” Later, Angel and ‘Liza-Lu watch silently as the black flag at the prison is raised to show that Tess has been executed.
Themes and Symbols
One of the central themes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the injustice of social hierarchy and the influence of fate on one’s life. Tess’s life is defined by her low social status, and her attempt to escape poverty leads to her tragic fate. She is constantly judged and mistreated by those who consider themselves superior, and her association with the D’Urbervilles ultimately leads to her downfall.
Another important theme is the struggle between love and societal expectations. Tess’s love for Angel Clare conflicts with her fear of revealing her past, and she is torn between the desire to be honest and the need to conform to societal norms. The novel shows the devastating consequences of conforming to societal expectations instead of following one’s heart.
Hardy uses several symbols to convey these themes, such as the D’Urberville carriage, which represents the past and the legacy of social hierarchy. The carriage is also associated with death and tragedy, as it was involved in a murder in the past. The May Day dance, which marks the beginning of Tess’s journey, represents innocence and hope, while The Chase, where Alec seduces Tess, represents danger and temptation.
Tess Durbeyfield is the novel’s protagonist, and her story is one of hardship and tragedy. She is a victim of societal expectations and male oppression, and her attempts to escape her circumstances only lead to further suffering. Tess is a complex character, and Hardy’s sensitive portrayal of her makes her a sympathetic and relatable figure. Her tragic end is a reminder of the injustice of society and the importance of individual agency.
Angel Clare is the novel’s other major character, and his relationship with Tess forms the heart of the novel. Angel is a kind and sensitive man who falls in love with Tess, but his strict moral code causes him to judge her for her past. His inability to see past her social status and forgive her for her mistakes ultimately leads to their tragic separation.
Alec D’Urberville is the novel’s antagonist, and his character represents male oppression and sexual temptation. He is a wealthy and powerful man who uses his position to seduce Tess and control her life. His actions lead to Tess’s downfall, and his death at her hands symbolizes the triumph of justice over oppression.
1. The Depth of Characterization
One of the most striking aspects of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is Hardy’s ability to create fully realized, multidimensional characters. Tess, in particular, is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, whose resilience in the face of adversity makes her a memorable literary figure.
Hardy also skillfully crafts complex relationships between characters, revealing the intricate web of emotions, desires, and motivations that drive their actions. This depth of characterization results in a rich and immersive reading experience that keeps readers emotionally invested in the story.
2. The Evocative Setting and Descriptive Prose
Another strength of the novel is the vivid and evocative descriptions of the English countryside. Hardy’s portrayal of rural landscapes and the changing seasons serves as a beautiful backdrop for Tess’s story, adding an atmospheric quality to the narrative.
The descriptions of the various settings in the novel also serve to mirror Tess’s emotional journey, as her surroundings often reflect her internal struggles. This attention to detail and the use of descriptive prose contribute to the overall impact of the novel, making it a truly immersive and captivating read.
1. The Pervasiveness of Tragedy
While the novel’s tragic elements are essential to its themes and overall impact, the unrelenting bleakness can be emotionally taxing for readers. Tess’s life is marked by a series of devastating events, and at times, the sheer weight of her suffering can be overwhelming. For some readers, this may detract from their enjoyment of the novel, making it a difficult and harrowing read.
2. The Depiction of Gender Dynamics
Tess of the D’Urbervilles was groundbreaking for its time in its exploration of gender dynamics and societal norms. However, modern readers may find some aspects of the novel’s portrayal of women to be dated or problematic. For instance, Tess’s perceived innocence and purity are heavily emphasized, which may reinforce problematic notions of female sexuality.
Additionally, the novel’s resolution and the ultimate fate of Tess can be interpreted as a reinforcement of the idea that women must suffer for their perceived transgressions. Some readers may find these elements to be disconcerting or frustrating when reading the novel through a contemporary lens.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a tragic tale that offers a powerful critique of social conventions and the impact of poverty and societal expectations on individuals.
The novel is particularly moving in its portrayal of Tess, a character who is both innocent and complex, and whose struggles and sacrifices resonate with readers even today. Hardy’s writing is poetic and sensitive, and he masterfully weaves together themes of love, betrayal, and tragedy.
The novel raises important questions about the role of social class and gender in shaping individual destinies, and offers a critique of the Victorian era’s strict moral codes and expectations of women. Tess’s story also highlights the devastating consequences of sexual violence and the societal stigma attached to unwed motherhood.
In short, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a hauntingly beautiful novel that leaves a lasting impression on readers. Its poignant portrayal of Tess and its social commentary make it a literary masterpiece that continues to be relevant today. Hardy’s writing style and storytelling ability make the novel an engaging and emotionally powerful read, and a must-read for anyone interested in classic literature.
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