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Tess of the D'Ubervilles

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English Literature

Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) is a story full of manipulation, a secret baby, and even murder. It was written by Thomas Hardy and published in serial form in The Graphic in 1891. The novel was heavily censored at first and received many mixed reviews, as the themes and characters challenged Victorian notions about love.

Content warning: contains themes of sexual violence and rape.

Historical Context of Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Industrialization and "New Money"

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is set in the 19th century, a time when agricultural societies and towns in England were slowly transforming into industrial, modern cities. Industrialization became possible in the 19th century, when steam engine power, steel, and other technologies that made work more efficient were developed. This was a time known as the Industrial Revolution. Many agricultural, rural areas were transformed, and the people who lived there were sometimes forced to work in new industries such as coal mining.

These families, who had formed the backbone of the village life in the past, who were the depositaries of the village traditions, had to seek refuge in the large centres; the process, humorously designated by statisticians as “the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns”, being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery. (Chapter 51)

Those who invested in the industrialization of England became rich fast, creating a new social elite known as "New Money", who contradicted "Old Money". "Old Money" refers to the ancient aristocratic elite who were fading into obscurity around the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.

Thomas Hardy was born in rural Dorset, and he sets his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles in rural Wessex, a region of England. Tess Durbeyfield's family is obsessed with connecting her to the D'Urbervilles, who they believe are their kin. The latter are "Old Money" and pretty much obscure. Throughout the novel, we see the effect of industrialization on Wessex and the discrepancy between the old and new money.

Industrial Revolution- A period in which rapid technological advancements such as steam power and steel allowed for rapid economic growth, transforming society from a mostly agricultural society to a more modern, urban society that relied heavily on machine-aided labor. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the industrial revolution's effects on agricultural society can be found throughout the plot.

Victorian-Age Morality

Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Statue of Queen Victoria, StudySmarterStatue of Queen Victoria, Pixabay.com

The Victorian Age began in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended the British Throne. It ended with her death in 1901. It was a time of industrialization, continued colonialization, and a tightening of societal moral codes. Everyone in Victorian society was encouraged to uphold the moral codes of sexual propriety, which meant no premarital sex or children out of wedlock, charity, family, and duty.

The concept of family was especially important, and it was considered the duty of a man and woman to marry and have children, who they would raise under Victorian values. Hardy challenged many of these Victorian ideals, especially sexual propriety and family, and he deeply sympathized with lower-class women who were wrongfully impacted by them.

In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess is impregnated by the wealthy Alec D'Urberville, who seduces her. She has a baby out of wedlock, which becomes a stain on her reputation as a young woman and even causes her newlywed husband, Angel Clare, to reject her.

D'Urberville does not face any immediate consequences, which shows the hypocrisy of the Victorian Age, in which women - mainly rural, poor women - had to face the harsh consequences of sexual impropriety that wealthy men did not.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Plot Summary

Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is separated into 5 phases. Each phase indicates a different stage of character development for the protagonist Tess Durbeyfield. The novel is set in rural Wessex, a fictional region of England, in the 19th century. It is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, which means an unnamed narrator tells the tale. The narrator can look deeply into the mind and thoughts of the characters.

Wessex is a term Thomas Hardy created that includes South and South-West England. It is an imaginary region that he first used as a setting for his novel Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). Readers became so intrigued by this idyllic rural region that they created guidebooks to literary landmarks. Hardy didn't want Wessex to be interpreted as a literal place, so in the preface of Far From the Madding Crowd he included that Wessex was "a merely realistic dream country (preface)".

John Durbeyfield is on his way home when old Parson Tringham refers to him as "Sir John" and explains that the Durbeyfields were descended from the D'Urbervilles, an ancient and noble family. However, he warns that the connection goes so far back it is obscure.

John, a peddler, becomes excited by the prospect of nobility. At the same time, his daughter Tess is engaged in May Day festivities when John appears and embarrasses himself. Tess and her friends go to the village green to dance. There she meets Angel Clare, who regrettably does not dance with her.

John and his wife decide to send Tess to Mrs. D'Urberville at the D'Urbervilles residence to claim family relations in the hopes that Tess will come into a fortune. However, there is no family relation, as Mrs. D'Urberville's husband simply chose the last name D'Urberville to sound important.

Tess does not know this and when the son, Alec D'Urberville, offers Tess a job taking care of fowls, she must accept. Her family's only source of income was the family horse, and she blames herself for the accident in which he dies.

Alec attempts to seduce Tess, and she firmly denies him. Alec takes her out into the woods one night after the fair and takes advantage of her. She becomes pregnant and goes back to her family, where she gives birth to Sorrow, who dies soon after birth. Miserable, Tess seeks a job as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy.

At Talbothays Dairy, Tess finds friends in her fellow milkmaids and is happy. Tess meets Angel Clare once more and they fall in love. Angel proposes to Tess and they get married. Tess feels troubled by her past and tries to tell Angel before the wedding about Alec and Sorrow, but is unsuccessful.

Once married, Angel confesses he had an affair with an older woman in London, which Tess forgives him for. Tess tells him about Alec and Sorrow and Angel is unable to forgive Tess. He decides to leave for Brazil to establish a farm and tells her not to join him until he calls for her, for he needs time to try and accept her past.

Here Thomas Hardy points out the hypocrisy in Victorian Age morals. Angel confesses to a premarital affair and is left with no consequences. Tess, who was taken advantage of by Alec, however, is seen as impure and disgraced and must face the consequences of actions that were beyond her control.

Angel leaves little money for Tess, so she must find a job at a failing farm. On a visit to Angel's family, she meets a wandering preacher who turns out to be Alec D'Urberville who, under Reverand Clare, Angel's father, has been converted to Christianity. Alec blames Tess for tempting him before and he begs her not to do it again. He then asks Tess to marry him, as he has turned his back on religion.

Tess's mother is near death, and she returns home to take care of her. Her mother recovers, but her father suddenly dies. The Durbeyfields are evicted and Alec D'Urberville offers to help, but Tess refuses. Angel returns from Brazil ready to forgive Tess. He learns from Tess's mother that she now lives in a boardinghouse called The Herons in Sandbourne.

Angel wants to take Tess back but she informs him it's too late. She has gone back to Alec D'Urberville. Both Angel and Tess are heartbroken, so in a mad frenzy, Tess runs upstairs and stabs Alec, who is found by the landlady.

Angel and Tess hide in an empty mansion before coming to Stonehenge, where they sleep. In the morning, they are discovered by a search party. Tess is sent to jail and Angel and Tess's sister Liza-Lu watch as a black flag is raised above the prison. Tess has been executed.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Characters

CharacterDescriptionAnalysis Quote
Tess DurbeyfieldThe protagonist. She is considered beautiful and loyal to her family. As the story progresses, one misfortune after another happens to Tess simply because of her family's belief they are related to a noble family line. Tess is characterized as a heroic martyr by Hardy, who named her after the martyr St. Teresa of Avila. Tess sits in between the lower class rural societies and has an aspiration to belong to a higher class. She is educated and feels out of place in rural settings. However, trying to claim nobility led to her downfall. She is representative of the ambiguous and rapidly changing social classes of England in the 19th century. "She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature (Chapter 41)."
Alec D'UrbervilleThe son of a wealthy merchant who seduces Tess and takes advantage of her innocence. Despite bearing a noble family name, the truth is his family became rich because of his merchant father, who adopted D'Urberville. Alec is devilish in nature and is representative of the evil that causes a good person to stray under a glamorous disguise. "...Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down at the roses in her bosom, that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the “tragic mischief” of her drama – one who stood to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life (Chapter 5)"
Angel ClareA farmer and the son and brother of a clergyman. He and Tess fall in love and get married, which is disrupted when he learns of her past. Angel is representative of wishing to break tradition. He does not become a clergyman like his father and brothers, wishing for more secular work in the realm of men. He also marries Tess, who is below his social class. Angel believes in the purity and nobility of humans. He sees Tess as more of a mythical woman than a woman who has lived harsh life experiences. He must reevaluate his understanding of humanity after she reveals her past to him. "He looked upon her as a species of impostor; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one. Terror was upon her white face as she saw it; her cheek was flaccid, and her mouth had almost the aspect of a round little hole (Chapter 35)."
John DurbeyfieldTess's father is a peddler and quite lazy. He learns of his relation to the "noble" D'Ubervilles and sees the money-making potential in it by sending Tess to them to claim kin. John Durbeyfield is the source of Tess's lifelong misfortunes. His laziness and pride lead him to practically sacrifice Tess in order to make a profit. "Now obey my orders, and take the message I’m about to charge ‘ee wi’ . . . Well, Fred, I don’t mind telling you that the secret is that I’m one of a noble race—it has been just found out by me this present afternoon, P.M. (Chapter 1)"

Tess, Alec, and Angel all have names that are derived from mythology or religion. Tess was named after the martyr St. Teresa of Avila and is nicknamed "Daughter of Nature" by Angel, a reference to the goddesses Diana and Demeter, two maidens in Greco-Roman mythology. Angel is characterized as an angel on Earth believing in the pure nature of humanity, only to be brought back down to Earth by Tess. Alec is from the name Alexander, a reference to Alexander the Great of Macedon who conquered parts of North Africa and Southwest Asia in the 4th century BCE.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Analysis with Quotes

Genre and Writing Style

Thomas Hardy was a writer in the naturalism genre. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a fiction novel that fits into the Victorian and Pastoral genres of literature.

Naturalism (1865-1900): The use of realism to highlight how the nature of the human character was affected by environmental, social, and hereditary forces.

Realism: A literary movement popular from the mid-19th century to the early-to-mid-20th century that focused on realistic and natural depictions of people and places as well as everyday, mundane experiences.

Victorian Literature (1837-1901): Considered the Golden Age of English literature. It covers a broad range of literary styles that explored many topics and themes such as industrialization, class, and science, as well as women. It usually took the form of novels that were serialized.

Pastoral Literature: Literature commonly directed towards urban populations that highlights the idyllic rural and agricultural lifestyle of pastoral people, who live according to the seasons of the Earth.

A majority of the novel, written with a great deal of realism, focuses on pastoral settings that highlight the beauty and simplicity of such a lifestyle, in contrast to the harms of industrialization. In particular, Hardy highlights how industrialization and modernization are destroying the pastoral idyllic lifestyle and values.

Tess of the D'Ubervilles, cows in a field, StudySmarterCows in a pastoral field, pixabay.com

This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by the bold chalk ridge that embraces the prominences of Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecombe-Tout, Dogbury, High Stoy, and Bubb Down. The traveller from the coast, who, after plodding northward for a score of miles over calcareous downs and corn-lands, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through. (Chapter 1)

Notice how Thomas Hardy describes the rural region of Wessex. It is evergreen, beautiful, and awe-inspiring in comparison to modernizing cities and towns.

Hardy was known for having an indistinctive, somewhat messy writing style due to his lack of formal university education. However, in Tess of the D'Ubervilles, there is a clear writing style. It includes simple, realistic descriptions of events using an expected amount of adjectives and adverbs.

In comparison to other literary writing styles popular at this time, most of the sentences are relatively short, although some are quite long. Victorian literature, particularly Romanticism, was marked by long passages full of adverbs and adjectives that appealed to the reader's imagination.

Why do you think Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D'Ubervilles in a simple way? Was it his educational background or did he intentionally do it to emphasize the simplicity and ease of the pastoral lifestyle.?

All the men, and some of the women, when milking, dug their foreheads into the cows and gazed into the pail. But a few—mainly the younger ones—rested their heads sideways. This was Tess Durbeyfield’s habit, her temple pressing the milcher’s flank, her eyes fixed on the far end of the meadow with the quiet of one lost in meditation. She was milking Old Pretty thus, and the sun chancing to be on the milking-side, it shone flat upon her pink-gowned form and her white curtain-bonnet, and upon her profile, rendering it keen as a cameo cut from the dun background of the cow. (Chapter 24)

In this excerpt we see realistic depictions of Tess milking a cow. Hardy describes what he sees: Tess resting her head sideways, milking the cow, and staring off into the meadow. It is simplistic, yet full of adjectives that allow a vivid image to form in the reader's mind. The last sentence is longer than the rest but serves the purpose of creating an impressionable depiction of Tess.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Themes

A theme is a recurring or repeating idea, message, or topic that appears throughout a piece of literature. There are many themes present in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The central themes are fate, love and marriage, and justice and judgement.

Fate

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: 'It was to be.'"(Chapter 11)

Hardy believed in pessimistic fatalism. Pessimistic fatalism is the belief that nothing good is bound to happen and that humans are bound to fail. Hardy brings this belief of pessimistic fatalism into Tess of the D'Ubervilles as he questions the idea of fate and how much agency humans have in their own lives.

Despite her good nature and loyalty to her family, Tess finds herself in misfortune after misfortune, resulting in her death at the end of the book. But Hardy wants us to question whether fate is the cause of all her misfortune or if it is caused by human choice.

The misfortunes Tess faces throughout the novel are always beyond her control, but Hardy makes it ambiguous as to whether it is Tess's fault or not. For example, when Tess falls asleep while riding the family horse to the D'Urbervilles, she causes an accident that kills the horse. When Tess is taken advantage of by Alec D'Urberville, one could say, she went with him into the forest and, as Alec claims, tempted him.

Many misfortunes follow, but the catalyst is John, Tess's father, learning he had ancestral ties to the noble D'Urbervilles and then sending Tess to the D'Urberville residence out of greed. John found out this relation perchance after running into a parson. Did fate dictate that John would meet the Pastor and learn of his ancestral ties? Did fate dictate the entire course of Tess's life leading her to eventual "failure"?

Love and Marriage

Tess of the D'Ubervilles, wedding rings, StudySmarterWedding rings, pixabay.com

In the Victorian Age, marriage was seen as a necessity between a man and a woman, particularly in the upper classes, so as to create the next generation of moral upholding children. Marriages were contracts that were sometimes strategically created to increase a family's status or increase a family's wealth.

Love was not seen as necessary in a marriage. It was also expected that women would remain pure and chaste. They were not to engage in premarital sex or live with a man until married, for it rendered her impure and "stained". Hardy explores this idea, as Tess has a child out of wedlock.

“I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.”

“But who?”

“Another woman in your shape.”

She perceived in his words the realization of her own apprehensive foreboding in former times. He looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one. (Chapter 34)

When Angel learns of her past, he rejects her and is horrified she is not "pure". He sees her as an imposter. However, by the end of the novel, he reconciles with her, choosing to look past her impurity. She is executed in the end because she kills Alec D'Urberville, who she goes back to when Angel has gone.

Hardy here is showing how rigid Victorian ideals of purity, chastity, and marriage lead to dire consequences, especially for women in the lower classes, who have little protection or prospects. He also shows the hypocrisy that men are allowed to have extramarital affairs without any consequences.

Justice and Judgement

Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? (Chapter 51)"

Throughout the novel, we see Tess punished and judged for events that were not entirely her fault. She is blamed for the horse's death. She is blamed for Alec taking advantage of her. She blames herself for her the death of her baby, Sorrow. At the end of the novel, she finally does commit a crime and is once again punished.

Justice does not serve Tess, but rather protects those who are really at fault: John, Alec, even Angel at times. Hardy uses the theme of justice and judgment to explore the difference between Christian justice and the notions of pre-Christian pastoral pagan justice. The Christian promise of an eternal afterlife and fair judgment after death offers little comfort to the characters in the novel, even to Angel Clare, the son of a clergyman.

In the rural settings of Wessex, where pagan rituals are still practiced, we see a different sort of justice, or rather injustice. Pastoral gods and goddesses are seen as chaotic, unprotecting, and uncaring. When Tess symbolically sleeps at Stonehenge, a pagan site, as she runs from her crime, she is still surrounded and captured and eventually executed. To Hardy whether in Christianity or in Paganism, justice does not exist, and the innocent will still fall, just as Tess did.

Overall Meaning of Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles was quite an intense novel, which helped raise Hardy to popularity and controversy, particularly his beliefs challenging Victorian ideals. The overall meaning of Tess of the D'Urberville falls in line with Hardy's pessimistic fatalism. The message is that humans have little control over their fate and that unfair things are bound to happen to them, even to those who are considered innocent.

Because humans can't decide their fate, they must endure constant injustices. Tess does not choose to be born into a lower-class family. Tess does not choose to be sent to the D'Urbervilles. Tess does not choose to become pregnant. Tess never chooses her misfortunes, but she must face the consequences regardless.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Key takeaways

  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles was published by Thomas Hardy in 1891. The novel was heavily censored for its graphic content when it was first published.
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the story of Tess Durbeyfield, who is sent by her parents to the D'Urbervilles, who they believe to be distant relations. She must grapple with the consequences of actions that are beyond her control for the entirety of the novel.
  • The novel belongs to the naturalism genre as well as the Victorian and pastoral genres of literature.
  • The writing style in the novel is not too distinctive, but does focus on realistic depictions and descriptions of landscapes, people, and events.
  • The major themes present in the novel are fate, love and marriage, and justice and judgment.

Tess of the D'Ubervilles

Tess Durbeyfield is sent to the residence of the wealthy and noble D'Ubervilles after her father John discovers his family's relation to them. Tess faces a series of misfortunes and injustices in her life from that moment on.  

 Humans have little control over their fate and unfair things are bound to happen to them, even to those who are considered innocent. Because humans can't decide their fate, they must endure constant injustices.  

In the 1979 movie adaptation of Tess of the D'Uberville, Tess is played by Nastassja Kinski.

Tess is the tragic hero of Tess of the D'Ubervilles.

The main themes of Tess of the D'Uberville are love and marriage, fate, and injustice and judgment. 

Final Tess of the D'Ubervilles Quiz

Question

Who wrote Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

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Answer

Thomas Hardy 

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Question

When was Tess of the D'Ubervilles  published?

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Answer

1891

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Question

What does "Old Money" mean?

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Answer

the ancient aristocratic elite who around the mid 19th century through the early 20th century were fading into obscurity.

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Question

What is the third person omniscient point of view?

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Answer

When an unnamed narrator tells the tale and is able to look deeply into the mind and thoughts of the characters. 

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Question

Where is Tess of the D'Ubervilles  set?

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Answer

In Wessex. 

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Question

Who is the protagonist?

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Answer

Tess Durbeyfield

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Who is Alec D'Ubervilles?

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Answer

The son of a wealthy merchant who seduces Tess and takes advantage of her innocence.  

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Question

Who is Angel Clare?

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Answer

A farmer and the son and brother of a clergyman. He and Tess fall in love and get married-which is disrupted when he learns of her past. 

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Question

What is naturalism?

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Answer

The use of realism to highlight how the nature of the human character was affected by environmental, social, and heredity forces.  

Show question

Question

What is realism?

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Answer

 A literary movement from the 19th century that focused on realistic and natural depictions of people and places as well as everyday, mundane experiences. 

Show question

Question

What is Victorian Literature?

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Answer

 Considered the Golden Age of English Literature (1837-1901). It covers a broad range of literary styles that explored many topics and themes such as industrialization, class, and science as well as women. They were usually novels that were serialized.  

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Question

What is Pastoral Literature?

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Answer

 Literature commonly directed towards urban populations that highlights the idyllic rural and agricultural lifestyle of pastoral people who live according to the seasons of the Earth.  

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Question

What genres of literature does Tess of the D'Ubervilles fall into?

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Answer

Naturalism, pastoral literature, Victorian Literature, Realism

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Question

What is Hardy's writing style in Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

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Answer

Simplistic and realistic. 

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Question

What themes appear in Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

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Answer

Fate, Love and Marriage, Justice and Judgement

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Question

What is pessimistic fatalism?

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Answer

the belief that nothing good is bound to happen and that humans are bound to fail.  

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