When Tess of the d’Urbervilles appeared in 1891, Thomas Hardy was one of England’s leading men of letters. He had already authored several well-known novels, including The Return of the Native, and numerous short stories. Tess brought him notoriety-it was considered quite scandalous-and fortune. Despite this success, the novel was one of Hardy’s last. He was deeply wounded by some of the particularly personal attacks he received from reviewers of the book. In 1892, he wrote in one of his notebooks, quoted in The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928, compiled by Florence Emily Hardy, “Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.”
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in the small village in Dorset, an area of southern England steeped in history. One of the local landmarks, Corfe Castle, was once home for the kings of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Hardy chose the name Wessex for the Setting of his most important novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Like the Durbeyfields in Tess, the Hardys fancied themselves descendants of a noble and ancient family line. The Dorset Hardys were presumably a branch of the Le Hardys who claimed descent from Clement Le Hardy, a fifteen-century lieutenant-governor of the British Channel island of Jersey. Remote ties to Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who served with the British naval hero Nelson during the decisive battle of Trafalgar in 1805, were also possible.
A Part One-An Insignificant Incident and Its Consequences
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles begins with a seemingly insignificant incident: John Durbeyfield, a middle-aged peddler, is informed during a chance encounter on his way home one May evening that he is the descendent of an “ancient and knightly family,” the d’Urbervilles. On learning this “useless piece of information,” “Sir John” has a horse and carriage fetched for him so that he can arrive home in a manner more befitting his new station, and then goes out drinking, getting drunk enough that he is unable to get up in the middle of the night to make a delivery to a nearby town for the following morning. Tess, his oldest daughter, accompanied by her young brother Abraham, attempts to make the delivery instead; but she falls asleep on the way, and the family’s horse, unguided, gets into a grotesque freak accident and dies on the road.
A Mercy Chant
The only daughter of a friend and neighbor of the Clares, Mercy Chant, is the girl Angel Clare’s parents hope he will marry. She is religious and holds Bible classes, but appears cold and unyielding. She ends up married to Angel’s brother, Cuthbert.
A Fate and Chance
The Characters in Hardy’s novel of seduction, abandonment, and murder appear to be under the control of a force greater than they. Marlott is Tess’s home and, as the name of the town implies, her lot in life appears be marred or damaged. As the novel opens, Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield, learns that he is the last remaining member of the once illustrious d’Urberville family. The parson who tell him admits he had previously “resolved not to disturb [Durbeyfield] with such a useless piece of information,” but he is unable to control his “impulses.” This event, which starts Tess’s tragedy, seems unavoidable, as do many others in the novel. In scene after scene something goes wrong. The most obvious scene in which fate intervenes occurs when Tess writes Angel a letter telling him of her past, but upon pushing it under his door, she unwittingly pushes it under the rug on the floor in the room. If only he could have found it and read it before they were married. If only Angel could have danced with Tess that spring day when they first met. But for Hardy, like Tess, the Earth is a “blighted star” without hope. At the end of the novel, after Tess dies, Hardy writes, “’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.” Tess was powerless to change her fate, because she had been the plaything of a malevolent universe.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles tells the story of a girl who is seduced and has a child who dies. When she meets another man whom she wants to marry, she is unable to tell him about her past until after their wedding. Her husband abandons her, and Tess is driven by despair into the arms of her former seducer. When her husband returns, Tess kills the man she is living with. Hardy uses a third-person (“he”/“she”) narrator with an omniscient (all-knowing) point of view to tell Tess’s story. Thus the narrator not only describes the Characters but can reveal their thoughts. Hardy also uses his power as narrator to offer his philosophical insights on the action. The novel’s closing paragraph, which begins “’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” is a good example of how Hardy comments on the action. Some critics believe the novel would have been better if Hardy could have remained silent and let the actions of the Characters tell the story. At several spots in the novel, Hardy’s narrator loses his omniscient ability and comments on the story through the eyes of a storyteller of local history. For example, when he tells the story of Tess and Angel’s first meeting, when Angel chooses another girl to dance with him, the narrator says he does not know the lucky girl’s name. “The name of the eclipsing girl, whatever it was, has not been handed down,” he notes.
A Darwin and Social Darwinism
The last fifty years of the nineteenth century saw innovations in science and technology that changed society to a greater degree than ever before. The theory of evolution popularized by naturalist Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859, had enormous cultural implications. The idea that humans were descended from apes changed accepted views of religion and society. It shook belief in the Biblical creation story and, therefore, all religious beliefs. It shocked the Victorians (those who lived during the reign of the British Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901) to think that their ancestors were animals. They glorified order and high-mindedness, and thought themselves, as British subjects, the pinnacle of culture.
Imagine Tess’s story taking place in today’s U.S. society and analyze how her story would have ended up differently or the same. Refer to specific scenes from the novel in your analysis.
1890s: The rural population was forced to move toward urban areas as low prices and industrialization of farm equipment made smaller farms less profitable. Today: Family-run farms are disappearing across the United States at the rate of several hundred a year, primarily due to large corporations controlling food production and pricing.