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.
B Culture Clash
During Tess’s time, the industrialization of the cities was diminishing the quality of life of the inhabitants of rural areas. Hardy explores this theme in many ways. The contrast between what is rural (and therefore good) and what is urban (and therefore bad) is apparent in Tess’s last names. When Tess is unquestioningly innocent she is “of the field,” as the name Durbeyfield implies. D’Urberville invokes both “urban” and “village,” and because it belongs to a diminished ancient family, the name is further associated with decrepitude and decay. It is significant that Angel’s “fall” happens when he was “nearly entrapped by a woman much older than himself” in London. When Angel and Tess leave Talbothays to take the milk to the train, Hardy writes, “Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.” He uses the word “feeler” as if the train were a type of insect, indicating his disgust with the intrusion. Later, he calls the thresher at Flintcomb-Ash “the red tyrant” and says “that the women had come to serve” it. As the old ways fade away, people serve machines and not each other.
C Knowledge and Ignorance
Knowledge-whether from formal education or innate sensibility-causes conflict between those who see the truth of a situation, and those who are ignorant. Tess and Angel feel isolated from their parents, who appear set in their ways, unable to grasp new ideas. The intellectual gap between Tess, who has gone to school, and her mother is enormous, but Tess’s strong sense of right and wrong widens the gap even more. With Angel, in particular, Hardy recognizes that true knowledge is not just a product of schooling. He contrasts Angel, who alone in his family is not a college graduate, with his brother Cuthbert Clare, a classical scholar who marries the “priggish” Mercy Chant. Although Angel has less formal education, he alone recognizes Tess’s worth and wisely chooses her over Mercy’s religiosity. When he rejects Tess after their marriage, he does so because her confession “surprised [him] back into his early teachings,” the strict moralistic beliefs of his father. True knowledge, therefore, is understanding one another and one’s self, and is an essential ingredient for happiness. The village parson refuses to preside at a Christian burial for Tess’s infant because he “was a newcomer, and did not know her.” When Angel leaves Tess, “he… hardly knew that he loved her still.”
D Natural Law
Hardy’s contrast between false knowledge and knowledge that allows insight into the needs and desires of others, is also seen in his insistence on a natural law that exists independent of humanity. He repeats several times in the novel that was has happened to Tess has not offended nature, but merely society. When she returns pregnant to her home in Marlott from her visit with Alec, she likes to walk in the countryside in the evening away from the disapproving eyes of the townsfolk, but feels that because of what has happened she should not enjoy the beauty around her. “She had been made to break an accepted social law,” Hardy observes, “but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.” Later, Hardy notes that Tess’s shame was “a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.” Victorian society, with its strict code of appropriate and inappropriate social behavior, was anything but natural.
E God and Religion
The “arbitrary law of society” that Hardy criticizes is a product of organized religion. His religious Characters are pious hypocrites, except for Angel’s father, who appears to have a good heart. The local parson’s hypocritical attitude forces Tess to bury her child in the section of the cemetery reserved for drunkards and suicides. Alec’s appearance as a preacher is a thinly disguised criticism of religious convictions that are held for appearances only. After seeing Tess again, Alec’s true nature is again revealed. The stifled atmosphere of the Emminster parsonage where Rev. Clare and his wife live is contrasted with the lively warmth of the Talbothays dairy. In one of the novel’s few humorous incidents, Angel sits down to eat with his parents and brothers, expecting to feast on the black puddings (a sausage made of blood and suet) and mead Dairyman Crick’s wife had given to him when he left the dairy. On the contrary, he is told that the food has been given to the poor and the drink would be saved for its medicinal properties and used as needed. His disappointment is obvious.
Victorian society preferred to avoid talking about sex, but Hardy believed the elimination of sex from popular writing produced “a literature of quackery.” In Tess sex is often associated with nature; it is presented as a natural part of life. The scene of Tess’s seduction by Alec takes place in The Chase, an ancient stand of woods that dates from before the time of established societal morality. The valley of the Froom, where Talbothays is located, is described as so lush and fertile that “it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.” Tess and Angel fall in love there. Tess’s three milkmaid friends toss and turn in their beds, tortured by sexual desire. “Each was but a portion of the organism called sex,” Hardy asserts. Later, when Tess forgives Angel his “eight-and-forty hours dissipation with a stranger,” Angel cannot forgive her similar fault. Hardy condemns such unequal treatment.