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In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy primarily showcases man’s inability to elude fate. Society’s constraints highlight the futile nature of attempting to change the course of one’s life, for the inability to transcend one’s social classes mirrors the impossibility of transcending one’s destiny. Similarly, Hardy’s deft control of atmosphere and setting to provide omens that enhance the reality that fate is an inescapable force, reinforces the psychological effect of Tess’ failed attempts to dictate her own future. These help take the story out of the realm of the typical and the and into the realm of the characteristic rhythms of human nature. Stated concisely, Tess represents the human who suffers for crimes that are not his own and lives a life unfairly degraded (Gatrell 68). William Watson agrees with such an assertion, writing, “The great theme of the book is the incessant penalty paid by the innocent for the wicked, the unsuspicious for the crafty, the child for its fathers; and again and again this spectacle, in its wide diffusion, provokes the novelist to a… declaration of rebellion against a supramundane ordinance that can decree, or permit, the triumph of such a wrong” (Watson 78).
Therefore, when Hardy points out that the true measure of one’s character is, “not among things done, but among things willed,” the irony of such a statement when contrasted with Tess’ life is evident (Hardy 347). Not surprisingly, the novel can also be said to be framed by circumstances which support the unchangeable nature of Tess’ cruel destiny: the pagan rituals practiced by the farmers at the opening of the novel, and Tess’ final rest at Stonehenge (Sprechman 132). Both are indicative of a world where gods are unjust and uncaring, and when the conclusion explicitly states, “‘Justice’ is done,” the cruel and unnecessarily playful nature of worldly justice is exposed (Hardy 390). Accordingly, “Tess is a symbol of unclear and unstable notions of class in nineteenth-century Britain, where old family lines retained their earlier glamour, but where cold economic realities made sheer wealth more important than inner nobility” (Gatrell 70).
The three main characters suffer from a continued and marked confusion regarding their social classes, highlighting once more the rigid social structure of the time. Angel is intent on refusing a Cambridge education for the sake of becoming a farmer, Alec is part of a family that is not genuine nobility at all, and Tess, though truly a noble descendant, benefits little from her ancestral ties. Alec even points out to her, “The little finger of the sham d’Urberville can do more for you than the whole dynasty of the real underneath,” an ironic statement which highlights once more the unavoidable onslaught of fate (Hardy 285). Even from the onset the stifling sense of an inescapable destiny pervades the novel. Foe example, as Tess kills Prince on her way to the market, “their inability to deliver the load symbolically mirrors their inability to transcend their social class” (Gatrell 23). More importantly however, Tess does not mean to kill Prince yet is punished anyway, just as she is later unfairly tortured for her own rape by Alec. Such repercussions once again exemplify the predetermined and harsh nature of Tess’ fall. Climatically, when in the Fifth Phase Tess comes upon the flock of peasants lying in agony and pain, she compares her own plight with theirs; therefore appropriate is her tender killing of the birds just as her own life is coming slowly to its tragic end.
We meet the Durbeyfeilds on the day that will alter the course of their lives significantly, the hour when they discover the noble tint of their blood. “Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles?,” says the old parson, indirectly igniting the accumulation of almost unbelievable coincidences that guide Tess towards catastrophe (Hardy 1). Ironically, Tess’ parents are ignorant of their inability to transcend their social position and, delighted by the discovery, choose to take the decisions that will ultimately lead to their ruin, such as sending their daughter off to the d’Urberville mansion. Their hopeful and mistaken expectations are paralleled by their obliviousness to the fact that fate is predetermined, and the future, unavoidable; Mrs. Durberyfield’s convictions about her fortune-telling book, for instance, imply that she is unaware of its uselessness. Even Tess at times believes that she has control over the result of her actions, though she is time and again allowed to see the error of such delusions. This is evident when she flees the d’Urberville estate after her rape, pledging violence and revenge in a clearly unladylike manner, seemingly attesting to the fact that she will not comply with the path fate has laid out of her and that she will, instead, be proactive in molding her own destiny (Gatrell 161). However, as valiant and driven by “the invincible instinct towards self-delight” as Tess may be, the reality remains that she has fallen victim and will, for the remainder of her life, be marked by her fall from grace.
Hardy likewise protests the unequal judgment that society bestows on the man and the woman associated in an identical breach of moral law, and by doing so trenchantly discloses the argument that male domination is one more compromising force in Tess’, as well as other women’s, life (Watson 73). The stifling grasp of one sex upon the other straightens the claim that Tess’ power to choose her life’s trajectory is diminished not only by a predetermined destiny, but also by blatant situational constraints. The central example is without a doubt Tess’ unfortunate rape by Alex, but more troubling signs of male domination are also scattered throughout the novel: for example, Retty’s suicide and Marian’s alcoholism upon discovering that Angel has chosen to marry Tess are indicative of an unhealthy, unsettling obsession. As the novel develops, Tess continues to suffer as a social outcast for a disgrace that is as much Alec’s fault as hers; meanwhile, Alec has the “luxury to repent and even win acceptance as a preacher” (Watson 73). With this juxtaposition, Hardy conveys how unfair Tess’ plight as a woman is, a bold statement that is reinforced by the subtitle of the section, “A Woman Pays.” Hardy uses the figure of Tess, beautiful and responsible, as a counterbalance to male dominance, an attempt that culminates in her murder of Alec (Sperchman 124). Whatever the repercussions of her actions may soon come to be, Tess’ act can be viewed as a rebellion against both male domination and the harsh fate that has subjected her to a melancholy succession of events.
The novel’s plot also hinges on a series of unfortunate coincidences, which in and of themselves highlight the future’s predetermined nature and convey the sense that fate itself opposes Tess at every moment. From Simon Stoke’s decision to change his name to the more aristocratic d’Urberville, to Angel’s decision to work as a farmhand, to Tess’ unfortunate meeting with Alec after his conversion; the accumulation of such unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable events is what mars Tess’ future as well as torturs her present life. Coincidentally, she also sees a painter’s sign on a wall on her way home from the d’Urberville mansion, one that says “Thy Damnation Slumbereth Not”; a more overt omen would be almost impossible (Hardy 78). Ultimately the omens are correct for — despite all of her efforts, courage, and moral fiber — Tess is punished. For instance, even when she is in love with Angel she cannot reveal her passion for fear of having to confess about he rape. In this manner, Hardy effectively highlights that a moral code which condemns two people guilty of the same “crime” to such different fates as Tess’ suffering and Alec’s redemption through conversion to religion, is flawed (Watson 75). Indeed, it seems that Tess can never escape the wrongs of her past, for her rape even ruins her promising marriage to Angel. The inescapable and harsh nature of life’s order is poignantly expressed in the statement that Tess is overtly the victim of, “the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things” (Hardy 114).
Hardy repeatedly uses nature and the atmosphere surrounding his characters as omens, inadvertently reinforcing the perception that the course of one’s life has already been dictated (Hardy xii). For example, in the scene of Tess’ confession to Angel, the room undergoes a change, becoming an aloof spectator of the tragic human plot that unfolds as Tess relates her past, simultaneously heightening the dramatic reality that Tess cannot escape her past and cannot improve her future (Hardy xii). Hardy writes:
But the complexion even of external things seemed to suffer transmutation as he announcement progressed. The fire at the gate looking impish — demonically funny, as if it did not care in the least about her strait. The fender grinned idly, as if it too didn’t care. The light from the water bottle was merely engaged in a chromatic problem. All material objects around announced irresponsibility with terrible iteration. And yet nothing had changed since the moments when he had been kidding her, or rather, nothing in the substance of things: but the essence of things had changed. (Hardy 273)
Similarly, Tess grows up in the beautiful Vale of Blackmore, but as her life becomes more tragic, the landscape parallels the trend by turning dark and foreboding. The Vale is presented as lovely and rustic, “so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of the hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine” (Hardy 13). And yet, the weather becomes noticeably confusing, the surroundings clearly turn to darker shades, and a misty fog envelops the forest on the night of Tess’ fall. A similar transformation occurs when Tess finds herself the object of gossip upon her return, and only goes out after darkness covers the land. The surroundings act as omens of Tess’ harsh destiny by paralleling her emotional states. Ellen Sprechman agrees with this assertion writing, “When her husband leaves Tess, she migrates to the cold north of Flintcomb-Ash, where the harsh land blends with her state of mind to expedite the tragedy of her life. In the final scene at Stonehenge, the antiquity of the setting adds to the significance of her downfall” (Sprechman 127). Throughout the book, the land surrounds, embellishes, and enriches the story.
Tess starts out blessed by the sun, delighted by the world around her. The sun bathes her during the early descriptions of Tess and the dancing girls, “as each and all of them were warmed without by the sun, so each of them has a private little sun for her soul to bask in” (Hardy 8). Then again, at Talbothays the sun and the fertile surroundings mirror Tess’ growing happiness and love for Angel, “Rays from the sunshine drew forth the buds and stretched them into stalks” (Hardy 173). Similarly, on the mornings when Tess and Angel wake up before the sun is up and feel themselves the only people in the world, the sun parallels a change and becomes an omen of Angel’s future disillusion (Watson 73). As it rises, Tess becomes more of a woman and less of an “Artemis,” “her teeth, lips and eyes scintillated in the sunbeams, and she was the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only” (Hardy 179) It is in this quiet, slow paced dairy farm that Tess can achieve happiness, if only for a fleeting moment.
Furthermore, as Tess nears the culmination of her tragedy, the sense of gloom intensifies all around her with repeated omens: the cock crowing in the afternoon, the old mansion that is her residence. The d’Urberville mansion in particular both mirrors Tess’ emotional distress and her coldness towards a family legacy that has been, and will ironically never be, of any use to her (Gatrell 140). Thomas Hardy succeeds in illustrating the inescapable onslaught that is fate in his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. By showcasing society’s constraints and identifying the character’s surroundings as active guides, Hardy highlights the futility of the heroine’s attempts to choose, and the cruelty of the life that has been bestowed upon her.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
Watson, William. “Mr. Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles” in Excursions in Criticism. Charlottesville: Macmillian & Co., 1983.
Sprechman, Ellen. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Overview” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., edited by D.L. Kirkpatrick. St James Press, 1991.
Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy and the Proper Treatment of Mankind. Virginia: Macmilliam press Ltd., 1993.
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