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Some of the most readable and critically acclaimed social commentaries in the English language, such as Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, employ a fascinating protagonist and numerous sarcastic intrusions. Thomas Hardy similarly produces a beautiful novel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles because of his intriguing characterization and his willingness to step into the story. While Hardy’s intrusions add to the story, his attempts to portray Tess as a completely admirable character fail; instead, she is a normal person -sometimes admirable, sometimes not- and it is due to this that she is so pitiable.
Admittedly, Tess is a likable and admirable person at a few instances throughout the book. For example, when Tess realizes that Angel loves only a false image of her, she refuses to attempt to win him back even though it is in her power. As Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “Only when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse” does man find himself “ennobled” and “elevated”; Tess is a remarkably noble admirable person at this moment because most readers acknowledge that they would be unable to resist the same temptation. The “many effective chords” which she could have used to trap him were “left untouched” because Tess knew that she could never be what he wished her to be. Tess also shows her integrity frequently, and her complete lack of hypocrisy makes her ethics appear even more noble.
Though Hardy constantly tries to make Tess into a perfect heroine, her many character flaws lower her from her admirable status. Tess’ need to blame everything on herself becomes increasingly annoying, as this self-blame oftentimes only hurts herself and her family. By the end of the book, her complete reliance on Angel is also frustrating; she is willing to kill herself without him though he is no better a man than she a woman. While some might argue this only shows her natural, admirable passion, Tess needs to value herself more. She is too submissive throughout, especially regarding her “crime”. Tess allows other people’s opinions of her to force her withdrawal from society rather than realizing that her being seduced is not her fault. She questions the fairness of societal laws overruling natural laws, but she never stands up for what she believes. She is incredibly irritating in Phase the Fourth of the book, when she vacillates between marrying and not marrying Angel, telling him and not telling him of her past. While this indecision may have been meant to show her inner confusion, her attempts to be better than she is are maddening.
However, Tess is generally an admirable character and definitely a pitiable one. As the reader is completely exposed to Tess’ inner thoughts, he can see all of her faults. Despite her faults, however, her honest efforts to do what she feels best and her selflessness make her an undoubtedly admirable character. She is absolutely a pitiable character; knowing that Tess tries as hard as she can to do the right thing, it seems awful that she must suffer because of the people surrounding her. While her actions are partly to blame, she committed them with the best intentions, which only increases sympathy for her. Everyone knows that things like family, chance, and social law restrict our action, and we feel much pity for Tess, who tries as hard as she can but can still not escape the influences shaping her.
Hardy’s intrusions provide the last cause for reader sympathy for Tess. For Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I would argue that this author commentary is necessary to a complete story. This book deals greatly with human passion, and Hardy’s ironic interruptions are needed. Tess seems very resigned to her fate, but Hardy shows the bristling anger that the average reader feels at imagining the wrongs that Tess suffers. If Hardy were to write this with uncontrolled rants or with a sterile, neutral tone, the whole effect of his compassion for Tess would disappear. This book is undoubtedly a social commentary, and as such, Hardy’s voice and opinions are welcome ways to merge the concrete with the abstract.
According to Robert Heilman, Alec and Angel gain their interest from the fact that they are “not stereotypes”, but have good and bad qualities. Though Hardy tried to make Tess an ideal character, it is perhaps true of her, as well, that her faults that make her so admirable and personable. Seeing her struggle against outside forces as well as her own personality guarantees an audience full of pity. Hardy’s strong voice throughout and especially his interruptions make the book a more personal, satisfying experience.
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