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In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, heredity governs life. Through the narrative voice and the character’s responses, Thomas Hardy explains how Tess’ “slight incautiousness of character inherited from her race” (71) defines her life. More specifically, traits from her parents and her family legacy follow throughout her life.
Tess’ mental and physical predisposition originates with her parents. First of all, Tess conveys the physical beauty of Joan Durbeyfield, her mother. Hardy describes Joan as having the “freshness, and even the prettiness of her youth,” that passes onto Tess as her “mother’s gift, and therefore unknightly, unhistorical” (12). This passage introduces a dichotomy between Tess’ appearance and social standing. In many ways her beauty implies its own nobility, attracting respectable men. However, despite her outer elegance, she never overcomes her maid status in her lifetime, remaining like her mother. Hardy relates her beauty as “unknightly” stressing Tess’ normalcy in society. In the larger picture, Tess is ordinary and unimportant mainly due to her class. The voice in this passage implies that Joan carries herself as a low class woman, describing her as “unhistorical.” Her plainness comes through in this passage, making Joan’s character unmemorable and unimportant to the world.
Tess’ beauty affects many people. Hardy focuses a great deal on the impact of her eyes. For example, Tess’ “reproachful flash from [her] dark eyes” (18) causes her parents to exit the bar. Her glare makes them feel certain emotions, pulling them away from the bar, similar to how a glance from the d’Urberville portraits will pull Angel away from the marriage. Throughout the novel, the reader finds similar instances where Tess speaks through physical expressions rather than words. These eyes also initiate a dramatic response from Alec d’Urberville when they reunite after his moral conversion.
Tess, who had been quite unconscious of her action and mien, instantly withdrew the gaze of her eyes… there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshy tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her, she was somehow doing wrong. (243)
The narrative voice in this passage reaffirms how Tess’ heredity impacts her life. She carries a burden with her looks, handling them with shame while she unintentionally tempts Alec. Her appearance holds control rather than her reason. Her unconscious gaze transforms Alec into an obsessive man who follows Tess around the country. The power of her looks drives Alec until his death. Tess’ “charms and ways” (244) go beyond her appearance, integrating into her supernatural view towards life.
Joan and Tess share in a mystical outlook on the world. A fantastical force governs Joan’s spiritual life, as she relies on a fortune telling book for insight. Tess carries on this superstitious and visionary nature. She concerns herself with the deterministic implications of ill omens. For example, after leaving Trantridge for the first time, she finds a rose thorn in her breast. “Tess was steeped in fancies and prefigurative superstitions: she thought this an ill omen — the first she had noticed that day” (32). She develops a negative inclination towards Alec after their first meeting, and her intuition proves true, as their meeting ultimately leads to her downfall. This also directs attention to her mental connection into the future. She feels strange in the presence of Alec, yet she does not understand exactly how to interpret her feelings. She develops her self-awareness during the novel, and she foresees her own death in the end. She prepares for this by wishing Angel to marry her sister and therefore preserve her legacy in both of their minds.
Tess also exhibits characteristics found in her father, Jack Durbeyfield. Jack’s reputation as the town drunk colors others’ opinions and overshadows his positive qualities. However, Hardy gives details about Jack’s compassion for the living. For example, he decides to give Prince, his old horse who dies suddenly, an honorable burial for dedicated service: “He’ve served me well in his lifetime, and I won’t part from him now” (23). He treats the animal as a partner, appreciating the years of helpful work. This sober interaction with the horse helps the reader to infer his intentions with those he loves. The narrative voice does not give many details as to Jack’s temperate state, however his love for Prince supports a view that he wants what is best for his family, especially Tess. This scene of natural respect occurs similarly in Tess. While she travels to visit Angel’s parents, Tess encounters a group of wounded pheasants. Her reaction arises from her internal compassion. “With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself… with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find” (219). Rather than passing around the injured birds with indifference, she extinguishes their pain. Hardy’s simplistic style makes this scene horrific, yet redemptive. He eliminates violent descriptions to add tenderness in their death. Heredity acts as fate in Tess’ life; however in this scene she forgets her misfortune and shows compassion as she controls the fate of the birds by mercifully alleviating their suffering.
Tess speaks profoundly in the novel, setting her apart from other maids. She shows a bright, innate education in thought yet obviously lacks common sense in relation to humanity. That aspect relates mostly to her young age and not her learning capabilities. Hardy describes her father, Jack, as “shiftless,” yet he displays a reflective thought process. In one scene, Joan encourages Tess to pursue a job with Alec d’Urberville. Jack sardonically comments about Alec’s character when he dreamily murmurs “perhaps to show his diamond ring” (33). Her father notices Alec’s artificiality, foreshadowing how he draws Tess in with his material power. Also, his “attitude of neutrality” (34) shows the readers that Joan controls each situation, as he gives into her ideas, just like Tess. He loves his daughter and knows the danger with Alec, yet the decision for her departure rests entirely with Joan.
The final aspect of heredity that has a major impact on Tess is the legacy of her d’Urberville name. In the beginning of the novel, Jack Durbeyfield uncovers information that traces his family back to a grand lineage. This prospect gives the Durbeyfields hope for social advancement, placing pressure onto Tess to take advantage of their bloodline. Tess, however, acts noble innately. Even before the discovery about her name, Tess stands apart from other rural women in presence and thought. She claims that she is only a peasant on the outside, while naturally she is an intellectual, virtuous woman. Two dramatic, life changing events occur because of Tess’ noble lineage: the affair with Alec d’Urberville and the separation from Angel Clare.
The incident with Alec d’Urberville takes place when Tess travels to his estate to claim kin and help her family. Tess’ interaction with Alec during the first part of her stay shows a significant inner strength not often found in common women. Most rural women easily settle on men who can provide them with a stable life. Tess’ spirit teaches her to pursue a more fulfilling endeavor; therefore she ignores Alec’s pursuit.
Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mauled ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the father upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter. (57)
Tess’ righteous spirit surrenders to her lack of knowledge about men. In this passage, the narrative voice blames Tess’ ancestors, claiming that Tess’ loss of innocence is divine retribution for sins of past generations. Heredity acts as a fateful hand, molding Tess’ life with ancestral control. In addition, Alec represents the corruption in nobility. His advancement upon Tess against her willpower gives the d’Urberville name a negative connotation, and these sins he commits reflect a repetition of the sins of prior generations.
The other important event in Tess’ life relating to this aspect of heredity occurs on her wedding night as she reveals to Angel the misery in her past. Outside of Tess’ bedroom lie the portraits of D’Urberville ladies. These paintings represent the spiritual and physical qualities of her heredity, while providing a visual reminder to Angel of his wife’s impurity. He almost re-enters Tess’ bedroom yet he pulls away after seeing the “sinister design lurking in the woman’s features,” (184) above the door. The resemblance to Tess emphasizes how the nature of heredity follows her continually during her entire life. The tragedy here is that heredity holds Angel back, leading into his long departure. If he fails to notice the woman’s resemblance to his wife in the portrait then their relationship, and Tess’ life, would ultimately be saved.
The character of Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles demonstrates innate persistence despite times of struggle. In the end, she seizes life’s path, murdering Alec and choosing to trust Angel. Thomas Hardy chooses to have Angel marry Tess’ sister in order for her sister to live comfortably and for Angel to recall Tess whenever he looks at his new wife. Tess embraces her heredity that defines her, and her legacy lives after her death.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Scott Elledge. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1991
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