Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Thomas Hardy


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."

In spite of his reputation, Hardy had difficulty finding a periodical willing to publish the book when he offered it for serialization to London's leading reviews. The subject matter—a milkmaid who is seduced by one man, married and rejected by another, and who eventually murders the first one—was considered unfit for publications which young people might read. To appease potential publishers, Hardy took the novel apart, re-wrote some scenes and added others. In due course; a publisher was secured. When it came time to publish the novel in book form, Hardy reassembled it as it was originally conceived.

Early critics attacked Hardy for the novel's subtitle, "A Pure Woman," arguing that Tess could not possibly be considered pure. They also denounced his frank—for the time—depiction of sex, criticism of organized religion, and dark pessimism. Today, the novel is praised as a courageous call for righting many of the ills Hardy found in Victorian society and as a link between the late-Victorian literature of the end of the nineteenth century and that of the modern era.

Author Biography

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a 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.

Besides his family name, Hardy's parents gave their son the love of literature, music (like his father, Thomas played the fiddle), and religion, which are evident in his works. A self-styled "born book-worm," Hardy could read at age three. He might have had a successful career as a scholar, but at age sixteen, his formal schooling ended when he was apprenticed to a local church restorer. He loved knowledge, however, and continued his education by rising early every morning to study Latin and Greek before setting off to work. He read voraciously, especially the Bible and, in 1859, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. In 1862, Hardy became an assistant to a London architect Sir Arthur Blomfield. He had thought about entering the ministry or becoming a poet, but by his early twenties his reading had converted him to agnosticism and his poetry had met with little success. For economic reasons, he decided to try his hand at prose. His first fictional piece was published in 1865; the manuscript of his first novel "The Poor Man and the Lady" was completed two years later. Although the book was never published, encouraging advice from George Meredith, a poet whom Hardy admired, convinced the aspiring novelist to try again. Hardy's first popular success

occurred in 1874 when the first of his Wessex novels, Far from the Madding Crowd, was published. As with Tess, this work was noted for its spirited female protagonist and Hardy's use of his fictional landscape.

In 1885, Hardy moved, with his wife, Emma, into Max Gate, a home he had built in Dorset. There, only a mile or two from his birthplace, the novelist would live the rest of his life. Coming back to his native land seemed to stir Hardy's creativity, and the next ten years saw the publication of three volumes of short stories as well as five major novels, including Tess. His wife died in 1912, and he married again in 1914. As the years passed, he noticed how the encroachment of civilization, especially the coming of the railroad to Dorset some seven years after his birth, had changed forever his beloved rural world. In his novels he poetically recaptures the beauty of the region.

Plot Summary

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. He then goes out drinking, getting so drunk 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.

Now deprived of their transportation, the family faces hard times. Tess's parents hit on the idea of having her solicit the wealthy Mrs. d'Urberville, whom they incorrectly assume to be a relative, for help. Feeling responsible for their current situation, Tess agrees to go. When she arrives at the d'Urberville estate, she is met by Mrs. d'Urberville's son, Alec. He is attracted to her good looks and soon arranges for her to care for his mother's chickens. He comes to fetch her, and on the ride back makes it clear that his actions were not motivated by charity. Alec's unwanted attention continues throughout the next three months, culminating one night when he coaxes her to accept a ride home from a dance. He intentionally takes an alternate route, gets them lost, and eventually rapes her in her sleep. Hardy was forced to cut this episode from the novel for serial publication, and even in its final form in the novel it is handled with extreme circumspection, as is evident from the following excerpt:

"Tess!" said d'Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D'Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

A few weeks after this incident, Tess returns home. Falling into a depression, and pregnant, she remains in seclusion for the better part of the next year. She emerges in the following August to work in the fields, and soon thereafter her baby dies.

Part Two—Angel

After two more "silent reconstructive years" at home, Tess ventures forth again, this time to work as a dairymaid. At the dairy she attracts the attentions of Angel Clare, the youngest son of a vicar who has turned away from his father's faith and has settled on farming as a career. Angel is learning the ins and outs of the dairy business at Talbothays. Over the course of the summer the two are drawn to each other, until Angel finally makes his feelings known to Tess. Soon after he goes home to broach the topic of marriage with his parents, who are resistant to the idea at first but finally give him a qualified "go-ahead."

On his return to Talbothays, Angel wastes no time in proposing to Tess, but she, to his surprise, rejects him, and refuses to tell him why. Several such encounters follow, until her feelings for him overwhelm her shame, and she agrees to marry him. She continues to feel guilty about her past, however, and, unable to bring herself to confide in Angel, she declines for weeks to commit to a wedding date. With the time for his departure from Talbothays fast approaching, Angel finally persuades her and a date of December 31 is set. Shortly before the day arrives, Tess makes a final failed effort to confess her "stain" to him.

The wedding over, they drive on to an old mansion, which Angel informs Tess once belonged to her family. That night several things happen. First, the couple receives a parcel from Angel's parents containing several pieces of diamond jewelry willed to him by his godmother and to be presented to his wife. Soon thereafter their luggage arrives, along with bad news from Talbothays about three of Tess's fellow dairymaids, all of whom (unbeknownst to Angel) were also in love with him. Finally, Angel, recalling Tess's earlier wish to make a confession, himself confesses to a relatively minor past indiscretion, an "eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger." Thus fortified by her husband's apparent show of good faith and moved by the sudden fall of her three compatriots, Tess "enter[s] on her story of her acquaintance with Alec d'Urberville."

The consequences of her confession are cataclysmic. Angel is unable to accept her, claiming that, far beyond its being a matter of forgiveness, he feels as if she had become a different person. Divorce not being a viable option, they soon settle on a separation. Angel promises to keep her apprised of his whereabouts (his plans being to look for an estate to farm, either in the north of the country or abroad), provides her with what he assumes will be an adequate sum of money to maintain her, and drops her off at her home.

Angel ends up in Brazil. Tess, meanwhile, unable to bear staying at home, takes a series of temporary agricultural jobs, and by the fall of that year finds herself running out of money. Unable to land any more such jobs, she decides to join Marian, one of her friends from the dairy, at a farm at Flint-comb-Ash. The work there is grueling, and her employer, Farmer Groby, is a brutish man. She perseveres for a while but soon decides to apply to Angel's parents for aid (as he had said she could if she needed to). She walks the several miles to Emminster, where the Clares' vicarage is located, but as a result of two chance encounters there, loses her confidence, and she heads back to Flintcomb-Ash, leaving her mission unaccomplished.

Part Three—Renewing Old Acquaintances

Midway into her return journey, she chances on a "ranter," or Primitive Methodist preacher, addressing the inhabitants of a small village, and recognizes the man to be none other than Alec d'Urberville. Before she withdraws, he recognizes her and later catches up with her on her way home. He tells her about his recent conversion, begs her forgiveness for his past behavior, but continues to show some of his old interest in her as a lover. Though she makes him promise never to see her again, he appears at the farm several days later, and proposes to make up for his past wrongs by marrying her. She declines, and eventually informs him that she is already married (though she refuses to disclose her husband's name). On learning this, Alec proceeds to press her in this and several subsequent meetings, insisting that she is an abandoned wife, and that she is a fool for not allowing him to help her. Soon he has given up his preaching and resumed his role of young dandy. Tess vehemently refuses his advances and writes a letter to Angel pleading with him to return to her. Again, though, circumstances conspire against her. First, on hearing that her mother is seriously ill, she leaves her job and returns home; and while her mother soon recovers, her father dies suddenly, as a result of which her family loses their house. Declining Alec's offer to put them up at his estate, Tess goes along with arrangements made by her mother to move to Kingsbere, the seat of the old d'Urberville family, but on arriving there they learn that their house has already been let. Thus, they are literally stranded, homeless and penniless.

Soon thereafter Angel returns home from Brazil. He has recently received Tess's letter, and because of it and his experiences abroad has forgiven her and wishes to rejoin her. He looks for her first at Flintcomb-Ash, then at her home village of Marlott, and finally at Kingsbere. There Tess's mother reluctantly directs him to the fashionable seaside resort of Sandbourne, which he heads to that evening. The next morning he looks Tess up at the lodging-house where he is informed she is staying, only to discover that she has married Alec. She begs Angel to leave her, which he very reluctantly does. The bitter irony of her situation soon overcomes her, though, and at a slight provocation from Alec she stabs him to death and leaves the lodging-house. She manages to catch up with Angel on his way out of town, confesses her deed to him, and reaffirms her love for him. This time, he promises to be her protector. The two proceed north along footpaths for the rest of the day and eventually settle in an unoccupied mansion, where they remain for several days. They then continue going north, Angel's plan being to reach a northern port, from which they will be able to safely leave the country. They walk well into the night, reaching Stonehenge, at which point Tess, pleading exhaustion, convinces Angel to let her stop for a while. Dawn soon breaks, and Angel perceives several figures approaching them from all directions—the local authorities. Tess is arrested, and shortly thereafter executed.


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.

Angel Clare

Angel is the youngest son of Rev. James Clare and his wife. He appears in the opening chapters of the book as a young man with upper-class bearings that dances with Tess's friends as they celebrate their May festival. He demonstrates immediately the differences between him and his brothers; while they hurry home to their studies, he pauses to dance and admire Tess's beauty. The two meet again at Talbothays Dairy where Angel is in apprenticeship for being a gentleman farmer. Although his father and his two older brothers are members of the clergy, Angel wants no part of their orthodox Christianity. To Tess, he is "educated, reserved, subtle, sad, [and] differing." He idealizes Tess as a "fresh, virginal daughter of nature," and asks her to marry him. When she hesitates, he asks again and again, and when she puts off a wedding date, he insists. At Talbothays he and Tess are portrayed as Adam and Eve where in the early mornings they notice "a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve," and Angel plays his secondhand harp in a garden complete with an apple tree. Three of the other milkmaids at the farm worship Angel from afar and despair at the thought that Angel will never be theirs. Although he defends his choice of her for a wife before his parents, he seems not really to accept her as she is, and is secretly elated when she tells him she is of the d'Urberville family. His true feelings are revealed when, after their marriage, he confesses to "eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger" which Tess promptly forgives. He, however, is unable to forgive Tess when she confesses what had happened with Alec. He gives her some money but leaves her to seek his fortune in Brazil. His total lack of concern for Tess is seen when he happens upon one of the milkmaids from the farm, Izz Huett, and asks her to go with him to Brazil. He changes his mind, however, when she tells him no one could love him as much as Tess. When he returns to England from Brazil, he is finally able to accept her as his wife. The two enjoy a few days of happiness together before Tess is captured. After her death, he follows her wishes and marries her sister.

Cuthbert Clare

A classical scholar, and a fellow and dean of his college at Cambridge, Cuthbert Clare is Angel's eldest brother. He seems to think of nothing but his academic work, and has little patience for those not sharing his interests. He marries Mercy Chant.

Felix Clare

Felix is the middle boy in the Clare family, being Angel's older brother, and Cuthbert's younger brother. As curate at a nearby town, he is as much a churchman as his older brother is an academician. When Tess hears Felix and his brother talking in a derogatory fashion about her and Angel's marriage, she decides not to try to contact Angel's parents for help. This, the narrator says, is "the greatest misfortune of her life."

Reverend James Clare

Angel's father, Reverend James Clare, is a respected minister who is known for "his austere and Calvinist tenets." He and his wife live a frugal existence in Emminster. Although he seems cold, "the kindness of his heart was such that he never resented anything for long." His compassion is demonstrated when, although he is disappointed that Angel doesn't want to go into the ministry like the rest of the family, he pledges to help his son financially in whatever he does by giving him the money he had saved to pay his university expenses. He and his wife hope that Angel will marry Mercy Chant, the daughter of their neighbor, but are resigned to Angel's choosing a wife for himself. He asks only that she be from "a truly Christian family."

Media Adaptations

  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles was adapted as a film directed by Roman Polanski, starring Nastassja Kinski, Leigh Lawson, and Peter Firth, 1980. The film received many Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture; it won Oscars for best cinematography, best art direction and best costume design. It is available from Columbia Tristar Home Video.
  • It was also recorded on audio cassette, narrated by Davina Porter, published by Recorded Books, 1994.

Mrs. Clare

Angel's mother, identified only as Mrs. Clare, helps her husband with his duties as a parson. She believes in living a simple, faith-filled life, but unlike her husband, appearances are important to her. When Angel speaks of wanting to marry, Mrs.

Clare wants to know if the woman in question is a "lady."

Dairyman Crick

See Richard Crick

Mrs. Crick

Mrs. Crick looks after the help at Talbothays Dairy. She is somewhat snobbish—she considers herself "too respectable" to milk the cows herself. She shows her kind heart when she sends some black pudding and a bottle of mead home with Angel when he visits his parents.

Richard Crick

A master-dairyman, Dairyman Crick runs Talbothays Dairy and is portrayed as a warm, jovial man who is friendly with his help.

Car Darch

Described as "a dark virago," and called "Queen of Spades," Car Darch was the receiver of Alec d'Urberville's attentions until Tess appeared. Tess decides to go with Alec the night he seduces her, partially because she is afraid of what the jealous Car Darch might do to her.

Alec d'Urberville

See Alexander Stoke-d'Urberville

Tess d'Urberville

See Tess Durbeyfield

Abraham Durbeyfield

Tess's nine year old brother, Abraham, accompanies her on her early morning ride delivering the bee hives after her father becomes too drunk to take them. In an important scene, the two look up at the stars and Tess explains that most are "splendid," but some are "blighted." Then, Abraham asks, "Which do we live on—a splendid one or a blighted one?" Tess answers, "A blighted one." Soon after this, Prince, the family horse dies in an accident.

Eliza-Louisa Durbeyfield

Tess's sister, Eliza-Louisa, is twelve-and-ahalf when the novel opens. Tess describes 'Liza-Lu as "gentle and sweet, and she is growing so beautiful," when she asks Angel to marry 'Liza-Lu after she dies.

Jack Durbeyfield

See John Durbeyfield

Joan Durbeyfield

Tess's mother, Joan Durbeyfield, is a simple woman, proud of the beauty that her daughter has inherited from her and anxious to have her "claim kin" at the d'Urberville estate. She has the common peasant attitude of accepting whatever fate comes her way, but is superstitious and consults the Compleat Fortune-Teller for advice. When Tess is distraught over her seduction and pregnancy, Joan tells her daughter. "Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose. 'Tis nater, after all, and what do please God!"

John Durbeyfield

Tess's father, John Durbeyfield, works as a peddler and a wagon driver. He is greatly impressed with the news that he is the last descendant of the once noble d'Urbervilles. He immediately orders a carriage to take him home and proceeds to celebrate for the rest of the evening, bringing about the scene of Prince's death. Durbeyfield seems to do as little work as possible, and the news that he is connected with nobility seems like a good reason to do even less. When Tess returns to Marlott to look after her sick mother, she finds her father ready to send all antiquarians in England a letter asking for a donation to keep the family going as a national treasure. He suffers a heart attack, and dies soon afterwards.

Tess Durbeyfield

Hardy's heroine is the daughter of John and Joan Durbeyfield of Marlott in Wessex; the eldest of seven children. The subtitle to the novel, "A Pure Woman" emphasizes her purity, but critics debate whether a woman who is seduced by one man, marries another one who abandons her, and then kills the first, could be considered "pure." But, purity aside, she is, with rare exception, praised by critics who admire her steadfast hope under adversity. To some, like Donald Davidson in the Southern Review, she is like a figure from a folk ballad "the deserted maiden who murders her seducer with a knife," while to others, including Irving Howe in Thomas Hardy, she is "a girl who is at once a simple milkmaid and an archetype of feminine strength." To Angel she is "a regular churchgoer of simple faith; honest-hearted, receptive, intelligent, graceful to a degree, chaste as a vestal, and, in personal appearance, exceptionally beautiful." She has "passed the Sixth Standard in the National School," and thinks about becoming a teacher. While she is unimpressed with the news that she has noble ancestors, she feels so much guilt when she unwittingly causes the death of the family horse, that she follows her parents' wish that she "claim kin" at the nearby d'Urberville estate. She is shown as a hard worker, working in the fields after her baby is born, working at the dairy, and, later, working in the rutabaga fields at Flintcomb-Ash. But for all her strength, she is like a trapped bird. In her simplicity, she tries to do what is right, but her well-meaning actions often are futile. Her effort to help her family by going to the d'Urberville estate, ends with her seduction; when she tries to tell Angel about what happened between her and Alec, she is unable to until after the wedding. When Alec keeps pursuing her she tells him, "Whip me, crush me…. I shall not cry out. Once victim, always victim—that's the law." Later, she murders Alec in desperation, knowing that if he had only gone away when she told him to, she could have been happy with Angel. Before she is taken away by the police, she asks Angel to marry her sister, 'Liza Lu. As the book ends, she is hung for Alec's murder.

Farmer Groby

Farmer Groby is the owner of Flintcomb-Ash farm, where Tess finds work after Angel leaves her. A cruel man, he is particularly harsh with Tess because of an incident in which Angel punched him because he thought the farmer had insulted her. Groby's temperament seems to match the harshness of the land he keeps and serves as a contrast to the joviality of Talbothays Dairy.

Izz Huett

"The pale, dark-eyed" Izz Huett is one of the three other milkmaids besides Tess who fall in love with Angel Clare at Talbothays Dairy. After Angel leaves Tess, he asks Izz to go with him to Brazil, but her honesty betrays her when she tells Angel that Tess loved him more than anyone else. Hearing this, Angel tells her he can no longer take her with him.


See Eliza-Louisa Durbeyfield


The "jolly-faced" Marian is the eldest of the three milkmaids besides Tess who fall in love with Angel at Talbothays Dairy. She is despondent when Angel and Tess marry, and soon afterward loses her job at the dairy because she starts drinking heavily. Her friendship with Tess is strong, however, and when she finds out that Tess is separated from her husband, she asks her to come and work with her at Flintcomb-Ash.

Retty Priddle

The "auburn-haired" Retty Priddle is the youngest of the three milkmaids besides Tess who fall in love with Angel at Talbothays Dairy. When Tess and Angel get married, she tries to drown herself but is rescued.

Queen of Spades

See Car Darch

Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville

A blind invalid, Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville is Alec's mother and lives with him at the estate at Tantridge. A note written by Alec in her name, asking for someone to help her with her birds, brings Tess to work at the family's estate.

Alexander Stoke-d'Urberville

In his early twenties when he first appears in the novel, Alec is the son of the late Mr. Simon Stoke, who added "d'Urberville" to his name to conceal his real identity when the family moved from southern England. He seems immediately taken with his pretty "Coz," when she comes to the estate to "claim kin," and after she leaves, he sends a letter purported to be from his invalid mother to Tess's mother asking that Tess come to work for her. Tess tries to avoid him, but one night he follows her when she goes to a fair and market at a neighboring town. He cajoles her into accepting his offer of a ride in his buggy, because she fears to be out so late by herself. Taking advantage of the lateness of the hour and her fatigued condition, Alec seduces her. The next time he appears in the novel, he is a preacher, converted by Angel's father. When he and Tess accidentally meet, Alec's softer side is revealed as he seems to be particularly touched when Tess tells him for the first time of their child. Alec becomes once again obsessed by her and pursues Tess to Flintcomb-Ash where she reveals to him that she is married. She refuses to have anything to do with him, but when she sees him again he no longer wears his parson's frock. Instead he is described as a villain from a melodrama, twirling a "gay walking cane." He belittles Tess for being faithful to her absent husband. Infuriated, she hits him in the face with a leather glove. Although they part, when she returns to Marlott to care for her ailing mother Alec pursues her again. As she works in the family garden, in the light of fires of burning weeds, he appears as a devil with a pitchfork in hand and says to her, "You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come up to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal." His constant reproaching her for believing in Angel, his bestowal of gifts upon her family, and the family's desperate situation when Tess's father dies and the family is forced to leave their home, all contribute to Tess's final agreement to live with him as his wife. The pair go to Sandbourne, a fashionable resort area, where Tess finally kills him by stabbing him with a knife.


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 tells 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.

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.

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."

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 what 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.

Topics for Further Study

  • 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.
  • Research late-19th century British laws then, playing the role of either the prosecuting or defense attorney, plan your defense or prosecution of Tess for the murder of Alec d'Urberville using details from the novel.
  • Compare American novelist William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County with Hardy's Wessex, examining the personality and physical description of each literary environment.

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 "four and twenty hours dissipation with a stranger;" Angel cannot forgive her similar fault. Hardy condemns such unequal treatment.



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 (allknowing) 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.


The story takes place in Wessex, an invented territory based on the Dorset countryside where Hardy was born and which fascinated him his entire life. Hardy gives Wessex its own vitality by depicting the region's folk customs (such as the "clubwalking" in the scene in which we meet Tess), the "folklore dialect" with its colorful expressions like "get green malt in floor" (meaning to get pregnant), and its superstitions (such as the story of the d'Urberville coach). Hardy's settings seem to mirror the emotions of his characters. Talbothays Dairy, where Angel and Tess's love grows, is described as "oozing fatness and warm ferments" and there "the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization." Everything about Talbothays drips with the moisture of fertility and sensuality. In stark contrast to the dairy are scenes at Flintcomb-Ash where Tess goes after she is abandoned by Angel. It is "a starve-acre place" where the fields are "a desolate drab" color and the work is exhausting and demeaning. The scene of Tess's capture is Stonehenge, the famous prehistoric ruins on the Salisbury Plain, consisting of large upright stones surrounding an altar stone. Significantly, it is on this altar stone, thought to have been the site of bloody sacrificial offerings, that Tess lies when the police come to arrest her for Alec's murder. Through his choice of settings Hardy is able to make additional comment on the action of the story without further narrative intrusions. By placing Tess on the sacrificial altar Hardy makes clear that he believes she is an innocent victim. Time of year is also important in the novel as Hardy uses the changing of the seasons over the period of about five years as representative of the changing fortunes of his heroine. It is "a particularly fine spring" when she goes to Talbothays; summer as Angel courts her; and finally winter at Flintcomb-Ash

where she tries to once more avoid Alec's advances. Time of day is equally as important: unhappy events usually happen in the evening or night.


The settings in Tess of the d'Urbervilles function as symbols in that their names have meanings more important than just geographical points. Marlott, Tess's birthplace, for example, alludes to her "marred" or disfigured lot or destiny. Flintcomb-Ash, as its name implies, is a hard, barren place. Several characters have symbolic names as well, including the girl that Angel's parents want him to marry, Mercy Chant, who is depicted as religious to a fault, and Angel Clare, who seems to be an "angel" to Tess and her three milkmaid friends, and even plays a harp. The harp, however, we are told is secondhand, and it symbolizes Angel's imperfect character. Throughout the novel, Angel and Tess are symbolically associated with Adam and Eve of the Bible. In one of the most commented on scenes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Tess approaches Angel, who is playing his harp, through the wildflowers and weeds in an unkempt garden with an apple tree. As she approaches, she is un-aware of the "thistle-milk and slug-slime" and other disagreeable natural secretions that coat her skirts and arms. Even though Talbothays may seem like Paradise, the reader understands that this Garden of Eden is one that has been spoiled. Later in the novel, more references appear that, again, equate Tess with Eve and Angel with Adam. Alec, on the other hand, appears to Tess as she plants potatoes in a Marlott field. Amid the fires of burning weeds, he appears holding a pitchfork and he says, "You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you." Tess is also repeatedly identified with a captured bird. Other important symbolic images in the novel include a bloodstained piece of butcher paper caught in the gate of the Clare residence as Tess attempts to contact Angel's parents in Emminster, the bloody heart-shaped stain on the ceiling at "The Herons" after Tess kills Alec in the room above, and the capture of Tess on the stone of sacrifice at Stonehenge.

Historical Context

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.

Compare & Contrast

  • 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.

  • 1890s: The advent of rail transportation from rural to the teeming cities of the late nineteenth century made dairy farming more attractive than crop farming, since production was less weather dependent, costs were lower, and an ever-expanding customer-base was within easy reach.

    Today: While small dairies still exist, increasing production costs and lower prices have forced many dairy farmers to sell out to larger concerns, with an average dairy in the western United States milking one to two thousand cows.

  • 1890s: Women could not divorce their husbands, even for having an affair, unless they could prove their husbands had treated them cruelly or abandoned them.

    Today: All fifty states permit couples to divorce by mutual consent, although in twenty, pro-family groups have proposed, and in several cases passed, legislation for making divorce harder to obtain when children are involved.

  • 1890s: State supported education was provided for all children, with education being compulsory to age eleven.

    Today: Increasing dissatisfaction with public schooling has led to exploration of alternative educational methods, including independent public charter schools and 1.2 million students in home-schools.

  • 1890s: Teacher, rural worker, domestic helper, and nurse were some of the positions open to women seeking financial independence; those who chose nontraditional career paths, such as medicine, were ridiculed.

    Today: Although on the average women still earn less per hour than male workers, unlimited career opportunities are now available to them; in 1997, Madeleine Albright became the first woman to ever serve as U. S. Secretary of State, eliminating yet another barrier to advancement for women.

  • 1890s: Women who bore children out of wed-lock were considered "ruined"; they and their children could hope for little more than social marginalization.

    Today: Single parenting has become common-place, with more than 30% of U.S. children being born to fathers and mothers who are not married.

To make Darwin's theory more palatable, a complementary theory called Social Darwinism was formulated. Proponents of this social philosophy argued that Darwin's ideas of "survival of the fittest" also applied to society. The existence of lower classes could be explained by their inferior intelligence and initiative in comparison to that of the upper classes. Angel refers to this theory when he expresses his surprise that there is no "Hodge" amongst the workers at Talbothays. "The conventional farm-folk of his imagination—personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge—were obliterated after a few days' residences." He is surprised to discover in Tess "the ache of modernism." For Tess, Angel, and others of their era, the God of their childhood was no longer able to answer their questions. Darwin's book ended forever the security of a society that could offer unalterable answers to every question; like Angel, many began to put their faith in "intellectual liberty" rather than religion.

Industrialization and Rural England

When the railroad came to the area of south-west England where Tess was born, the area still led an isolated, almost medieval existence. The rail-road made it easier for country folk looking for work to leave the towns where their families had lived for centuries. The railroad also fostered new types of agricultural use of the land. Large dairies such as Talbothays, where Tess worked as a milk-maid, could flourish only because the rapid trains allowed transport of fresh milk to heavily populated areas. When Tess and Angel take milk cans from the dairy to the nearest train station, Tess reflects that the next morning in London "strange people we have never seen" will drink the milk. The trains converted a closely-knit society into one where consumers never met the producers and where strangers lived together in larger and larger groups.

England entered an agricultural depression in the 1870s, brought on in part by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States in 1869. (This made it easier and cheaper for American goods to complete with British goods.) Rural workers unable to get jobs, flocked to British cities, causing urban population to double between 1851 and 1881. Less profitable farming, meant farms had to become larger in order to turn a profit, so smaller farms were bought out by larger farm owners. Machines, like the steam threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash, made agricultural workers less in demand. The large landowners felt no connection with the families living on their land, so to not renew their leases—as was done to Tess's family on Old Ladies Day—was a question of economic good sense, nothing more. Hardy criticized this practice in "The Dorsetshire Labourer," an essay published in Longman's magazine in July 1883 quoted in Martin Seymour-Smith's biography of Hardy. "But the question of the Dorset cottager," Hardy notes, "here merges in that of all the houseless and landless poor and the vast topic of the Rights of Man."

Women in Victorian Society

In Tess Hardy considers both the "Rights of Man" and, with equal sympathy, the rights of women. Women of the Victorian era were idealized as the helpmate of man, the keeper of the home, and the "weaker sex." Heroines in popular fiction were expected to be frail and virtuous. The thought that Hardy subtitled his novel "A Pure Woman" infuriated some Victorian critics, because it flew in the face of all they held sacred. For while the Victorian era was a time of national pride and belief in British superiority, it was also an age bestremembered for its emphasis on a strict code of morality, unequally applied to men and women. The term Victorian has come to refer to any person or group with a narrow, uncompromising sense of right and wrong. Women were not only discriminated against by the moral code, but they were also discriminated against by the legal code of the day. Until the 1880s married women were unable to hold property in their own name; and the wages of rural workers would go directly to the husband, even if he failed to provide anything for his family. The—Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 granted the right to a divorce to both men and women on the basis of adultery but, in order to divorce her husband, a women would have to further prove gross cruelty or desertion. Women who sought divorce for whatever reason were ostracized from polite society. Women, like children, were best "seen, but not heard," or as Seymour-Smith observes, "The Victorian middle-class wife … was admired upon her pedestal of moral superiority only so long as she remained there silently."

Critical Overview

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a great success, marred only by controversy over its frank treatment of sex and its pessimistic view of life. After a little over a year, more than twenty thousand copies of the book had been sold. Undoubtedly, sales were inflated by the curious who wanted to know what the controversy was about. Several foreign language editions were printed as well. While a popular success, critical opinion was mixed, with commentary ranging from highest praise to deepest contempt. Both the Anthenaeum and the London Times highly recommended the novel, but for different reasons. A critic in Anthenaeum not only found the novel "well in front of Mr. Hardy's previous work," but also praised the novelist's creation of Tess, "a credible, sympathetic creature." The same critic, however, did regret Hardy's excessive "use of scientific and ecclesiastical terminology." A reviewer in Times was moved by the story and praised Hardy's effective criticism of Victorian moral standards. On the negative side, a critic in Saturday Review, while identifying Tess as the most true to life character in the novel, found the other characters "stagy" or "farcical." He objected to what he saw as Hardy's excessive concern with descriptions of Tess's appealing physical attributes and deemed the story improbable. The critic admitted that even with a poor story, good technique could have saved the novel, but "Hardy, it must be conceded, tells an unpleasant story in a very unpleasant way." Public sentiment was such, however, that the those who disliked the novel felt outnumbered. In Longman's magazine, Andrew Lang found the characters in Tess to be "far from plausible," the story "beyond … belief," and Hardy's use of "psychological terminology," unskillful, but resigned himself to the fact that "on all sides—not only from the essays of reviewers, but from the spoken opinions of the most various kinds of readers—one learns that Tess is a masterpiece."

According to novelist and critic Albert Guerard, Hardy critics before 1940 seemed to chide Hardy for many of the same points of style that later reviewers found admirable. That year the Southern Review celebrated the centennial of Hardy's birth with the publication of an issue devoted entirely to the author. Earlier critics such as Lang and Lionel Johnson, who wrote the first book length critique of Hardy, praise his ability to describe the country folk of Wessex, while condemning his fatalistic view of life. Guerard states in his introduction to Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, that, beginning with the essays in the Southern Review, modern reviewers enjoy Hardy because of his pessimism; they find Hardy's "mismatched destinies, the darkness of the physical and moral landscapes, the awareness of dwindling energies, and the sense of man's appalling limitations … peculiarly modern." One Southern Review contributor, Donald Davidson, discovers in the fatalism of the novel, as well as in Hardy's controversial closing paragraph about "The President of the Immortals," reflections of Hardy's interest in the folk ballads of his native Dorset. Davidson contends that fateful coincidences are comparable to the supernatural occurrences that frequently occur in the ballads and that Hardy's closing paragraph functions merely as a closing statement to the novel much like a traditional ballad ending. In Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad, John Holloway disregards Hardy's use of coincidence, saying that the scenes that might seem unrealistic are out of necessity so "in order that their other dimension take meaning, their relevance to the larger rhythms of the work, shall transpire." In Tess the "larger rhythm," as Holloway sees it, is in repeated identification of Tess with a hunted animal and a Darwinian vision that takes Tess, much like a developing species, from formation, through adaptation, to ultimate extinction. Dorothy Van Ghent notes in The English Novel: Form and Function, that "in the accidentalism of Hardy's universe we can recognize the profound truth of the darkness in which life is cast, darkness both within the soul and without."

For Guerard, "Hardy the novelist is a major transitional figure between the popular moralists and popular entertainer of Victorian fiction and the serious, visionary, often symbolizing novelists of today." Other critics also place Hardy in the doorway to modernism. Harold Bloom maintains that this is especially evident in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. "It can be asserted that Hardy's novel," he writes in his introduction to Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views, "has proved to be prophetic of a sensibility by no means fully emergent in 1891. Nearly a century later, the book sometimes seems to have moments of vision that are contemporary with us." In particular, critics have reevaluated the novel in the light of new emphasis on women rights and feminist issues. As Hardy biographer Martin Seymour-Smith concludes, Hardy's novel remains one of riveting validity even one hundred years after publication. "Tess was a woman who stabbed her husband. Then, as now, in the eyes of most judges, there is one law for men who kill their wives, and quite another for women who kill their husbands." For Seymour-Smith, Tess and her pitiful treatment by the men in her life are at the core of discovering the true importance of the work. "The question raised by the novel is this: what would a woman be if she were released from male oppression and allowed to be herself?"


Stan Walker

In the following essay, Walker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, notes that while some criticisms of Hardy's novel are justified, theview of Tess as a pessimistic work is not really valid.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was Thomas Hardy's penultimate novel, published in 1891 when he was fifty-one years old (Jude the Obscure, his final novel, appeared four years later). After Jude, Hardy returned to his original love, poetry, producing eight volumes of verse during the last thirty years of his life. In his two-volume autobiography (credited to his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy, but written predominantly by Hardy himself), he claimed to have taken up the writing of novels "under the stress of necessity," and to have "long intended to abandon [it] at some indefinite time." It was the troubles he experienced with the publication of Tess, however, that "well-nigh compelled him, in his own judgement at any rate," to abandon novels. These troubles arose chiefly around his attempts to have the novel published serially (that is, in regular installments in a newspaper or magazine).

The cultural climate in England at the time was one of widespread prudery and intolerance, and "family values" were being promoted as the medicine to combat a perceived spread of sexual decadence, according to Elaine Showalter in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. As periodicals were by and large seen as family organs, some of the "adult" scenes in Tess were deemed inappropriate. Thus the novel was turned down by two periodicals. It was accepted by a third only after Hardy, with what he described in his autobiography as "cynical amusement," agreed to some significant changes. The novel was restored to its original form when it was published as a book later that year. Ironically, it proved to be perhaps the most popular of his novels with readers, while it was widely, though not universally, admired by critics.

Hardy viewed the writing of novels as being closely akin to the writing of poetry. He aimed, he said in his autobiography, "at keeping his narratives … as near to poetry in their subject as the conditions would allow." By "near to poetry" he meant, more or less, "close to natural life," a condition to which he contrasted the production of "stories of modern artificial life and manners showing a certain smartness of treatment." Certainly Hardy is concerned in Tess with portraying the natural world: among the most memorable scenes in the novel are those in which he evokes the fields and woods of his beloved Wessex. Yet some critics have argued that on the whole Tess is hardly "close to natural life." Hardy's contemporary Andrew Lang wrote in a review in Longman's that by his own "personal standard," "Tess is not real or credible," and he characterized it as a "morally squalid fairy tale." Robert Louis Stevenson complained in a letter to fellow writer Henry James that Hardy's novel was "not alive, not true,… not even honest!" In Nineteenth-Century Fiction, modern critic Hugh Kenner dismissed Hardy's "situations" as "melodrama" and his characters as "phases in the sociology of fiction."

What Do I Read Next?

  • Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca's widely-performed lyrical folk tragedies, Blood Wedding (1933), Yerma (1934), and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), dealing with sexual repression and tradition in rural Spain.
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's 1857 bestselling satirical novel of Emma Bovary's search for romantic love in provincial France.
  • Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1890 drama Hedda Gabier, about a woman who tries to live her life through a man, but finds it impossible to submerge her own desires and play the role of a housewife.
  • Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878) in which Hardy explores the conflict between the forces of nature, represented by the Egdon Heath, and the area's inhabitants.
  • Edith Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of manners The Age of Innocence (1920), set in the New York City of the 1870s, examines the negative effects of social convention on three members of society's elite.

A quick look at many of the incidents in Tess, particularly in the second half of the novel, lends at least some weight to these criticisms. The response of Tess' fellow dairymaids to her wedding Angel Clare; the scene in which Angel sleepwalks with Tess in his arms; the fact that Farmer Groby, Tess' employer at Flintcomb-Ash, was a man with whom Angel and she had had a previous run-in; and the fact that Alec d'Urberville's brief conversion to Primitive Methodism (unlikely in itself) is precipitated by a confrontation with Angel's father, as well as other events, all stretch the boundaries of credibility.

Critics have more generally agreed in their assessment of Hardy as a pessimistic writer. There is ample evidence in Tess to support such an assessment. It is clear, for example, that while Hardy honors the practice of truly pious people like Angel Clare's parents, he recognizes little if anything in their creed to support its claims to possessing an exclusive hold on truth. In this Hardy was very much in step with his time: the nineteenth century had witnessed the waning of the Christian faith in the face of mid-century discoveries in geology (Charles Lyell) and biology (Charles Darwin), and the rise of comparative linguistics, which had begun treating the Bible "scientifically," as an historical document like any other. Hardy does locate a universal principle in nature, yet his Wessex is not the deified nature of poet William Wordsworth and many of the other English Romantics. At times, Hardy challenges Wordsworth directly, as when he says, "Some people would like to know whence the poet (Wordsworth) whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his song is breezy and pure, gets his authority to speaking of 'Nature's holy plan.'" Nature for Hardy is instead an arena of conflict between "the two forces … at work … everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment." In such an arena, "the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving;" and we are constantly made to distinguish between the world as we perceive it and the world as it might be said to be in and of itself, and thus to acknowledge finally how relatively in-significant we are in the grand scheme of things.

Hardy himself objected to the charge of pessimism. While the bitterness or depression many readers feel after reading Tess may seem to make such an objection indefensible, audiences would do well to remember that there are many moments of joy in the novel. The "circumstantial will against enjoyment" is only half of the equation. And if in the end Tess is the victim of circumstance, the "sport" of the "President of the Immortals," those earlier moments of joy have not been without their value. Indeed, her final fugitive tromp through the countryside with Angel, a sort of extended moment, a suspension of the last turning of the wheels of "Justice," is spiritually recuperative to such a degree that when she is captured, Tess says simply and quietly, "I am ready." Thus perhaps redemption is, in Hardy's view, available to us after all, though not in the places we might have expected (e.g., Christian faith). Rather, it is to be found in these moments—"moments of vision" (the title of his fifth volume of verse), "impressions," to be experienced and valued, in the words of Hardy's contemporary Walter Pater in Hardy: A Biography, "simply for those moments' sake."

Source: Stan Walker, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

J. Hillis Miller

In the following excerpt, Yale University critic Miller discusses interpretations of the novel, focusing on its repetitive structure.

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Source: J. Hillis Miller, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Repetition as Imminent Design," in his Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 116-42.

Thomas Hinde

One of the "Angry Young Men" writers of the 1950s whose writings expressed bitterness and disillusionment with society, English novelist andcritic Hinde examines the ways that Tess's fate mirrors the destruction of the agricultural class in England at the end of the nineteenth century.

The plot of Tess of the D'Urbervilles turns on a succession of accidents and coincidences. Again and again Tess's tragic fate depends on some disastrous mischance. One or two of these may seem possible—after all is full of mischance—but heaped on top of each other they produce a final effect of gross improbability. Does this matter? Are we to see them as blemishes on an otherwise fine novel ; or are they such a pervasive part of it that they must either condemn it or form part of its success?

At its face value the novel suggests not only that these accidents and misfortunes are included by intention but that it is the author's view that life does give human beings just such a succession of kicks downhill to disaster. The refrain 'where was Tess's guardian angel?' is more than an attack on the conventional Christian idea of a benevolent and protecting Almighty; it implies the exact opposite. Our problem, if we don't share this view, is that we see Tess as not so much the victim of Fate, nor as the victim of her own character and circumstances, but as Hardy's personal victim.

It is he who appears to make her suffer her improbable sequence of accidents. In criticizing this effect I do not imply that probability is a criterion by which we should universally or invariably judge. A novel sets its own standards, and no one, to take an obvious example, expects the same 'realism' from Kafka as from Tolstoy. The problem with Hardy's novels is that in most other ways they set up expectations of a quite conventional realism. It is against this self-established standard that the plot of Tess, as much as that of any of his novels which came before it and which it otherwise excels, at first sight appears equally to offend.

I say at first sight because my purpose is to suggest a way of looking at Tess which sees its many accidents and coincidences neither as blemishes, nor as valid samples of Hardy's neither credible nor particularly interesting view of the part played in life by a persecuting fate; if encouragement were needed to search for such a view it would be provided by Tess's many admirers who seem undismayed by its improbabilities, though these begin on the very first page and feature regularly throughout the book.

Setting the scene, and necessary if there is to be any novel at all, is the coincidence of names: the rich north country manufacturer Stoke who buys his way into the southern landed gentry has arbitrarily chosen from a British Museum list of defunct families the name d'Urberville to add to his own, and this is the original name of the family from which Tess Durbeyfield is distantly descended. The story opens with Parson Tringham telling Tess's father about his aristocratic ancestors, which till now he has not known about. John Durbeyfield puts two and two together and makes five, concluding not only that he is related to the Stoke-d'Urbervilles but that he probably belongs to the senior branch.

Up to this point all could be said to be reasonable enough. If it is an accident it is one which sooner or later seems possible if not probable. In any case, even a realistic novelist may, without offending against his own criterion of probability, precipitate his story with such a single event, then stand back to demonstrate with no further interference the inevitable consequences.

There seems no such inevitability about the next kick downhill which Fate gives Tess. Driving her father's cart to market at night because he is too drunk to go, she is run down by the mail coach, and Prince, the horse on which his livelihood as a haggler depends, is pierced to the heart by the mail coach's shaft. Tess's guilt at what she has done persuades her to agree to her mother's plan that she should visit the nouveaux riches Stoke d'Urbervilles in the hope of making a prosperous marriage.

Here she meets the young and buckish Alec d'Urberville; once again a flavour of managed accident surrounds her seduction by him. Her quarrel, late at night in open country, with the drunken Trantridge village women provides her with just the motive which makes plausible her acceptance of Alec's offer of a pillion ride when he spurs up at a convenient moment. Criticism is only disarmed by the splendid dramatic quality of this scene, set as it is with sinister omen and diabolic detail.

At Talbothays, where Tess goes a few years later and after the death of her child to become a milkmaid, who should she meet but Angel Clare, the young man who, in a more insidious but surer way, is to lead her to her tragic end.

From this moment the plot turns on Angel's plan to marry Tess, and on whether or not Tess can bring herself to confess her sinful past with Alec d'Urberville before their wedding day. Though she can't tell Angel to his face she at last makes herself write to him and late at night pushes the letter under his door. Only on her wedding eve does she discover that Fate has struck again: she has accidently pushed it under the carpet as well as the door and Angel has never received it.

Her confession after her marriage leads to their separation, Angel to go to Brazil, Tess to return to Marlott. He has left her an allowance but a succession of minor misfortunes—in particular the neediness and imprudence of her parents—leaves Tess destitute by the time winter comes. Angel has told her that she should go to his parents if she is ever in need, but Fate, which has already put him personally beyond her reach, closes this escape too. She walks to Emminster and finds Angel's father, the vicar, out. Before she can try his door again Angel's brothers discover her walking boots which she has hidden on the outskirts of the village and Miss Mercy Chant bears them off for charity. Tess's courage fails her and she turns for home. 'It was somewhat unfortunate,' Hardy writes, 'that she had encountered the sons and not the father, who, despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they, and had to the full the gift of Christian charity.' Though we may read this as a confession of clumsy plotting, that is far from Hardy's intention. His tone is ironic. The world may consider that Tess here suffered an improbable and untypical stroke of ill luck, but Hardy, better informed about the working of Fate, knows that such accidents are in fact typical and probable.

Meanwhile Tess has taken on the humblest and most oppressive sort of agricultural labour: work on arable land. The description of her grubbing up swedes for cattle food, creeping across the icy uplands of Flintcomb Ash in drenching rain, is one of the most memorable in the book. And who should turn out to be her employer but a farmer who knows her past and whom Angel once struck on the jaw when he insultingly hinted at it during the last days before their marriage. Inevitably he takes his revenge on Tess.

Alec d'Urberville's conversion to evangelical Christianity—coincidentally performed by Angel Clare's father—now gives Alec the chance to harass Tess again and, more important, weakens her power to resist him. The scene is set for her final disastrous return to Alec. The various letters Angel ultimately receives from her and from others reach him at moments which time his return exactly too late to save her from the murder of Alec and ultimately the gallows.

Though this is only a brief selection of the blows which Fate strikes Tess, I hope it is sufficient to show that the plot of the novel turns on a succession of disastrous accidents which far exceeds realistic probability. But as in all such abstracts, vital elements which seem unrelated to the book's plot have been left out, in particular one to which Hardy persistently returns even though his attention is overtly directed towards Tess and her personal tragedy. This is the equally sure and tragic destruction of the traditional society of the English village.

Twice he shows us mechanized agriculture at work; on the first occasion he describes how the reaping machine, with its red arms in the shape of a Maltese cross, gradually reduces the standing corn.

Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of up-right wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters.

It needs little intuition to see that Hardy is here describing by parallel the fate of the human inhabitants of such a village as Marlott.

Humans themselves are the victims on the second occasion: Tess and her fellow workers who feed the monstrous itinerant threshing machine at Flintcombe Ash, with its diabolical master….

Apart from the implications of such incidents, Hardy as author continually comments on the changing and deteriorating condition of rural Wessex. The May Day dance, for example, where we first meet Tess, is 'a gay survival from Old Style days when cheerfulness and May were synonyms'. The refreshments which the rural labourers of Trantridge drink on Saturday nights are 'curious compounds sold to them as beer by the monopolizers of the once independent inns'. Still more important, it is the tenant farmers, deprived of their independence, who are 'the natural enemies of bush and brake', and to whom Tess falls victim at the lowest point of her decline at Flintcombe Ash.

And it is because Tess's family are victims of another aspect of this destruction of rural independence that she is finally exposed once more to Alec d'Urberville. As soon as her father dies her mother loses her right to their cottage, and the family must join all those other labourers' families which take to the road on Lady Day, their worldly goods loaded on to hired waggons, to hunt for new jobs and homes. Oppressed by responsibility for her family, she no longer feels she has the moral right to resist his advances when they could bring with them the financial help she so badly needs.

Indeed, a good many of Tess's misfortunes turn out, on closer inspection, to have economic causes which seem almost as important as the random vengefulness of Fate to which Hardy attributes them. It is only a short step from realizing this to wondering whether Hardy is not—consciously or unconsciously—concerned throughout the book not so much with Tess's personal fortune as with her fate as a personification of rural Wessex.

Just why Tess should be an appropriate figure to play this part is clearly explained in Chapter LI, in a passage which holds the clue to the book's social message….

At once much that appeared arbitrary becomes logical. The destruction of the haggler's daughter no longer seems a cruel mischance, but inevitable. And many more of the accidents she suffers, which on a personal level seem so excessive and gratuitous, become those which her class must suffer.

The mail coach which runs down the haggler's cart and kills his horse is the vehicle which will destroy the livelihood of all hagglers, whether they are drunkards like John Durbeyfield, or sober and hard-working. Deprived of their former independence, the children of this village middle class will be driven downwards into just the sort of menial labouring jobs that Tess is forced to take. Her downward progress from milkmaid to arable worker of the lowest sort is the path ahead for all of them.

Tess is of course many other things as well. She is, for example, the embodiment of 'nature' and in particular of natural womanhood. 'Women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date.' And however much she may stand for a principle or a passing society, she remains a lost and frightened human being in a world which misleads then persecutes her. Scenes such as the splendid but appalling one in which she baptizes her dying child in her bedroom wash basin may indeed seem to establish her tragedy too clearly as a personal one for the interpretation I am suggesting.

But such a view of Tess becomes less and less satisfactory as Hardy inflicts on her a less and less probable sequence of accidental and coincidental misfortune. It is only when she is seen to some extent also to be a daughter of the doomed rural England which Hardy loved, and in particular of that class in the rural community from which Hardy himself came and which was once 'the backbone of the village life' that her fate no longer seems arbitrary and author-imposed but inescapable.

Source: Thomas Hinde, "Accident and Coincidence in Tess of the d'Urbervilles" in The Genius of Thomas Hardy, edited by Margaret Drabble, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 74-79.


Harold Bloom, "Introduction," in Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 1-22.

Donald Davidson, "The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy's Fiction," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963. pp.

Albert J. Guerard, "Introduction," in his Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 1-9.

Florence Emily Hardy, "Background: Hardy's Autobiography," in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, 2nd edition, edited by Scott Elledge, Norton, 1979, pp. 343-63.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton, 1979.

John Holloway, "Hardy's Major Fiction," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 52-62.

Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy: A Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in Anthenaeum, January 9, 1892.

Review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in Times (London), January 13, 1892.

Dorothy Van Ghent, "On Tess of the D'Urbervilles," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 77-90.

For Further Study

Byron Caminero-Santangelo, "A Moral Dilemma: Ethics in Tess of the d'Urbervilles," in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 46-61.

Caminero-Santangelo begins by noting that the world of Tess is a post-Darwinian one in which ethics have no basis in nature. He then goes on to argue that the novel's "ethical center" can be located in a "community of careful readers" who will recognize the injustice in the novel and emulate Tess in challenging it.

Peter J. Casagrande, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty, Twayne's Masterwork Studies, 1992.

In this book-length study, Casagrande argues that Hardy, in exploring the question of why innocents suffer, finds beauty in Tess's suffering at the same time that he deplores that suffering.

Graham Handley, in Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Penguin, 1991.

Handley analyzes Tess in terms of "narrative structures." He gives particular weight to the roles of the characters in the novel, and also examines the novel in terms of such things as its "figurative patterns" and "themes."

Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, 1967.

Howe provides a lengthy discussion of Tess, including a comparison between Hardy's novel and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Lionel Johnson, "The Argument," in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, 2nd edition, edited by Scott Elledge, Norton, 1979, pp. 389-400.

A portion of poet Lionel Johnson's acclaimed early analysis of Hardy's fiction in which he examines Hardy's attitude toward Nature, his depiction of the Wessex country folk, and his fatalistic view of life.

Hugh Kenner, "J. Hillis Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, September, 1971, pp. 230-34.

In the course of reviewing a book by scholar-critic J. Hillis Miller on Hardy, Kenner provides his own perspective on Hardy's merits and importance.

Andrew Lang, review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in Longman's, November, 1892.

An early review in which the critic finds little to praise in the novel.

Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, University of California Press, 1980.

A landmark study focusing mainly on the visual arts in Renaissance Italy, and first published in 1873.

Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Showalter's study discusses gender issues in 1890s Britain and draws several parallels with the U.S. in the 1980s.

Peter Widdowson, editor Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Macmillan, 1993.

A collection of essays meant to represent a response to Hardy's novel from a range of critical positions, in particular Marxism, feminism, and poststructuralism.

Terence Wright, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Macmillan, 1987.

This short book is divided into two parts. In the first, Wright surveys various critical approaches to the novel, which he divides into five basic categories. In the second, he attempts to synthesize what he considers to be the best elements of all these approaches into a single reading of the novel.