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Discuss the role of tragedy in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

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From the beginning of the novel it is clear that tragedy will taint the life of Hardy’s protagonist. As Hardy equates Hamlet and Tess from the start, we learn that he sees Tess as a virtuous victim and therefore as a tragic heroine. This is no surprise as a view often assimilated with the Victorian novel genre is fatalism and Hardy was known for his fatalistic outlook on life; this becomes apparent through Tess’s own fate – undelivered letters, misunderstanding, and a string of unfortunate coincidences all lead to her tragic end. Each situation is a catalyst for the next, with episodes and characters carefully woven into a complex pattern and as part of this many events are explicitly prefigured. Hardy’s extensive use of foreshadowing builds tension as well as making the family’s decline seem inevitable, suggesting that Tess’s fate is already sealed. She is dubbed the ‘plaything’ of the ‘immortals’ and it is obvious that the mark of the blood is upon her from the start.

This is symbolised at the club dance where Tess ‘one of the white company’ is the only one to have a ‘red ribbon’ in her hair. The certainty of loss and suffering become a key theme in the novel. However there are many factors that contribute to the tragic heroines downfall. Tess is only partly to blame for her own tragic decline. Powerful external pressures, such as social, biological, environmental and the supernatural, all drive her inexorably towards her cruel fate. Time and chance are also against Tess.

Social and biological pressures rank high on the tragic outcome of Hardy’s heroine. In chapter one the Durbeyfields’ discovery that they are scions of a once proud aristocratic family cause them to behave above their station, with Tess’s father Jack (a drunkard and idle spendthrift) frittering away the large family’s money and Tess’s mother Joan conspiring against her daughter, in the hope of acquiring social, or at least financial advancement. This, coupled with Tess’s guilt for accidentally killing the family horse lead the unemployed Tess to the sinister and blatantly predatory Alec D’Urberville, before she has a chance to a meet her real love Angel Clare. The unfortunate despair of which is paralleled later in the book; ‘Had she perceived this meetings import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and marked and coveted by the wrong man, and not by a certain other man’.

However Tess seems to seal her own fate by giving herself up to both Alec and to her mother’s artful ministrations. She allows Joan to enhance her womanly features to lure the devilish D’Urberville (as seen in chapter 20 when he appears by firelight brandishing a pitchfork) whilst she was still ‘a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience’ and she permits Alec to master her as he does his horse. Alec (resembling a moustache twirling villain from melodrama) is aware that Tess is trapped by social convention and his understanding of her morality is based upon her class, her obligation to her family and apparently fate. He realises that he has the upper hand in pursuing Tess and he takes advantage of it.

Given the stress on fate, coupled with the biological and sociological pressures that are placed on the characters, the novel might be categorised as giving a post-Darwinian view of naturalism. Tess is subjected to natural forces such as heredity and environment – for example she is not only haunted by the d’Urberville coach but also by the portraits of the d’Urberville women whom she physically and mentally resembles. However the notion that the text is entirely naturalistic is unworkable given the mythical and metaphysical elements which make the outcome of the novel inevitable. Also, on several occasions, ancient sites and ancient histories, mingled with folk law and legend, are made to equate with inescapable fate. Chapter 20 shows the complexity of Tess’s situation and the potential for an Edenic fall which can be reinforced by the reference to Mary Magdalene, temptation and Alec’s future references to Adam and Eve. (Sayer. 1998:26)

In the section of the novel entitled The Chase Tess sleeps amid the leaves of the woods, while the narrator reflects on her ‘feminine tissue…..doomed to receive’ the ‘coarse pattern’ of Alec’s lust. Although we do not witness any actual violence against Tess we do hear a degree of ironical authorial intervention. For example we are aware that sleep is followed inexorably by violence (e.g Prince). Thus we as readers can come to the conclusion that Tess is impregnated and most probably raped by Alec, expressing that the ‘womens tragedy may be due to the tyranny of man and of social circumstance’ (Victorian web: 2002).

However the sexual double standards typical of late Victorian society are also made clear at this point. The institutionalised Christianity during the reign of Queen Victoria, meant that Tess was seen as an outcast. She had given birth to a bastard child and the rigid social attitudes of Victorian society frowned upon her even though she was not a willing participant in the conception. Tess blasphemously baptising the infant herself and naming it Sorrow before his passing seems fitting given that the cruel and inflexible religious laws of the time prohibited the innocent child to be buried in consecrated ground. Harshly and tragically the death of Tess’s baby clears the way for a fresh start at a dairy farm named Talbothays.

When Tess arrives at Talbothays, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, everything seems perfect. The lush surroundings, bright May sunshine and the fertility oozing from the surrounding countryside help to unite Tess with her new-found love Angel, giving a clear example of how the environment plays a role in dictating her course of life (as with The Chase). In addition to this the settings add a degree of authenticity, verisimilitude and realism. However Tess’s fatalistic fears that the cruel beings who control her life on this ‘blighted planet’ will punish her for daring to enjoy some happiness with Angel are soon realised. Angel, unaware of the heroine’s past, does not love Tess (a simple ‘daughter of the soil’), as she says, for her self. Angel objectifies and idealises her, mistaking her for a goddess, such as Artemis or Demeter and Tess views him simply as an ‘intelligence’. This coupled with the fact that Tess has yet to reveal her true self to Angel shows that with the arrival of the Autumn equinox everything hangs in the balance.

Tess, against her mothers advice, decides to confess to Angel by slipping him a note under his door, but as fate would have it, it goes beneath the carpet. Rather unfazed by this Tess accepts Angel’s proposal of marriage. It is here that we learn that there are moments in the novel when Tess may have had control over her future. Tess is not faithful to her pure instincts and she is swayed to press her silence on her past for her appetite for joy. This drive towards joy, which Freud would call the ‘pleasure principle’, and the desire to preserve this moment of happiness, of ‘perpetual betroyal’ prevent her from speaking as she yields to the tides of life. Hence the feelings that lift Tess also drown her. Her instinct for self-preservation impels her toward candour and toward self-destruction (Higonnet.1998:xxxi). Tess is setting herself up for a fall, a notion which is reinforced with the crowing of the cock just as Angel and herself are leaving their wedding ceremony, signifying Angel’s denial of Tess as Peter did Jesus. In addition to this the Dairyman quietly states that it is a sign that identifies Angel as a cuckold.

Sexual double standards come into play again when Angel admits to experiencing a ’48 hours dissipation with a stranger’, an older woman. Is this not worse than Tess’s unfortunate encounter with Alec which robbed her of her virginity and labelled her a whore? Nevertheless, the not so angelic Angel’s social snobbery and Victorian prudery on what is a sensitive moral issue, clouds his judgement and causes him to recoil from his idealised love. Thus both Angel and Alec are controlling characters guilty of harming Tess. They are one-dimensional compared to the heterogeneous figure of the protagonist in whom oppositions like victim and villain collapse. This invites criticism from the Feminists who claim that the society that damns Tess as impure is essentially patriarchal. They stress that she is too complex a women to be understood by a society that classified women under the headings of ‘virgin’ or ‘whore’. In a sense Tess can be seen as a modern character, as the readers of today can identify and sympathise with her. (Sayer. 1998:84)

Tess’s cruel fate then takes her to work as a manual labourer for a farmer who coincidently Angel struck earlier in the novel for slandering Tess. Unsurprisingly, as the name Flintcomb-Ash suggests (hard barren flint, burnt out lifeless ash) Tess’s pain and suffering are set to continue. Exhausted by arduous work, persecuted by farmer Groby, virtually penniless through supporting her ‘shiftless’ family and abandoned by a heartless husband, the proud Tess refuses to ask Angel’s parents for aid. It is then, at Tess’s lowest point, that the evil Alec rears his head once more and begins to exert his familiar unrelenting pressure upon her. After hearing that Tess has returned home due to illness in the family Alec realises the advantages of the situation.

Ironically Tess’s father dies leaving Tess no choice but to accept Alec’s offer of relocating to his cottage to secure employment for her homeless family. However the Durbeyfields’ departing from Marlott after the death of ‘Sir John’, was inevitable. In the late nineteenth century there were many changes taking place in rural England. The advances achieved as a result of the Industrial Revolution meant that even in the countryside farming was becoming mechanized and there were fewer manual labour jobs for the simple peasant people to do. This meant that many people born and bred in their local countryside had to leave their village to go and find work. Tess, the earthy maiden was no exception and this division of culture and nature plays its part in tearing Tess apart. Nevertheless it is social convention which really condemns Tess.

It is not surprising when Tess stabs Alec immediately after the arrival of Angel. It might even be said that Tess actually got the idea of murdering Alec from Clare’s suggestion; ‘If he were dead it might be different’. Tess, the murderess whose passions break through in a brief moment of fulfillment seems to dismiss the dire consequences of her act, instead looking forward to her new found time with Angel. However the red blood stain on the ceiling implies to the reader that the heroine will be destroyed by a patriarchal society for the crime of taking vengeance on her defiler. We are therefore forced to face the supposition that the individual is never free to act, that their life is predestined and that passivity is preferable to wilfulness. This can be seen when Tess is found lying on an

ancient alter stone at the sacrificial pagan site of Stonehenge, as it is almost as if she is waiting to be taken by the Gods. The following and final chapter of the novel is narrated at a distance, with complete detachment, as Tess’s futile struggle with fate concludes with the irreversible punishment of death. Tess’s execution is placed within the context of the fate that marked her at the outset of the novel and with reference to the tombs of the d’Urbervilles’. In addition to this the inevitability of history seems to conclude in the phrase ‘the President of the immortals…… had ended his sport with Tess’. The fact that Liza-Lu (very much the image of the young ‘inviolate’ Tess) walks away hand in hand with Angel after her sisters’ execution comes as no surprise. She is simply stepping into her place ready to repeat the ancient history of the d’Urbervilles.

I conclude that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a tragedy laden text. Hardy’s exploration of the human condition makes wondering, loss, the inevitability of suffering and of death the dominant themes of the novel. It is not surprising that Hardy found it difficult to get this novel published with its morally sensitive content. However Tess is only partly to blame for her own tragic decline. Although she often acts wilfully because of a misplaced sense of pride, when she remains passive her fate seems to be determined as much by heredity as her environment. Tess was in the end a victim of the circumstances of a late Victorian patriarchal rural society, with its cruel discriminations and prudishness. However Tess was also at the mercy of a more dominant inexorable force, the immortals, who had marked her out as a victim from the very beginning.


Hardy, Thomas (1891) Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London: Penguin Books Ltd (2003).

Higonnet, Margaret (1998) Introduction in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). London: Penguin Books Ltd (2003).

Sayer, Karen (1998) York Notes: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London: York Press.

The Victorian Web (2002). Thomas Hardy. Victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/html.

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