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“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy

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The author Thomas Hardy lived and wrote in a time of difficult social change, when England was making its slow and painful transition from an old-fashioned, agricultural nation to a modern, industrial one. Businessmen and entrepreneurs, or “new money,” joined the ranks of the social elite, as some families of the ancient aristocracy, or “old money,” faded into obscurity. Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles clearly illustrates his views on the harsh social changes in his time period, which were the exact opposite of many of his conservative and status-conscious readers. In the novel, Hardy mocks the power of high class society and industrialization, as well as to the importance of lineage and heritage in conjunction with social status. The novel also expresses Hardy’s sympathetic views towards people of lower social class and the effects social change and industrialization was inflicting on them.

Through the three main characters of the story, Tess Durbeyfeild, Angel Clare, and Alec Stokes-d’Urberville, Hardy expresses the confusion regarding social classes in his time period. Alec is the character who is an ideal representation of the new industrial-based society forming in England, while Tess embodies the pure, old and agricultural side of society undergoing change, and Angel symbolizes the futile and confusing struggle for change between the two forms of society. The Angel-Tess-Alec triangle strongly conveys the confusion Victorians were undergoing in social classes in order to accommodate the changing English social system.

Angel Clare is perhaps one of the most direct depictions in Hardy’s novel that clearly shows the severity of social confusion that was present during his time period. Throughout the entire novel, Angel’s morals and beliefs, and the basic composition of his character, are a string of social-related hypocrisies and are evidence that a majority of Victorian society was stuck in-between the old 19th century views and the newly ways of the emerging 20th century. Angel Clare is seemingly a character in the novel that rebels against traditions, deciding to go against his reverend father’s wishes of him attending Cambridge and following the same path of his brothers and instead being a lowly dairy farmer and attempting to live an agricultural based life versus the one which is expected of him.

Angel was a man whose “aspect was probably as un-Sabbatarian a one as a dogmatic parson’s son often presented; his attire being his dairy clothes, long wading boots…” and “in fact, rightly or wrongly (to adopt the safe phrase of evasive controversialists), preferred sermons in stone to sermons in churches and chapels on fine summer days” (Phase The Third, XXIII, pg 156). Through this passage, and the rebellion to become what his father wants, Angel is seemingly a character who is rebellious of societal conventions in general, let alone the unnatural modernizing world around him.

Angel is more in tune with natural things versus the things that society expects him to relate to, or at least more intrigued by the natural and agricultural world versus the modern conventional one. However, when Angel marries Tess, he thinks of her not as a real woman with flaws and imperfections, but as a pure and virginal lady that is perfect in every way. This is what society deems the perfect wife to marry, and Angel, unwittingly, is living up to this. Though Angel seems to be a character in touch with the old world, he is angry when Tess confesses she was raped by Alec.

“I do forgive you, but forgiveness is not all.”

“And love me?”

To this question he did not answer.

“O Angel–my mother says that it sometimes happens so!–she knows several cases where they were worse than I, and the husband has not minded it much–has got over it at least. And yet the woman had not loved him as I do you!”

“Don’t, Tess; don’t argue. Different societies, different manners. You almost make me say you are an unapprehending peasant woman, who have never been initiated into the proportions of social things. You don’t know what you say.”

“I am only a peasant by position, not by nature!”

She spoke with an impulse to anger, but it went as it came.

“So much the worse for you. I think that parson who unearthed your pedigree would have done better if he had held his tongue. I cannot help associating your decline as a family with this other fact–of your want of firmness. Decrepit families imply decrepit wills, decrepit conduct. Heaven, why did you give me a handle for despising you more by informing me of your descent! Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the belated seedling of an effete aristocracy!” (Phase the Fifth, Chapter XXXV, pg 235-236)

Angel, a character who normally rebels against conventions, cannot accept the fact that Tess is not the pure woman he thought she was, and calls her “an unapprehending peasant woman” implying that her “decrepit” family name is the reason she can’t understand why his forgiveness for Alec’s rape isn’t enough. The hypocrisy Hardy conveys through Angel is shown clearly in this passage; though Angel himself doesn’t want to follow the standards of society, he holds Tess to them, if not to higher standards of purity and perfection. His distaste for her family name and his belief that it led to her misfortune shows that he is also similar to modern society on the brink of the 20th century in England, which finds lineage and old money distasteful and useless (Grimsditch, 119). Through Angel and his many hypocritical actions in the novel, Hardy conveys the struggle and confusion in the transition from the antiquated ways of Victorian society, to the modern ways of thinking.

It is with Alec d’Urberville that Hardy portrays the newly emerging modern society of England breaking away from the typical Victorian ideals of lineage affecting social class, and showing that economic power leads to the wealth and money that affects social standing. Alec’s isn’t even a true d’Urberville; his father essentially purchased the high-class name to cover up his past. This shows the importance of money in society, and through this Hardy is showing that money can buy anything, most importantly social standing. Alec is also a character who doesn’t care for anyone else’s well being, not even his own mother’s, and he seduces Tess not because he loved her, but because of his own needs and desires. He doesn’t offer an apology for the terrible act until he “reforms” when he has a “calling from God”.

He is even duplicitous and devious in this aspect of the novel, because he convinces Tess that Angel isn’t coming back from Brazil, and tricks her into marrying him soon after he receives this “calling from God”. Alec could be viewed as a character whose extreme cruelty to Tess throughout the novel represents a mockery of the way in which the new 20th century England’s society was heading; Hardy viewed it as just as terrible, if not worse, than the previous standards of Victorian society.

There are several other factors in the novel that show Alec being the representative character for modern ways overcoming the old traditions of the Victorian world, but the main one is his rape of Tess at The Chase. In Arnold Kettle’s An Introduction to the English Novel “he allegorizes Tess’s seduction into the sacrificing of the peasantry to a new ear overseen by a class, represented by Alec, whose money was made from manufacturing, not from the land.” (Riquelme, pg 398) Kettle’s theory can be further proved if the entire d’Urberville estate is taken into consideration. When Tess first sees Alec’s house, she is enamored with its newness and notes that it is built on ancient land.

The crimson brick lodge came first in sight, up to its eaves in dense evergreens. Tess thought this was the mansion itself till, passing through the side wicket with some trepidation, and onward to a point at which the drive took a turn, the house proper stood in full view. It was of recent erection – indeed almost new – and of the same rich red colour that formed such a contrast with the evergreens of the lodge. Far behind the corner of the house – which rose like a geranium bloom against the subdued colours around – stretched the soft azure landscape of The Chase – a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primaeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows. All this sylvan antiquity, however, though visible from the Slopes, was outside the immediate boundaries of the estate. (Phase the First, Chapter V, pg 60)

The Chase is an area that has not been touched by Alec or his family; a natural area with trees not planted by men, and is perhaps one of the only untouched forests left in England. It seems like more than mere circumstance that the rape did not occur at the d’Urberville home, the territory in the novel that is associated with a strong sense of the importance of new money and the effect it had on social classes forming in England on the brink of the 20th century due to new money. Instead, Alec overpowers Tess in the only area that is associated with the old-agricultural based society, and the only primeval piece of land that can be connected with other ancient things such as lineages. This shows that the changes of society were unrelenting, and that even the most pure and agricultural places were not to go untouched by this new shift in society and economy.

The only character that represents true social purity and the changing roles in agrarian culture in the late 19th century is Tess Durbeyfeild, the novels heroine and victim. Possessing an education that her unschooled parent’s lack, Tess does not quite fit into the folk culture of her family and the people that surround her, but financial constraints keep her from rising to a higher station in life in which she is entitled, since there is aristocracy in Tess’s blood. She is in between the changing world, both socially and culturally, thus she is a symbol of unclear and unstable notions of class in 19th century Britain, where old family lines retained their earlier glamour, but where cold economic realities made sheer wealth more important than inner nobility.

Tess’s inner nobility is defeated by the end of the novel however, showing clearly that the modern world, a place that is constantly and rapidly changing, has no place for someone who is so unconventional and in a sense unwilling to change, and therefore must die. One of the key scenes in the novel that displays this intolerance of the agrarian and aristocratic world invading the new is the death of the Durbeyfeild family’s horse, Prince. According to Herbert Grimsditch, in many of Hardy’s novels it is “the old world character…is the main agency which keeps the peasants so unsophisticated. The horse, though still a highly useful animal, is not now, in most places, indispensable, but to the folk of the Wessex Novels he is the life-blood of transport” (Grimsditch, 87) Prince’s death is brought on by Tess’s daydreaming of knights in her long bloodline, and ideas of a better world.

It is clear that Prince’s death by the metal and machinery of the mail cart shows there is no place left for small agrarian culture, and Tess herself bears a high-class name like Prince, but is doomed to a lowly life of physical labor. Tess’s dream of meeting a prince while she kills her own Prince, and with him her family’s only means of financial support, is a tragic foreshadowing of her own story, “and the most passionate character must die for being unconventional” (Riquelme, pg 397). The death of the horse symbolizes the sacrifice of real-world goods, such as a useful animal or even her own honor, through excessive fantasizing about a better world (Grimsditch 88). Hardy makes it clear that not only is the modern culture killing the agrarian culture, but also that resistance to change is almost futile.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents a complex picture of both the importance of social class in nineteenth-century England and the difficulty of defining class on the brink of the 20th century. Through the characters in the novel, Hardy demonstrates that the Victorian time period had severed connection with old traditions and had become completely based on new money and power. Through Angel, Hardy represents the hypocritical members of society who resisted social class standards but who weren’t dedicated enough to try and change society, and also the confusion of how social class was defined through the confusion we are shown in Angel’s character while he tries to define his own social standing. Alec is the representation of the new, modern culture destroying any remnants of old culture left, while Tess symbolizes the futile struggle of old agrarian ways and pure individuals against the modern world driven by consumption and economic force.


1)Grimsditch, Herbert B. Character and Environment in The Novels of Thomas Hardy. Russell & Russell. London; 1962.

2)Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Bedford/St. Martin’s. New York; 1998.

Critical Essays in Text:

3) Riquelme, John Paul. A Critical History of Tess of the d’Urbervill

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