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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Fate and Guilt in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Alternate question: Role of Fate and Guilt in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This incident had turned the scale for her. They were simple and innocent girls on whom the unhappiness of unrequited love had fallen; they had deserved better at the hands of Fate. She had deserved worse – yet she was the chosen one. It was wicked of her to take all without paying. She would pay to the uttermost farthing; she would tell, there and then (Hardy 223).

The theme of fate and control (or lack thereof) over one’s own life weaves its way throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles. First introduced with the discovery of the Durbeyfield family’s aristocratic ancestors, fate seems to propel Tess along her journey through the novel. Her own mother acknowledges the power of destiny in Tess’s life, claiming that she “tried her fate in the Fortune-Teller” and knows that Tess is fated to marry a nobleman (Hardy 27). Yet, Tess and her story are also driven by Tess’s sense of guilt and responsibility for the events in her life, despite fate’s role in such events. After all, her guilt over having “killed the horse” is what makes her agree to go to Alec D’Urberville, though it is far from clear that she is to blame for its demise (Hardy 36).

In this section, Tess’s guilt over a situation wherein she is not directly at fault again pushes the plot along. In the passage above, Tess feels guilt – that she must “pay to the uttermost farthing” for the fact that “Fate” chose her to be Angel’s lover, while the other milkmaids were destined to die or go mad. While she recognizes that it is fate that has made her “the chosen one,” she still feels the need to “pay,” because to accept fate’s blessings without doing so would be “wicked.” But she has neither killed the others girls nor driven them mad. She knows that it is “at the hands of Fate” that the girls have suffered, which should absolve her of all guilt. Nevertheless, fate and guilt mingle together and cause Tess to “tell, then and there” her story to Angel, launching the novel into its next phase, again driving the plot forward.

Thus, through her guilt-ridden reactions, Tess becomes an agent in her own tragedy. She is, in the words of Garrett Stewart, a “sacrificial character in somebody else’s novel of violation” (Novel Violence). Yet, this does not seem quite correct. Tess does not simply succumb to fate (or, the narrative’s plot-steering). She feels guilt and reacts to it, which propels her on to new tragedies – first her rape at the hands of Alec and here the destruction of her nuptial bliss. She becomes, in a sense, a self-sacrificing character. Fate and guilt intertwine to muddy Tess’s plot. Is she guilty, or is she not? Is it fate, or is it a choice? These are the questions that remain as Tess’s story marches on.