English Literature » Notes » Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Narrative technique
Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Narrative technique

Alternate question: Discuss narrative technique in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy uses a number of narrative techniques in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles which enable the reader to get more deeply involved into the plot and emphasize with the characters. Among the techniques he employs are the third person omniscient narrator, dialogues between the characters, letter writing, songs and poetry, religious and mythological allusions as well as extensive descriptions of the settings. All these techniques are applied in such a way that they underline the message Hardy has woven into his novel, while allowing the reader to make up his own mind about the events.

The third person omniscient narrator is all-knowing and thereby adds to the vulnerability of Tess. This is because the reader knows certain facts which Tess is unaware of. For example, the reader is aware of Alec D’Urberville’s intentions from the first moment this character enters the plot while Tess stumbles into her predicaments. The reader feels uneasy each moment both characters are left alone with themselves because he can guess what is going to happen. Another example is Tess’s abandonment by her husband. All the while Tess is suffering and hoping for Angel to return quickly, the reader knows that he won’t.

But he also knows that Angel is unwell and has actually forgotten half the things he said to Tess during their quarrel. Tess is kept in the dark about the changes her husband has undergone, which increases the tension of the reader. Another consequence of applying the third person omniscient narrator is the objectivity it renders to the story. Hardy can distance himself from Tess’s destiny while allowing the reader to judge things on his own. If Tess was narrating the events, everything would be coloured by her experience and thought. Furthermore, the reader would be unaware of the motives, thoughts, and backgrounds of other characters.

To help the reader form judgements on his own, Hardy uses dialogues between the characters. They can articulate themselves in their own words without having any meaning changed by Hardy. This reveals their character more distinctly and helps the reader form an opinion of the protagonists independent of Hardy. The way the characters speak, the words they use, the circumstances, and the content of their speech make it easy for the reader to evaluate their personality. Letter writing, songs and poetry provides a deeper insight into the feelings and thoughts of the characters. It creates a more intimate relationship between reader and characters.

Most songs are simple and bear a heavy dialect, which also reflects on the social and cultural background of the society, and the reader is able to understand better how the protagonists live. When Tess is trying on her wedding dress she remembers one of her mother’s songs: “That would never become a wife | That had once done amiss” (Chapter 32) This foreshadows the future and allows a deeper insight into Tess’s thinking: she is filled with doubts and guilt which ultimately forces her to confess her past to Angel. The first letter Tess writes to Angel (Chapter 48) is filled with passion and devotion.

Yet the reader knows that Tess is not completely honest because she conceals the hardships she is facing, and she is reluctant to let Angel know about her true feelings concerning his stay in Brazil. However, in the end, Tess writes: “Come to me ? come to me, and save me from what threatens me! ” She does not receive an answer from Angel. On the contrary, when she returns home she is again facing new problems: her father dies and the family has to move out from Marlott. Tess is also aware that the people of Marlott view her as a sinner. The combination of these facts induce Tess to write again to Angel, this time in a more bitter tone.

She accuses him of having mistreated her. But yet again the letter remains unanswered. Now even Marian and Izz address Angel to return to his wife if he loved her as much as she do love him. Thus the letters introduce a more personal note and allow the reader to feel with the characters as he is directly involved in their tragedy. Hardy’s characters are greatly influenced by their religious and social environments. To convey these aspects of this society (which is also his), he employs a number of religious and mythological allusions. The novel is opened with the introduction of Parson Tringham.

He is not described in physical terms, but being a Parson he reflects he religious aspect of Hardy’s society. Though unaware of any particular detail about this Parson, the reader is alert that the revelation of the Durbeyfield’s descent constitutes the central problem of the plot. Ironically, this religious figure not only sets in motion a chain of predicaments for the heroine Tess, but ? religion’ will also remain one of the central themes. Angel’s world resolves around religion until he struggles to break free from it, only to realize that he might have shaken off the institution of religion but not the morals that are attached to it.

Another example is the commencement of the second phase: “The basket was heavy and the bundle was large, but she lugged them along like a person who did not find her especial burden in material things. ” This heavy burden which is not material refers to Tess’s violation by Angel which will ? for the rest of her life ? be held against her by virtually everybody, and even more so by those she loves and trusts. After the wedding ceremony at Talbothay’s, a cock is heard crowing. This alone is an omen of bad luck, but according to biblical references, the omen is even intensified by the repetition of the crowing.

Dairyman Crick comments: ” Now, to think o’ that just to-day! I’ve not heard his crow of an afternoon all the year afore. ” To which his wife replies: “It only means a change in the weather, not what you think: ? tis impossible! ” This religious allusion is an appropriate foreshadowing of things to come and alerts the reader. There are other references to myths and superstitions in several instances. For example, the alleged leftover of a cross called “Cross-in-Hand”. Hardy refers to it as “a negative beauty of tragic tone”. Alec D’Urberville forces Tess to put her hand on it and swear that she will never tempt him again.

A few moments later a local tells Tess that this is not a cross but “’tis a thing of ill-omen”. The reader is sufficiently informed about Hardy’s way of indicating which turn events will take to know that the moment Tess put her hand on this alleged cross, her fate was sealed yet again. Of course, nothing much needs to be said about the mystical coach of the D’Urbervilles that can be heard only by a true descent of the D’Urberville family in connection with a murder. There are several references to this story by Angel, Alec and later Tess herself. Another technique that Hardy employs is the extensive description of setting.

Setting in this case refers to the specific surrounding environment and its atmosphere in which a character exists at a specific point in time. The particular setting influences the character’s moods, actions, reactions, etc. Hardy does not place his characters in arbitrary environments, but they are actually directly linked to the events that are going to follow. When Marlott’s beauty (Vale of Blackmoor) is described in its full terms in form of a May Day dance, the reader knows that the place of Tess’s birth is a positive one that has provided her with happy moments to rejoice.

Marlott is also a remote, untouched, unspoilt place which reflects the peaceful atmosphere of the county of that time. The Slopes, on the other hand, are described a “snug property”, “bright, thriving, and well kept; ? Everything looked like money ? like the last coin issued from the Mint. ” This is juxtaposed with “simple Tess” who “stood at a gaze, in a half-alarmed attitude”. The seat of the d’Urbervilles is obviously not the place where Tess belongs, and this misfit is brought out by the description of the house. The next time Tess will be united with Alec, it will again be in an expensive setting, Sandbourne.

Chapter 10 begins with the description of the code of morality of Trantridge. The place had the “abiding defect; it drank hard. ” Chaseborough, where Tess and the other dairy workers went for their evening drinking, is described as “a decayed market-town”. That particular Sunday night is spent with lots of liquor and wild dancing. Tess feels lost in this chaotic situation with “satyrs clasping nymphs”. She only waits for her companions to go home, but yet another unlucky circumstance separates her from the group and leaves her vulnerable to Alec’s attack I the fog-filled Chase.

This fog symbolizes Tess’s entrapment. Tess’s journeys, too, are described in terms of what the reader might expect. On her way to Trantridge, Tess is reluctant and feels out of place. She is aware of the ridiculousness and inappropriateness of her undertaking. There is no enjoyment whatsoever in her journey. As a contrast, her journey to Talbothay’s is a pleasant one. Tess feels hat she has set the stone for a new life and looks forward to things to come. She describes the journey as a “pilgrimage” (Chapter 16).

When the relationship between Tess and Angel is blossoming at Talbothay’s, the surroundings, too, are described in positive terms. There is “oozing fatness and warm ferments? the hiss of fertilization? The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings”. (Chapter 23) Tess and Angel grow fonder of each other in this environment, and this development is complemented by sunny days, prosperous nature and overall happiness. However, as Tess’s doubts grow and her guilt feeling increases, events turn to the worse. Tess is subjected to a life of hardship at Flintcomb-Ash.

The name underlines the desolate state of Tess. “Here the air was dry and cold, and the long cart-roads were blown white and dusty within a few hours after rain. There were few trees, or none, ? The stubborn soil around her showed plainly enough that the kind of labour in demand here was of the roughest kind” (Chapter 42). This environment only reflects Tess, whose attire is described as “faded and thin”. Hardy even goes one step further and calls Tess’s appearance an “exterior, over which the eye might have roved as over a thing scarcely percipient, almost inorganic”.

The work she has to do at Flintcomb-Ash stands in stalk contrast to the easy, joyful activity at Talbothay’s where she went to work with a song on her lips. Tess’s depression reaches its climax in this barren land and “the joyless monotony of things” (Chapter 46). In this moment when Tess is bare any protection (be it her husband Angel or her hope that had at least accompanied her throughout the year), Alec surfaces again. He ridicules Tess and does the one thing she cannot bear: he blames Angel and destroys all hope that he might ever return.

However, when Angel does finally come back, it is in the luxurious town of Sandbourne. Tess is described as being dressed in expensive gowns of the latest fashion and living in affluence in a posh guesthouse. Once again, Tess is seen in an environment where she is a misfit. This refers to the fact that she has succumbed to Alec’s pressure. However, the prosperous town reflects the reunion with Angel. Thus it is seen that the choice of setting bears a deeper significance which reflects the moods and actions, the state, intensions and feelings of the characters.

Hardy’s use of omniscient narrator, descriptive setting, allusions, letter writing as well as songs and poetry enable him to influence the way the reader perceives the actions of the characters. He is able to understand the way the characters think, what they feel and he can have a glimpse of their rationale. These techniques do not only improve the reader’s understanding of the protagonists, but also of the society which Hardy and his characters lived in. This in turn explains some of the things that are said and done in the novel. II.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles as expression of a general human situation in history. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles describes the tragedy of young Tess Durbeyfield who is ? like all of Hardy’s characters ? entirely at the mercy of instinct and social pressures. She is therefore subjected to fate and circumstance. Hardy has been labelled as having a pessimistic philosophy. Although he did admit to having a pessimistic view, he called himself a meliorist. It is the belief that human society has a natural tendency to improve and that people can consciously assist this process (Mircosoft Encarta).

Meliorism is the compromise between optimism and pessimism “which affirms that the world may be made better by rightly directed human effort. ” (Oxford English Dictionary) According to this philosophy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles reflects the helplessness, the insignificance of the single human being in the face of world. Though Tess tries hard, she cannot really get control of her life and set things right. According to Hardy, this is the position of man in general. The world that we have created around us with its rules, regulations, codes of morals, superstitions, etc. eventually turns against us as soon as we do not conform to the general frame of the ? right things to do’. As Tess fails in the eyes of those around her, she is no longer acceptable as an integrated part of society. She is therefore removed, which is what happens to all those who follow their own individual path. In fact, it happened to Thomas Hardy as well. His novel Jude the Obscure was way before its time and triggered fierce criticism which eventually prevented Hardy from ever writing a novel again. One of the themes of Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the need to conform to society’s rules.

The fate of Tess is actually the consequence of a narrow-minded society. Even though Tess has been violated, she is treated as if she had violated the code of morals. The treatment she receives is the reaction society shows to anybody who does not fit into the frame. She used to be an active member of the Marlott society, but since her return from Trantridge, Tess is a mere commodity for the community, taking part in the harvest activity and otherwise keeping out of sight. Morality is another theme. Angel Clare is the prototype of those few who struggle for individuality.

Especially in Hardy’s time, society was rapidly falling apart as a consequence of all the new philosophies, discoveries, etc. that influenced people’s thinking. Even Hardy was heavily influenced by popular beliefs of that time, among them Nietzsche’s comments on the nature of human drives, Comte’s positivism and Schopenhauer’s work The World as Will and Idea (www. gettisburg. edu). Unfortunately for Angel, he fails in his attempt to use his experiences in life in order to come to a new conclusion for himself. His maturation comes only after a year of hardships in Brazil, but at that time it is too late for Tess.

The fate of both Angel and Tess have been sealed because Angel could not rid himself of the conventions of his time. Though he believed to be independent in his thinking, his mind was still closely tied to the ideas of his time. It is a reflection of Hardy’s society: the new ideas that kept pouring in from all directions sought to bring clarity for age-old problems, but they did more harm as people were left confused. Their psychological development could not hold pace with the rapid influx of such new, mostly outrageous ideas that challenged everything people had believed in so far.

This means that the single human being is subjected to the vast amount of ideas that surround him, and unless he finds his way through this without disturbing the order society has constructed, he cannot hope to be successful. That was Tess’s undoing. Religion, too, is an important aspect of the novel. The opening of Tess of the d’Urbervilles introduces the reader to Parson Tringham, and throughout the story religion plays an important part. There is the man who paints the countryside with appallingly red letters, there are religious allusions, and the Clare family.

Old Mr. Clare is on of the few genuinely religious people in the novel. But even his sons have not evolved to his level. Their ministries are a matter of convenience, not of choice or faith. Angel on the other hand, is actively contemplating the issue and tries to find a solution for himself. All this shows the overwhelming presence of religion in every aspect of people’s life. Sooner or later, even Alec d’Urberville is touched by it. However, his temporary conversion is more a thrilling new experience for him to fill his idle days, and it does entrap Tess.

Her downfall has indirectly been induced by religion. There was Parson Tringham who started the entire affair, there are Angel’s morals which are based on Christianity, and Alec, too, comes along and apparently changed man. Alec’s newly found religiousness disguises him so that Tess feels insecure as she does not know how to deal with him in this situation, and this in turn gives Alec time and opportunity to deceive her once again. This entire preoccupation with religion reflects Hardy’s personal life, and with thereby, it reflects the life of many people of his time. Hardy, too, struggled with religion.

At first he himself had plans to become a member of the clergy. The Oxford Movement also reinforced his faith, but as he was confronted with On The Origin of Species, he became increasingly doubtful. This is reflected in Tess of the d’Urbervilles as well as The Return of the Native, where characters are mere pawns for God to manipulate and subject to hardship and bitter consequences (www. gettysburg. edu). According to Hardy’s conviction, as this system of religion works for Tess it also works for any other person who tries to find an aim in life while being subjected to fate.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a portrayal of how trust, love and friendship work in society, how they are not just intimate feelings that bond human beings but how they are also tightly linked to the code of morals of that particular society. This link is so close that it influences the bonds between people as it influences the bond between Tess and Angel. The novel thus throws light on the fragility of human relationships and the desolate conditions which we are subjected to once we have fallen from grace in the eyes of our fellow beings.

Hardy criticizes the harshness of society and Tess is to realize it in the night she spends on a plantation. Her gloom is “based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature”. Her destiny is formed by an unlucky chain of deceit, rejection ad misunderstandings, and this is what all human beings are subjected to at any time in any society. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is therefore an expression of the general human situation. Tess is nothing but an example of the cruelty one is subjected to, caused either by the will of God or fellow beings. The themes Hardy deals with ? uman relationships, religion, morality and societal rules ? concern every person every day, which is why Tess is representative for the general human situation. III. Hardy’s tragic vision Thomas Hardy is one of the few Victorian tragic prose writers. His novels are marked by gloom and pessimism. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one typical novel that delineates the tragic fall of Tess Durbeyfield. Like all his novels, this one is centred around the Immanent Will (www. gettysberg. edu). “Perplexity surrounding Hardy and tragedy is compounded when we consider that he was neither atheist nor religious, and ascribed to the school to eliorism, whose basic tenet was to improve the world through the sympathetic balance of optimism and pessimism, love and loathing, and happiness and pain; indeed, sympathy typifies Hardy’s perspective on the world, and we must extend this perspective to his own meliorist vision of tragedy. For Hardy, the tragic stage is none other than Nature herself and this natural stage ultimately consumes the very characters that he places upon it. ” Tess Durbeyfield is described as innocent, a vessel of emotions, far from mature or experienced. She is used to shoulder responsibility at home, but never beyond the borders of Marlott.

She is young and promising, and this is where tragedy strikes for the first time. It is a mere coincident that the Parson informs her father about his noble descent, but the character of John Durbeyfield is such that he jeopardizes Tess’s future. John and Joan Durbeyfield, having similar names because they have similar mistakes and are both immature, form Tess’s destiny. The tragedy lies in the fact that Tess’s life could have been normal and joyful if only her parents had given her the chance to grow up before sending her out into the world. Hardy constructs the plot in such a way that Tess could not possibly escape her destiny.

The next evil is already waiting at her doorstep in the form of Alec d’Urberville. Tess is innocent and unaware of the deceiving nature of Alec, and though she instinctively withdraws from him, fate has already another unlucky incident in store for her. This is the chaotic night in Chaseborough. The mix of loose morals among Tess’s companions, liquor, the dusty dance floor and the thoughtless loathing for entertainment throw Tess into an uncomfortable situation which she wishes to leave. She knows she is where she should not be, but again, there is no escape.

Though she manages to walk home in the protection of the group, yet another unlucky coincident in form of a honey pot prevent Tess’s safety. Hardy leads Tess and Alec to unknown territory, the foggy Chase. As the reader emphasizes with Tess, she receives even more injustice. The inevitability of Tess’s downfall is clearly marked when her parents reject her and she lives like a recluse in her own home. Yet, Hardy allows for temporary peace and rest for his heroine. She sets out for her pilgrimage to Talbothays and it appears as if things are turning out well for her at last.

After all the struggle, Tess is accepted as a person und judged by her character and actions, not by the previous injustice that was done to her and none of her fault. Even landscape reflects the new life of Tess who blossoms in her new surroundings. But as her relationship with Angel Clare grows, so do her doubts, and the reader is apprehensive of what might come next. Hardy foreshadows future events in several instances, thereby increasing the tension. The reader finally realizes that the temporary improvement of Tess’s life was nothing but a technique to increase the amount of suffering for Tess.

She had already fallen to the lowest possible ground and therefore had to be elevated in order to let her fall again. It again shows that there could not have been any escape for her. The Immanent Will is obviously not in favour of the little dairy maid. To increase the tragic effect, Hardy makes Tess want to confess to Angel. However, circumstances prevent her from doing so; once it is a story dairyman Crick tells, another time Tess is to appalled, or Angel stops her from relating her past. In the end, Tess does confess and thereby plunges herself into new misery.

Angel’s promises are forgotten and he abandons her. Tess is made to suffer once again for Alec’s crime. Her life is in a downward spiral. Hardy employs every method to increase the pain Tess is made to suffer, and to highlight the futility of her destiny. There are innumerable reminders that whatever happened to her was unnecessary. By the time Tess labours at Flintcomb-Ash, the events have been dragged to such a point where it becomes impossible for the reader not to dislike every single character with the exception of Tess.

It appears that she had come to the world for the sole purpose of suffering, and there is no escape for her. Her life culminates in the realization that she was again deceived by Alec and that she has therefore, by her own doing (that is, returning to her) destroyed all chances of living ever again with Angel who returns at exactly this moment. This is then the only time Tess dishes out disaster, and that is the murder of Alec. She does so in full faith that this will be in Angel’s interest. In fact, all her actions are stirred by her all encompassing love for Angel.

Thus, Hardy constructs a net of unlucky coincidences which Tess cannot fight off. Everything is set in such a way that she cannot escape her misery. What Tess suffers from is not an accidental injustice but the deliberate action of Alec d’Urberville in connection with a narrow-minded society that condemns the wrong person. Even the man who is supposed to love Tess turns away from her in the light of the injustice that was done to her. Ironically, it is the positive feeling of love that finally crushes Tess when she is executed for the murder of Alec.

The tragedy lies in the inevitability of the story line, whilst the reader cannot stop contemplating how futile it is. “If only” is the most common question one must ask while reading the novel. On the other hand, there was a chance for things to become better. Angel Clare could have put a healing hand on Tess’s wounds of the past if he had not been filled with his dry morals that prevented him from forgiving his wife. There was a chance for definite improvement, but Angel chose not to take it.