English Literature » Notes » Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Themes
Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Themes

Alternate question: Discuss various themes in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Table of contents

Injustice and Fate

The theme of fate is one of the major ones in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess is a generally good person and doesn’t deserve even a tenth part of the misfortunes that happen to her. It is more of a fate than her own responsibility: Tess is sent to Trantridge against her will, she doesn’t want to be with D’Urbervilles. Her rape is, definitely, not her fault. It seems that the poor woman becomes a chewing toy of the ill fate. She didn’t do anything bad do anyone but she keeps suffering for nothing. This raises the eternal question: why do good people live bad lives and why the world is so full of injustice?

We see Tess asking this question over and over again: she asks herself, the other people and the Universe about this – but the woman gets no answers. We, as readers, don’t get the answer too, despite we feel that the destiny isn’t fair to the main heroine. Some of the critics even blame the author for unnecessary punishment of his innocent character and being a sadistic sexual pervert.

We don’t see the universal justice in the world of the novel: it seems there is no such concept at all. Justice and injustice are heavily dependent on personal worldview, so Tess can be seen as guilty person who just gets what she deserves by the standards of some characters, but is completely innocent victim of her fate by the standards of the rest. Hardy doesn’t depict the end of Tess’ fate: her trial and punishment, but he also doesn’t show us the very system of justice that leads to her current state. Some critics see this as cruel irony, where author creates the sense of the meaningless of the punishment and disconnection of it from Tess’ previous actions.

Together with Angel we realize that justice can’t be a dead and carved in stone norm that fits everyone. It still shall contain some degree of humanity to see and correct the ill fate that sometimes plays much bigger part in person’s actions than their own choices and decisions.

Women and Femininity

Tom Hardy meditates a lot on a concept of femininity. Tess is a woman and it is her status as a woman that causes a lot of events that happen to her. Hardy observes the different roles that are acceptable for women in the society, but Tess usually plays the role of the passive victim of her fate. It is even more exaggerated if we see that she is asleep before every major trouble that happens to her: she falls asleep and kills Prince accidentally in her sleep, she is also sleeping before her rape, not trying to defend herself, and, ultimately, before her arrest Tess also falls asleep instead of making any resistance.

Mostly the female characters are “pure women”, they are more the symbols of fertility, innocence and nature than the real people. They are not destined to act and make decisions, they need just to exist. The concept of femininity is connected with fertility so much: we see its aspects in the descriptions of the lush soil of Talbothays and the grim and bleak Flintomb-Ash. Of course, the fertility ritual of the May Day is the ultimate depiction of the female role as the spirit of fertility, renewal and the cycle of life.

But if the “pure women” exist and the men act, the power of men over women becomes justified. Men represent humanity that conquers the force of nature – femininity, tames it and makes use of it. We see Alec, who horribly oppresses Tess, but Angel, who may seem better in comparison, also uses his power over the employees at the dairy. Retty and Marian make an attempt to kill him and then passively succumb to alcoholism because of him and him only.

In the end of the novel we finally see Tess rejecting her role as a pure woman and a passive symbol and standing for herself as a person. But the very nature of the society is against it, making Tess to resort to the extreme measures and murder Alex – even despite it means her own death after the trial. In this bitter scene we see the skepticism that Tom Hardy expresses towards the common position of the women in the Victorian society and their oppression by men. Tess is unable to overthrow the social opinion and the traditions: the only thing she can do is to violate her own morals in the last desperate attempt to find justice. Still, her personal case doesn’t change anything: there is no place for women like her in that time and place.

Tess is different from the other women though. She isn’t the average woman from the very beginning: the role of the symbol doesn’t fit her. She is an individual with her own flaws and virtues and wants to stay that way. When her relationship with Angel starts, we see that his idealized image of Tess as a pure woman clashes with the reality and her true personality. He loves Tess as Goddess of fertility and innocence simultaneously, but, of course, this controversial image can’t fit any living person. Seeing the real woman behind the shiny image, with her troubles and harsh edges, repels Angel immediately, leaving Tess heartbroken.

Still, for the author Tess is a symbol, but not the symbol of the virtues that the characters try to force her to embody: Tess symbolizes the strength of personality, the identity and the sentient soul. This makes her so sympathetic and her fate so bitter.

Social Criticism

It is quite blatantly presented in this novel, like in many of other books by Thomas Hardy. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is full of criticism of the English Victorian life, social expectations and the overall worldview. The sexism of Victorian age is the main target of his bitter sarcasm here: all the misfortunes of Tess are exaggerated, but the most horrible thing that every single one of them could happen (and happened!) with any woman of that age. Tess isn’t a bad person, but he is treated horribly unfairly: she is condemned as “unclean”, a woman who lost her purity, but Angel, who went through a similar affair, isn’t considered dirty: it is fine for the men to be promiscuous. Angel rejects her not only because of the difference between the image he created for himself and the real woman, but also because he is afraid to be ostracized by the society and his family for his relationship with such an improper woman with the dark past.

Hardy shows how much the society oppresses the individuals in favor of the general and idealized views of “proper” men and women. Even the very subtitle of the novel: “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” confirms that the author takes Tess’ side against the society expectations. Graphically depicting the treatment she receives from the society and the system of justice, Hardy emphasizes the unfairness of it and his own personal disapproval. It becomes almost comical when the author shows the obsession with ancestry, magnificent facade and loud surnames of D’Urbervilles, contrasting so much with their rotten morals.

Nature and Modernity

The very setting of the novel is the time of the transition from the traditional agricultural society to the modern industrial one. We see the countryside as a somewhat idyllic place, where the ancient Pagan rituals and worldviews are preserved almost intact. The contrast between rural and urban areas repeats the contrast between the women from the countryside who represent the nature and its forces and the rich men from the upper class of the society who represent the modern humanity that conquers nature. The detachment from the ancient, natural way of life is portrayed by the author as the main reason of the moral shallowness of the modern people, showing it as loss of innocence.

Tess in the novel is presented as Eve, the pure primal woman from Garden of Eden and the symbol of ancient, Pagan femininity. She is conquered and raped by men as was the Nature itself, but, as a Pagan Goddess, she rebels against her oppressor and kills him with her wrath. The symbolism of it is again emphasized by the farming machinery that is described as horrifying monsters who violate the peaceful soil of Froom Valley. Of course, both Alec D’Urberville and Angel, despite being rich, well-educated and eloquent, are shown as cruel and heartless in comparison to the women they hurt.

Even Prince the horse is killed by a modern cart. The milkmaids have to add water to milk, because people from the town are too pampered to drink natural milk without getting sick. The overall feeling of the novel is bittersweet and nostalgic, people stepping away from the path of nature are shown as going to their doom.

Justice and Judgment

The question of judgment and justice is the one that will be inevitably raised by the readers throughout the story. It seems that the very story and life of Tess are determined with her sufferings and misfortunes that happen to her. Surely, the author exaggerates a lot, compressing all the possible wrongness to the short period of life of a single woman, but still, he clearly stands on her side, advocating her against the world, no matter how powerful and unjust it is.

Moreover, there is no visible divine justice too. Tess’ fate is described just as an amusement, a kind of sport that is enjoyed by the “President of the Immortals”. The Christian God is an omniscient and benevolent being who cares about every single creature on Earth. The vision of the god who sees the mortals just as toys is closer to the primal religions of the Pagans. The multiple unfortunate coincidences are emphasized by Thomas Hardy and are clearly portrayed as something more than just accidents. They are presented as bad things that are deliberately happening to a good person just to see how much she can endure. But something as mysterious and primal makes Tess rebel against this malevolent force of unjust fate: the author states that there is something in her blood that hammers Tess’ fate. She is suffering for the crimes of her ancestors (that corresponds to the Pagan beliefs), but it is also the fiery blood of her ancestors that allows her to stand for herself and kill Alec D’Urberville.

Alec falls victim to ancient divine justice – or the justice of the cornered woman who couldn’t stand her sufferings anymore. But the justice of the society condemns Tess, instead of her oppressor. Angel agrees with it and just vocalizes the social opinion of Tess being a seductress, not the victim of rape. The victim blaming becomes the main motif of the novel, showing to the readers the overall injustice of the Victorian society.

The culmination of it happens when Tess is blamed for everything – both for being raped and for killing Alec. This is the ultimate injustice of both the divine powers and the society. We see that the entire world (represented by the author) is determined to smash poor Tess, thoroughly working its way to its goal.

Marriage Theme

The idea of marriage is very controversial in the novel. We see that the author presents the concept of marriage as a social invention, not an idea that people are born with and follow instinctively. Hardy asks the readers about the difference between social marriage and natural marriage. We see the author condemning and disapproving Angel, rejecting Tess right after their marriage and learning about her previous life. But Angel is only a representative of the society that prefers to follow the rigid norms of the social marriage.

The responsibilities and commitments in natural and social marriage seem different and we can see it while comparing the relationships of Tess with Alec and Anger. We aren’t sure still who is the real husband of Tess, and, in the end of the novel, we can say that no one was worthy of being called the husband of such a woman.

We see that Alec claims Tess his “natural wife” meaning only that he can do with her whatever he pleases and after she was raped he considers her his property. Obviously, this isn’t the kind of “natural marriage” Tess is ready to accept. Enslaving another person via rape can’t be considered marriage. On the other hand, Tess’ connection with Angel has much more emotional bonds. Still, Angel appears too weak to accept Tess as she is, without the charm of the Pagan symbolism surrounding her.

Sex Theme

Publishing the novel was a difficult task for Thomas Hardy because of overwhelming (for his time) number of sex episodes in it. Even despite sexual scenes aren’t depicted in detail, we all know what is happening throughout the novel. The explicit details of rape are omitted, of course, but the psychical devastation of Tess and her pregnancy leave us not much space for imagination.

Tess herself, as a Pagan symbol of fertility, is simultaneously innocent and also very sexually attractive. She is portrayed as involuntarily seductress so much, that some of the readers (and many characters) blame her for everything that happens to her just because it is sinful to be so beautiful and alluring. Even the critics demanded to change the image of Tess to make her a more “proper” woman. Despite her appearance, at the beginning of the novel Tess is completely innocent, not knowing anything about sex at all. She isn’t educated in this part of human relations before she is sent to Trantridge. This innocence causes a lot of her misfortunes and her inability to foresee Alec’s advances. Sex itself is portrayed as natural thing and it is also the obvious symbol of fertility that is praised by the rural society, but the modern people are too hypocritical to accept sex as a part of their life. Moreover, the men like Alec distort the very concept of sex as something that gives new life and brings joy. They violate it like they violate the nature itself.

Fate and Free Will

In the Victorian society depicted in Tess of the D’Urbervilles the history and the status of a person given at birth determines much more of their fate than their own actions. Tess doesn’t have much control over her life. Still, even in such harsh conditions she manages to avert lots of concepts that are put upon her by the social expectations. She is a member of aristocracy that immediately makes Angel bigoted towards her, but Tess doesn’t share the dubious morals that all the aristocrats are expected to have.

Her rape is also almost determined by her family and there is not much Tess can do to avoid it. She is a D’Urberville, she is sent to be near the sexual predator without any protection and without any image of healthy relationships and sexual life in her head. It is still unknown until the very end: is Tess so passive because she yields to her fate or she chooses not to resist. Lots of characters, like Joan Durbeyfield, prefer to blame ill fate for everything, excusing themselves, but Tess is strong enough to blame herself and herself only and taking all the responsibility… maybe even too much of responsibility.

4.5 (102 ratings)