Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

As I stated here quite awhile ago, Thomas Hardy's works changed my life. Before I read his novels in a senior English class, I thought I would major in mathematics or physics in college. When I applied at the University of Washington I was initially accepted as a Physics Major. After writing my senior research paper on Hardy, I knew I wanted to major in English. Though I suspect there was actually many factors in this decision, the kind of insight I gained from Hardy's novels and poetry drew me like a magnet.

Although Hardy’s primary theme in Tess of the D’Urbervilles focuses on the hypocrisy that allows men to have sex before marriage while condemning women for doing the same, he’s too good of a writer to believe that a tragedy like the one that befalls Tess can be attributed to a single cause.

The beginning of the novel focuses, instead, on the Durbeyfields. Though more competent than her “shiftless husband,” Mrs Durbeyfield seems incapable of dealing with everyday life:

This going to hunt up her shiftless husband at the inn was one of Mrs Durbeyfield's still extant enjoyments in the muck and muddle of rearing children. To discover him at Rolliver's, to sit there for an hour or two by his side and dismiss all thought and care of the children during the interval, made her happy. A sort of halo, an occidental glow, came over life then. Troubles and other realities took on themselves a metaphysical impalpability, sinking to mere mental phenomena for serene contemplation, and no longer stood as pressing concretions which chafed body and soul. The youngsters, not immediately within sight, seemed rather bright and desirable appurtenances than otherwise; the incidents of daily life were not without humorousness and jollity in their aspect there. She felt a little as she had used to feel when she sat by her now wedded husband in the same spot during his wooing, shutting her eyes to his defects of character, and regarding him only in his ideal presentation as lover.

Not surprisingly, this behavior foreshadows Tess’s tragic life:

All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship--entirely dependent on the judgement of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasures, their necessities, their health, even their existence. If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them--six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield. Some people would like to know whence the poet whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his song is breezy and pure, gets his authority for speaking of "Nature's holy plan."

I doubt passages like this made much of an impression on me when I read it in high school because my family was closer to poor than rich, but I was still naive enough to believe that I could become anything I wanted to become. However, after years working as a caseworker and a teacher, I’m all too aware of the disastrous effect of poor parenting on children.I think it’s far easier to overcome poverty than it is to overcome poor parenting.

It’s this grinding poverty, abetted by foolish aspirations, that puts Tess in the hands of Alec D’Urberville, as she is vaguely aware from the very beginning:

Then, examining the mesh of events in her own life, she seemed to see the vanity of her father's pride; the gentlemanly suitor awaiting herself in her mother's fancy; to see him as a grimacing personage, laughing at her poverty and her shrouded knightly ancestry. Everything grew more and more extravagant, and she no longer knew how time passed. A sudden jerk shook her in her seat, and Tess awoke from the sleep into which she, too, had fallen.

Even though Tess was more aware of the dangers of her position than her foolish parents, she felt obligated to go in order to replace the horse that had been killed when she fell asleep on the road:

Having at last taken her course Tess was less restless and abstracted, going about her business with some self-assurance in the thought of acquiring another horse for her father by an occupation which would not be onerous. She had hoped to be a teacher at the school, but the fates seemed to decide otherwise. Being mentally older than her mother she did not regard Mrs Durbeyfield's matrimonial hopes for her in a serious aspect for a moment. The light-minded woman had been discovering good matches for her daughter almost from the year of her birth.

Though it’s better known now that the children in dsyfunctional families, particularly alcoholic families, will assume roles that allow the family to survive, I’m sure I’d never heard of that concept when I read this novel. It’s clear, though, that Tess tries to play the “hero,” a role often filled by the oldest child who serves as a surrogate parent in an alcoholic family.

Though Mr. Durbeyfield is foolish enough to think he can somehow lay claim to his royal heritage through his daughter’s efforts, it’s Mrs Durbeyfield that seems most responsible for Tess’s seduction by Alec for she sends her off hoping that she will be able to attract a rich husband that will lift them all out of their poverty:

"And yet th'st not got him to marry 'ee!" reiterated her mother. "Any woman would have done it but you, after that!"

"Perhaps any woman would except me."

"It would have been something like a story to come back with, if you had!" continued Mrs Durbeyfield, ready to burst into tears of vexation. "After all the talk about you and him which has reached us here, who would have expected it to end like this! Why didn't ye think of doing some good for your family instead o' thinking only of yourself? See how I've got to teave and slave, and your poor weak father with his heart clogged like a dripping-pan. I did hope for something to come out o' this! To see what a pretty pair you and he made that day when you drove away together four months ago! See what he has given us--all, as we thought, because we were his kin. But if he's not, it must have been done because of his love for 'ee. And yet you've not got him to marry!"

Get Alec d'Urberville in the mind to marry her! He marry HER! On matrimony he had never once said a word. And what if he had? How a convulsive snatching at social salvation might have impelled her to answer him she could not say. But her poor foolish mother little knew her present feeling towards this man. Perhaps it was unusual in the circumstances, unlucky, unaccountable; but there it was; and this, as she had said, was what made her detest herself. She had never wholly cared for him; she did not at all care for him now. She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile: had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all. Hate him she did not quite; but he was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name's sake she scarcely wished to marry him.

"You ought to have been more careful if you didn't mean to get him to make you his wife!"

"O mother, my mother!" cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. "How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn't you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o' learning in that way, and you did not help me!"

Her mother was subdued.

"I thought if I spoke of his fond feelings and what they might lead to, you would be hontish wi' him and lose your chance," she murmured, wiping her eyes with her apron. "Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose. 'Tis nater, after all, and what do please God!"

In Hardy’s next novel, Jude the Obscure, we see the kind of girl that uses a “pregnancy” to trap a man in the character of Arabella. It would be impossible to transform such a woman into a sympathetic vicim, much less a heroine. Tess’s pregnancy reminds me that during the years I taught high school far too often it was the “good girl,” the one who swore she would never have sex before marriage, not the girls who seemed to jump from boyfriend to boyfriend, that ended up pregnant. Innocence has its appeal, but knowledge is essential to cope with a world that is too often anything but “innocent.”

Tess’s desire to help her family after they lose their home upon their father’s death, sets into motion the final tragedy for Alec knew how to take advantage of her desire to help her brothers and sister in order to regain her from Angel:

"Where are you going to next? To join your dear husband?"

She could not bear the humiliating reminder.

"O--I don't know!" she said bitterly. "I have no husband!"

"It is quite true--in the sense you mean. But you have a friend, and I have determined that you shall be comfortable in spite of yourself. When you get down to your house you will see what I have sent there for you."

"O, Alec, I wish you wouldn't give me anything at all! I cannot take it from you! I don't like--it is not right!"

"It IS right!" he cried lightly. "I am not going to see a woman whom I feel so tenderly for as I do for you in trouble without trying to help her."

"But I am very well off! I am only in trouble about--about--not about living at all!"

She turned, and desperately resumed her digging, tears dripping upon the fork-handle and upon the clods.

"About the children--your brothers and sisters," he resumed. "I've been thinking of them."

Tess's heart quivered--he was touching her in a weak place. He had divined her chief anxiety. Since returning home her soul had gone out to those children with an affection that was passionate.

This short passage foreshadows Tess’s return to Alec for the sake of her family. I know I’d forgotten the ending of the novel until I reread it. I’m still not entirely convinced that Tess would have ever gone back to Alec after her initial experience but her willingness to sacrifice herself for her family seems consistent with her character throughout the novel.

3 thoughts on “Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

  1. i can’t engage in literary analysis to the degree i wish i could – it’s a factor to do with time – but i love this book so much and i can see through your observations that you share that love. hardy would go with me on a desert island. to be sure!!! steven

  2. Although I haven’t yet re-read Hardy’s novels I know that, when I do, it will be life-changing a second time. When I read them the first time, I was closer to Tess’s age. Just reading the excerpts you chose brings back a melancholy feeling along with the recollection of Tess’s integrity and dignity.

    As in The Mayor of Casterbridge, alcoholism appears to be a major determining character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles — Tess being an adult child of alcoholics. I wouldn’t have noticed that the first time I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

    You inspired me to look for the essays I wrote in college, to see which Hardy novel I chose to write about. Turns out I wrote a paper called “Desire and Folly: Jude the Obscure.”

    My essay begins this way:

    “It is significant that Jude, the central figure in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Jude the Obscure, has a surname which when spoken aloud is indistinguishable from the word “folly” and which has connotations of involuntary descent.”

    Now I’m recalling that Tess and Jude could be seen as kindred spirits with integrity and dignity in unfortunate circumstances.

What do you think?