Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
… Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed
Shall lodge thee.
– W. Shakespeare
The epigraph is taken from a play by William Shakespeare called Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.ii.115-116), and in the play, the line continues, "till thy wound be thoroughly healed." And the epigraph has puzzled readers since it was first inserted in the 1891 version of the novel.
In the context of Tess, who is the speaker of these lines? In other words, whose is the "wounded name"? And whose "bosom" is going to nurture and heal the "wounded name"? It's unclear... but let's look at some of the possibilities.
Since the epigraph comes immediately after the title on the title page, it seems fair to read the epigraph as referring to "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" as the "wounded name." After all, we learn in the first chapter that the D'Urbervilles were once a great noble family, but have fallen on hard times and are now eking out a living as common cottagers, and have corrupted the family name from "D'Urberville" to "Durbeyfield."
But on the other hand, maybe it's not the corruption of "D'Urberville" into "Durbeyfield" that "wounds" the name. Maybe it was Tess's father's insistence that they change their family name back to the more noble-sounding "D'Urberville" that inflicts the wound. After all, what's in a name? Whether they call themselves "D'Urberville" or "Durbeyfield," they still have the same problems.
What's In A Wound?
And it's the fact that they start calling themselves "D'Urberville" that first motivates the tragedy—Tess's rape is a result of her father's insistence that she go away to live with their distant "cousin," Alec D'Urberville. And of course, the loss of her virginity can certainly be read as a "wound" to her good "name."
But if the "wound" mentioned in the epigraph refers to Tess's loss of virginity, what do we make of the continuation of the line? It's not quoted in the epigraph, but a reader familiar with the play that it quotes might remember that the line says that the "wound" will "be thoroughly healed."
For Victorian readers, the "wound" to one's name caused by premarital sex (even through a rape) is not one that can ever be "healed." So maybe that's why Hardy leaves off the end of the line. But even though he doesn't quote the line in full, the continuation of the line ("till thy wound be thoroughly healed") still kind of floats around the reader's mind, just off the page—so the suggestion that the "wound" could, perhaps, be "healed" is still there, even though it's not directly quoted.
Why would Hardy care so much about whether Tess's name is "healed" or not? When the novel was first published, the heroine, Tess, was widely criticized as being "impure." Hardy felt like these critics missed the point of the novel—he was very defensive of Tess's inherent purity, in spite of her rape, and when he added the epigraph for the 1891 edition, he also added the subtitle, "A Pure Woman" to the novel (check out the "What's Up with the Title?" section for more on that).
So perhaps the implied speaker of the epigraph is Hardy himself—perhaps he's suggesting that Tess's name was "wounded" by the critics who didn't believe in her purity, rather than by the actual rape by Alec, but that her "wounded name" can be "lodged" and nurtured in his "bosom," and that his own cherishing of her "wounded name"—in spite of what critics said about it—might possibly "heal" it.