Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Memory and the Past Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
Pedigree, ancestral skeletons, monumental record, the D'Urberville lineaments, did not help Tess in her life's battle as yet, even to the extent of attracting to her a dancing-partner over the heads of the commonest peasantry. So much for Norman blood unaided by Victorian lucre. (2.37)
Tess might have noble blood, and an ancestry that she could trace back to the Norman Conquest (see the Historical Context note in our summary of Chapter One), but because she's poor, she's in the same boat as the rest of the peasant class in Marlott. This ironic remark by the narrator doesn't just reflect on Tess's disappointment that Angel asked another girl to dance at the club-walking festival. It pulls back and makes a general remark about the whole Victorian period – lots of noble families were strapped for cash, and the Victorian period is often considered the time when the middle class rose to prominence, as people worked hard and made their way up the social ladder. So by the time Tess's story is taking place, many people who were officially in the middle class (they had earned their money as merchant or entrepreneurs, or as doctors or lawyers) were actually more wealthy than those who were officially "noble" (i.e., those who had inherited their money and lands from their parents and grandparents). So, in this passage, Hardy is taking Tess's immediate disappointment and putting it in the context of this huge socio-economic trend of the rise of the middle class. It's really a drastic juxtaposition, if you think about it.
There still faintly beamed from the woman's features something of the freshness, and even the prettiness, of her youth; rendering it evident that the personal charms which Tess could boast were in main part her mother's gift, and therefore unknightly, unhistorical. (3.13)
Tess's mother is still attractive even after having given birth to nine children – impressive. So her mother isn't only pretty, she's fertile (maybe too fertile, in Tess's opinion – her parents have a hard enough time supporting themselves, let alone a large family that's getting bigger all the time). And the "personal charms" that Tess has inherited from her mother include the prettiness and the fertile womanliness.
The narrator's claim that that inheritance is "unhistorical" and "unknightly" just means that it has nothing to do with the family vault at Kingsbere or the aristocratic D'Urberville lineage. It might be "unhistorical" in that it's not something that an "antiquary" like Parson Tringham can trace in the library, but it is something that connects Tess to a matriarchal, or female, lineage that goes way, way back. Remember the women's club-walking from the previous chapter? That female custom had its origins way back before Sir Pagan D'Urberville ever arrived in England. This quotation, like the description of the female club-walking, connects Tess to an ancient female inheritance, as opposed to her old and historical, though not quite so primitive, father's lineage.
One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess D'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same wrong even more ruthlessly upon peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by the average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter. (11.63)
Tess's rape, the narrator suggests, could be an echo of the similar "wrong[s]" committed by Tess's D'Urberville ancestors. After all, a rich and powerful man taking advantage of a poor and relatively defenseless woman is not a new story. The narrator even suggests that the "sins" of Tess's ancestors are being revisited on her. The narrator rejects this idea (for more on this idea, check out the analysis for the "Fate and Free Will" theme), but it still brings up the idea of sin.
Who is sinning here? Against whom? Is Tess to blame for any of this? Hardy doesn't think so – look at the subtitle of the novel: "A Pure Woman." But contemporary critics thought so, and so do other characters in the novel. So this is an important passage to consider – maybe Tess is paying for the "sins" of others, but we don't have to look so far back to find the cause. It's not some kind of divine retribution for the sins of the ancient D'Urberville family that got Tess into this pickle, but her father's laziness. If he were a more responsible parent, Tess wouldn't have had to take that late night journey that ended with the death of their horse. And a responsible parent wouldn't have sent a sixteen-year-old girl so far from home without knowing anything about the people who would be taking care of her. So maybe this passage is asking us to look more closely at cause and effect – to reject romantic ideas about sin and retribution, and to consider the effects of our actions more carefully.