In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, this theme is obviously connected with the more general theme of "Time," but while that theme has to do with the passage of time, this one has to do mostly with characters' relationship to the past. Many characters, like Jack Durbeyfield, want to live in the past, and others, like Tess, are continually re-living their own history while trying to run away from it. Is the past something you want to escape, or something you want to hold on to?
Despite Tess's best efforts to escape her own history, events of the past – even the distant past – continually come back to haunt her.
Jack Durbeyfield's failure to understand the relationship of past and present – his reliance on his family's past glory to make up for their present shortcomings – sets Tess's tragedy in motion, and this misunderstanding about the past haunts Tess for the rest of her life.