Tess of the D'Urbervilles Theme of Time
The passage of time always seems out of whack in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Because of the sudden changes described in the "Contrasting Regions" theme, different parts of the country, and even different characters, seem to be from different historical eras.
Tess's parents live in the past, but Tess, who has had a better education, is very much a modern girl. Parts of their day-to-day lives are untouched by modern inventions, but then an ultra-sleek train zooms past and reminds them and the reader that the times are changing.
Questions About Time
- In one of the earliest descriptions of Tess, we're told that "Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then" (2.21). Why is it important that time doesn't pass evenly or uniformly for Tess?
- What other characters seem to be out of sync with the passage of time in this novel?
- Tess marks the passage of dates of important events in her life: her birthday, her rape, the birth of her baby, the death of her baby, etc. What other cycles are important in this novel?
- Angel is surprised to find Tess "expressing in her own native phrases […] feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism" (19.32). What is the "ache of modernism"?
Chew on This
Because so many characters and places in Tess of the D'Urbervilles seem to be out of sync with the passage of time, it is easy to read Tess herself as a pseudo-mythic timeless figure.
Although so many characters and places in Tess of the D'Urbervilles seem to be out of sync with the passage of time, readers should not fall into the trap of reading Tess, who is a unique and complex character, as a mythic "every woman."