Yeah, we know. Those are not two adjectives that normally describe the same tone. But Thomas Hardy doesn't play by your dang rules. He's a rebel.
So, when the narrator is describing the landscape, he adopts the tone of a passing observer—someone who is interested in what's going on, but not someone who's really invested in any of it:
The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still. (2.6)
During climactic or very emotional moments, though, he adopts a more sympathetic tone. For the most part, that sympathy is more of a general sympathy—the kind of pity anyone would feel for someone suffering as Tess does. That universal sympathy makes the reader identify even more with Tess.
Tragedies typically tell the story of a great or important protagonist whose ambition causes their fall from happiness. Well, that ain't quite the way it works in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Tess isn't the one who's ambitious—it's her parents. And she isn't a "great" person at the start of the novel—she's just a country girl with a middling education and a some serious good looks.
But her family used to be great: we learn in the first chapter that they are descended from the D'Urbervilles, an ancient aristocratic family, but have since fallen on hard times and are barely scraping by. You could argue that the traditional tragedy (the fall of a great family) took place before the novel even begins. But the tragedy of Tess starts with the ambition of her parents: they send her off to borrow money from a distant branch of the family, secretly hoping that the son of the family would fall in love with Tess and marry her. We all know how that works out.
Because Tess isn't a traditional tragedy, in that it takes place in a rural setting and doesn't follow the fall of a great and noble character, we also want to point out that it's a "pastoral" story. "Pastoral" just means that it portrays the country (as opposed to the city) in an idealized or romantic way. Most of the bad stuff that happens to Tess is a result of modernization and civilization, and not from anything that would have originated in the country. The country would be a safe haven for her, if it weren't for the influence of city folks and values even out in the country (go check out the "Themes" section on "Contrasting Regions" for more on this).
"Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is the name of the heroine... kind of/sort of. There's a lot of discussion about what Tess should be called, and the change in her last name from the common-sounding "Durbeyfield" to its nobler original, "D'Urberville," is what sets the tragedy in motion.
Tess is a common, country girl. So to call her "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," as though she were a great aristocratic lady, is ironic and tongue-in-cheek. (For more about the name "D'Urberville," see the "Tools of Characterization" section.)
The subtitle of the novel could use some more attention, too. "A Pure Woman" wasn't part of the title in the novel's original manuscript, or in its initial publication in the Graphic magazine. But before the Graphic magazine agreed to publish it, Hardy was hurt by criticisms from various publishers who refused to print it in their magazines on the grounds that it was immoral.
One publisher, for example, criticized it for its "frequent and detailed reference to immoral situations" (i.e., Tess's rape by Alec, Tess's sexual attractiveness). Another publisher put it more mildly: "the general impression left on me by reading your story […] is one of rather too much succulence" (You can read more of the publishers' objections in the "History of the Text" section of the 1998 Penguin edition).
As Hardy was revising the novel for its publication as a single volume in 1891, he felt the need to defend his heroine and her inherent purity—so his addition of the subtitle, "A Pure Woman" can be read with a tone of defiance. He's insisting that Tess is "pure" despite the fact that she has a child out of wedlock. She's still the moral center of the novel. Hardy refers to this as "paradoxical morality."
Tess of the D'Urbervilles is 100% tear-and-groan-inducing tragedy (see "Booker's Seven Basic Plot Analysis" if you don't believe us). But it's not a traditional tragedy: Tess's fate is caused not by her own ambition, but by the ambition and actions of others.
So when does Tess pass the point of no return? When does it become impossible (from a narrative point of view) for the novel to have any resolution but a tragic one?
Is it when she murders Alec D'Urberville? But that pretty much became inevitable when she got back together with him. So is it when she agrees to become his mistress again (a moment that, notably, is never actually depicted)? But that seemed unavoidable as soon as Alec found her again and started harassing her. So was it, perhaps, when Angel left her to fend for herself after she confessed everything to him on their wedding night? But knowing what we know of Angel's character, he couldn't have reacted any other way.
So really, it was Tess's rape by Alec that made the tragic finale inevitable, and that, we know, was the predictable outcome of sending Tess to live with him in the first place.
What we're trying to say is that it seems that the whole novel, from the very beginning, is propelling Tess towards her tragic execution at the end. It's like an avalanche of tragedy that all lands on Tess, even though she's not the one who started the slide.
But the final scene doesn't even show Tess. It's like the rape scene, in that Hardy pulls back and describes the surrounding scene, but doesn't give us any details of what's going on with Tess herself. We can only infer what happened based on Hardy's ambiguous, elliptical language, and other signs.
In the final scene, 'Liza-Lu and Angel wait outside of a prison (although Hardy doesn't come right out and call it a prison: he describes the structure as "a large red-brick building with […] rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity" [59.6]). They don't witness the execution, and neither do we: they wait and watch the building until a black flag is raised on a pole outside the prison tower, at which point the narrator pulls back, and says, ""Justice" was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess" (59.7).
The first words, ""Justice" was done," are relatively easy to figure out—"justice" has been served. Tess has been executed for murder, and the black flag at the prison indicates to anyone looking up at it that an execution has just taken place. Hardy puts "justice" in quotation marks because, of course, neither he nor the reader believes Tess's fate to be "just" in any real sense.
But the second half of the sentence, about "the President of the Immortals" could probably use a closer look. Hardy claimed that "The President of the Immortals" was his own translation of a phrase from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus's tragedy, Prometheus.
In Aeschylus, all suffering in the world is a result of the deliberate will and malice of "The President of the Immortals," or the supreme deity. When Tess of the D'Urbervilles first appeared, some critics accused Hardy of personally holding the same beliefs, but he always denied it. Yet to close the novel with that phrase suggests that, in the world of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, at least, it might be true.
The final hitch in the ending of this novel is Angel's potential marriage to 'Liza-Lu. When they're at Stonehenge, just before Tess is arrested, she asks Angel to marry her younger sister after she dies. Tess seems to know that she's going to be arrested and executed, and she appears to be comforted by the thought that Angel might marry 'Liza-Lu after she's gone.
But this always seems like a shocking proposal: 'Liza-Lu was never a major character, and Tess's proposal seems like it's coming out of left field. Let's look at Tess's reasons for proposing it: she says that 'Liza-Lu has "all the best of me without the bad of me" (58.43).
In the final chapter, the narrator describes 'Liza-Lu as "a spiritualized image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes" (59.3). So 'Liza-Lu represents a purer, more spiritual form of Tess— perhaps, she's supposed to suggest what Tess could have been, if she had never met Alec. If that's the case, then the potential marriage of Angel and 'Liza-Lu would be at least partial atonement for the tragic way that Angel and Tess were driven apart by Tess's past.
Does this mean that the novel actually ends on an optimistic note? No, probably not—Tess is still executed, and Hardy still suggests that her suffering was due to the malicious will of an angry god: not a very optimistic way to end a story by any stretch of the imagination.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles takes place in the late 19th century (a.k.a., the Victorian period, or during the reign of Queen Victorian, 1837-1901), in an area of England to the southwest of London. Almost all of Hardy's novels take place in this same general area—ol' Thomas knew what he liked, and stuck with it.
The towns he mentions in Tess might appear in other novels, but they're all fictionalized versions of that real region of England. Hardy called his fictionalized version of this area "Wessex," so his novels that take place there are sometimes referred to as the "Wessex novels."
Tess's childhood home of Marlott (also in the county of Wessex) is in the "Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor" (2.1)—Hardy repeatedly refers to it by both versions of its name. Why might that be? It's a fictional valley, anyway—why does he make up two versions of its name, and continually remind us that there are two accepted pronunciations?
Well, "Blakemore" is the older version of "Blackmoor" ("Blake" is Middle English for "Black," and "More" is the old spelling of "Moor"). It could be like the "D'Urberville"/ "Durbeyfield" connection. Maybe Hardy wants to remind us how much history there is in this place—it was a beautiful valley long before the Victorian period or Tess's time. So giving us the two names for the valley could just be a subtle way of reminding us that the valley, like individual families, has its own history and its own origins.
… 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.
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.
Yup: even though this is a Victorian novel with all the long skirts, horses and ridiculous gender norms to prove it, Hardy keeps it simple.
Some of the vocabulary may be difficult, but that's only because it was written a hundred years ago. The style of prose is actually quite simple: the sentences are short, and the author gets right to the point. After all, he is describing simple, country people, so it makes sense that he should use a simple style. Take, for example, the opening sentences of Chapter Twenty-One, which describe the process of making butter:
There was a great stir in the milk-house just after breakfast. The churn revolved as usual, but the butter would not come. Whenever this happened the dairy was paralyzed. Squish, squash, echoed the milk in the great cylinder, but never arose the sound they waited for. (21.1)
The sentences are short, and the author uses simple, everyday words. (Like "squish.")But of course it isn't that easy: Hardy's style may be "simple," but it's not "simplistic.
The narrator wants to show that the "simple country people" are not really as simple as city folks want to believe. The four dairymaids, for example, seem like simple, country girls, but they're all different, and they're all secretly in love with Angel. Hardy's prose style reflects that complexity when he describes them:
Their gauzy skirts had brushed up from the grass innumerable flies and butterflies which, unable to escape, remained caged in the transparent tissue as in an aviary. Angel's eye at last fell upon Tess, the hindmost of the four; she, being full of suppressed laughter at their dilemma, could not help meeting his glance radiantly." (23.14)
The sentences in this passage are longer and more complex, and the word choice more sophisticated.
These two colors come up all over the place in Tess, frequently together. OK, having made that observation, let's look at a few examples, and think about why Hardy might have considered those colors to be so darned important. Red is often associated with sin and/or sexuality in Western art and literature (just think about "the woman in the red dress" in the Matrix), while white is usually associated with purity and chastity.
Hardy mixes these two colors so frequently that it's hard to ignore – in the very first scene in which we see her, Tess is wearing a white dress with a red ribbon in her hair – "the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment" (2.14). So Tess is wearing white (the color of purity), but is also the only woman in the group wearing a red ornament to off-set the white. This could be Hardy's way of waving a red flag (pun intended) at the reader, to show us that Tess 1) isn't like the other girls, and 2) is somehow going to trouble the traditional distinctions between purity and sexuality.
Let's look at one more example, from the very end of the novel: Mrs. Brooks, the landlady at the hotel where Alec and Tess have been staying, discovers that Alec has been murdered when she notices that "The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst, had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts" (56.18). This example is a little more ambiguous. The white (representing purity or innocence?) is being stained with red (representing guilt or sin?). But the shape of the bloodstain is telling, too – it forms the shape of a heart. Tess has told Alec that he had broken her heart, and she stabbed him in the heart. Whose is the guilt represented by the bloodstain? It's not really clear. But the frequent mixing of red and white throughout the novel suggest that these are exactly the questions Hardy wants us to be asking.
There's an awful lot of loving attention to detail in the descriptions of the cows at Talbothays Dairy, don't you think? Not only are individual cows frequently referred to by name, we get these vivid descriptions of the shape, size, and color of their udders. Just look at this example: "The red and white herd nearest at hand […] now trooped towards the steading in the background, their great bags of milk swinging under them as they walked" (16.25).
OK, the udders are "great bags of milk" that "swing" heavily. Fine. If it were just this one description, we'd try to ignore it. But here's another, from the very next paragraph: "their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy's crock; and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed forth and fell in drops to the ground" (16.26).
Udders and breasts usually represent fullness of life and fertility – just look at images of earth goddesses from almost any culture. (Here's an image of the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Notice how prominent her breasts are?)
So the graphic descriptions of the cow udders in Tess probably have something to do with Hardy's interest in nature, or maybe even in the ancient worship of fertility goddesses that he references elsewhere (see "Club-Walking" below).
The club-walking scene at the beginning of Chapter Two has to be important, because it's the first time we see Tess. And what's she doing? She's participating in the modern form of what is actually an ancient tradition that had to do with worshipping the earth and the fertility goddesses. Tess and the other women of Marlott don't know about the origins of their club-walking, but they perform the traditional ceremony every year just the same.
The narrator says that of all the villages in that part of England, "the club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still" (2.6). The "Cerealia" is a ceremony worshipping the Roman goddess "Ceres," the goddess of the earth and all growing things (including wheat and other "cereal" grains). It was traditionally a female ceremony – no boys allowed – because women were associated with fertility (what with child-bearing and all), and men weren't. So this early scene ties Tess to an ancient female lineage that is even older than the D'Urberville family on her father's side. It also associates her with fertility rituals and Nature with a capital "N."
Speaking of Nature with a capital "N," we have to talk about the importance of The Chase. After all, one of the most important scenes of Tess's life takes place there. The Chase is all that remains of the ancient, primeval forest that used to stretch all across Wessex, the fictional county where all of Tess of the D'Urbervilles takes place. Why is it important that The Chase be so ancient? Well, one reason might be that the ancient-ness of The Chase provides a stark contrast to the surprisingly modern house that Alec D'Urbervilles lives in. The Slopes is brand-spanking new: "everything looked like money – like the last coin issued from the Mint" (5.22). The idea of old and new, past and present, nature and civilization somehow overlapping or coexisting is one that Hardy brings up again and again.
The narrator of Tess of the D'Urbervilles gives us what critics call a "sympathetic inside view" of only two or three characters: Tess (of course), Angel, and, sometimes, Alec. We're frequently allowed to see what Tess and Angel are thinking and feeling—sometimes the narrator even explains why they're feeling what they are, when they themselves don't know.
Alec is a tougher case. The narrator doesn't usually give us an inside view, because Alec isn't a sympathetic character and it's a lot harder to view someone as just a bad guy when you know exactly where he's coming from. But although Alec is the bad guy, he's also human—Hardy doesn't want anything about the novel to be black and white. So the fact that he's willing to hint at Alec's thoughts and feelings makes it that much harder to judge Alec as harshly as we might want to.
Typically, the protagonist in a tragedy is ambitious, and tries to get ahead in some way that leads to tragic results. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, it's her parents' foolish ambition that paves the way for the tragedy. Tess, as we all know, is raped by her "cousin," Alec D'Urberville. After the baby dies, Tess leaves home for a fresh start at the Talbothays Dairy.
Everything seems to be going fine for Tess at Talbothays—everyone's happy, no one knows her past, and she and Angel Clare are falling in love. She doesn't want to get married because of what happened to her with Alec.
But she's so in love that she decides that the past doesn't matter, and finally agrees to marry Angel. Again, though, things aren't really in Tess's control—it was Angel who persuaded her to get married.
Marrying Angel without telling him about her past ahead of time was a big mistake, and it locks her into the tragic trajectory. Angel leaves her by herself, and her pride makes it impossible for her to ask his parents for money when she runs out. She has to work for herself and her family.
Alec just won't stop harassing Tess. He taunts her for being abandoned by her husband, and continually insists that he'll never come back to her. Then, after her father dies, he steps in and offers to help Tess's mother and younger siblings—but only if she'll marry him. Things are completely out of Tess's control at this point.
Once Angel gets back from Brazil and begs Tess for forgiveness, she realizes that Alec has completely ruined her life. His actions have separated her from Angel twice now, and his rape hurt not only her, but also Angel. Tess gets arrested and executed for murder.
Jack Durbeyfield learns from the local parson that he's actually descended from the ancient, noble family of the D'Urbervilles. But what good is an ancient family when you're barely scraping by?
Jack Durbeyfield doesn't pause to reflect on that, but instead gets all puffed up with pride at the thought of his ancestors being knights and wealthy noblemen. He starts living in the past, instead of dealing with the present and planning rationally for the future.
Jack Durbeyfield is only willing to plan for the future insofar as it allows him to glorify his family's past. So he sends Tess, his oldest and most educated child, to borrow money from their distant relations.
It turns out that the family called "D'Urberville" in the next town over just added that name to their own because it sounded noble and they thought that all the real D'Urbervilles had died out—they're not related to the Durbeyfields at all. Alec D'Urberville, the son of that family, is totally smitten with Tess. He tries to seduce her and fails. So he takes advantage of her dependence on him to get her by herself in the forest, and rapes her.
Tess is no longer a virgin, which means she's not exactly marriageable anymore, according to 19th Century English principles. She leaves home for a fresh start and, despite her resolution never to marry, she falls in love with Angel Clare, a gentleman's son who's learning about dairy farming. How will she resolve her decision never to marry with her desire to be with Angel?
Of course love triumphs over everything else, and Angel finally persuades Tess to marry him. He doesn't know anything about her history, and she keeps trying to tell him, but isn't able to. She even writes it all down in a letter to him, but he never receives it. So on their wedding night, she confesses everything.
Angel can't believe that Tess isn't the pure and unsullied country girl that he thought she was. His whole worldview collapses when she confesses that she's had sex (even though it was a rape). So he leaves her with money and instructions on how to get more from his family if she needs it.
But Tess is too proud to ask for help, and ends up working as a farm laborer to make ends meet while Angel's gone. While Tess is living on her own, Alec sees her again for the first time since the rape. He becomes obsessed with her again, and stalks her and harasses her until she finally tells him that she's married to someone else.
After much harassment and taunting, Alec persuades Tess that Angel will never come back again. Her father dies, and her mother and younger sisters are going to be left out in the cold. Alec offers to give them a house and schooling… if Tess agrees to marry him.
Of course, Angel does come back. He realized just how wrong he was, and comes back to find Tess and beg forgiveness. But it's too late! She's already married Alec, and when she sees that Angel has come back for her, and still loves her, she murders Alec. She and Angel flee together to avoid the authorities, and she's finally arrested, tried, and executed
Tess is raped by Alec, and she moves away from home to escape her past and start a new life.
Tess falls in love with Angel, and though she tries to tell him about her past, she's unable. After they get married, but Angel deserts Tess when she finally reveals that she was raped as a young girl.
Abandoned by her husband, Tess struggles to survive on her own. Eventually, she agrees to marry Alec to save her family from starvation. When Angel unexpectedly returns to her, Tess murders Alec. Though she tries to flee with Angel, she is arrested and then hanged for murder.
William Shakespeare. Alec whistles "Take, O take, those lips away" from Measure for Measure. (9.29)
Walt Whitman. "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, / How curious you are to me! – " (25.6)
Byron and Shelley. "Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot – less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal" (31.8)
F.J. Child (ed.) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols. (1882-98), vol. 1, no. 29. "Guénever". The ballad tells the story of "The Boy and the Mantle," which is about a magic mantle that only the pure could wear. Guinevere, King Arthur's queen, was cheating with Lancelot, and the mantle changed color and betrayed her. (32.54)
Algernon Swinburne. Atalanta upon Calydon. ll.1852-5 (35.46)
William Shakespeare. King Lear III.ii.60: "More sinned against than sinning." (35.52)
Robert Browning. "By the Fireside" (1855), l. 192. (35.78)
John Milton, Paradise Lost. Alec quotes Milton, suggesting that she's like Eve, and he's like Satan, come to tempt her in the guise of a "lesser animal," since he's dressed as a commoner. (50.20)
"Chasten yourself with the thought of "how are the mighty fallen." (1.32)
"Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or peradventure he was sleeping and was not to be awaked." (11.61)
"Thy damnation slumbereth not." (12.51)
"Three Leahs to get one Rachel." (23.32)
Thomas Malthus. Essay on the Principle of Population (1803). (5.17)
Jeremy Taylor (15.4)
St. Augustine. (15.2)
Abbey Roll and William the Conqueror. (1.11)