Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Contrasting Regions

By Thomas Hardy

Contrasting Regions

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Two

The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village school: the characteristic intonation of that dialect for this district being the voicing approximately rendered by the syllable UR, probably as rich an utterance as any to be found in human speech. The pouted-up deep red mouth to which this syllable was native had hardly as yet settled into its definitive shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward, when they closed together after a word. (2.20)

Tess's speech and accent are mentioned frequently in the novel, so this early description and explanation of her dialect are important. The "village school" Hardy mentions is a Victorian institution. During the 19th century, schooling for boys and girls became mandatory, and instructors were trained to teach common, standardized English as opposed to regional dialects. So Tess's English is standardized, but she still has a bit of the regional accent.

It's also interesting that Hardy gives us such specific detail about what kind of accent Tess has: he's especially interested in the way she pronounces the syllable "UR." Try saying that syllable. Notice how your lips kind of pucker out? Hardy is always interested in describing Tess's mouth. In fact, the next sentence is a seemingly gratuitous description of the way Tess's lips appear when she speaks. It's a sexy description, really – the description of her "pouted-up deep red mouth" is kind of slipped in sneakily in the middle of this otherwise detached linguistic account of the local dialect.

It is a vale whose acquaintance is best made by viewing it from the summits of the hills that surround it […]. An unguided ramble into its recesses in bad weather is apt to engender dissatisfaction with its narrow, tortuous, and miry ways. (2.2)

This description of the Vale of Blackmoor or Blakemore, Tess's childhood home, suggests that to appreciate the beauty of the place, you need a bird's-eye view – you have to see it from above, from the "summits of the hills." In other words, you need a wider perspective and a consciousness of the wider world in order to appreciate what's going on in the valley. That's all very well for a visitor – but what about for the folks who live there? Is the narrator suggesting that, because they're in the valley in good weather or bad, they're doomed to "dissatisfaction with its narrow, tortuous, and miry ways"? Or maybe the narrator isn't referring to the characters that live in this fictional valley at all, but is referring to the reader as the visitor, and he, the narrator, is our guide.

As a narrator, he can offer us any perspective he wants. We might be reading this novel in a coffee shop in Collegetown, USA, but Hardy's narrator is able to guide us to the top of these hills that overlook the Vale of Blackmoor to offer us the bird's-eye view we need to appreciate what goes on in that valley. We need to keep that universal perspective in the backs of our minds in order to understand the more particular accounts of the residents of the valley that will follow – otherwise we might become "dissatisfied" with the seemingly "narrow" ways of the inhabitants of the valley – or the characters of the novel.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Five

Everything looked like money – like the last coin issued from the Mint. (5.22)

Have you ever opened up a celebrity gossip magazine, or watched red-carpet interviews on E!, and marveled at how shiny and polished everything is? That's basically what Tess is doing here, as she gazes all slack-jawed and amazed at Alec D'Urberville's house. Everything there is brand-spanking new, and a pretty serious contrast to the worn, if not shabby, aspect of everything she's been used to at home.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Fourteen

The narrow lane of stubble encompassing the field grew wider with each circuit, and the standing corn was reduced to smaller area as the morning wore on. Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated inwards as into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when, their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of upright wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters. (14.8)

The mechanical reaper seems to progress around the outside of the field of its own volition – the workers follow it to tie up the bundles of wheat that it leaves in its wake, but the folks driving it aren't described. The effect of this is to make the machine seem like it has its own personality – it's slowing hemming in the animals in the field until they have nowhere to hide, and they're killed. It's like a metaphor for what industrialization does to people – in the nineteenth century, various inventions (like the steam engine, for example), made more and more poor folks move to cities where they could make money working in factories. But the machines they worked with slowly but surely hemmed them in, and made them prisoners in the factory.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Thirty

They crept along towards a point in the expanse of shade before them at which a feeble light was beginning to assert its presence, a spot where, by day, a fitful white streak of steam at intervals upon the dark green background denoted intermittent moments of contact between their secluded world and modern life. Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial. (30.18)

The world of Talbothays dairy is somehow out of sync with modernity – its only contact with modern life is through the railway, and the train is described as a "feeler" that starts to explore their "secluded world" at various intervals, and then withdraws itself again. It's like the two worlds – the antiquated world of tradition and superstition at the dairy and the modern world of London, represented by the train – are somehow incongruous: they can't mix.

Tess Durbeyfield

"Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts to-morrow, won't they? […] Noble men and noble women, ambassadors and centurions, ladies and tradeswomen, and babies who have never seen a cow. […] Who don't know anything of us, and where it comes from; or think how we two drove miles across the moor to-night in the rain that it might reach 'em in time?" (30.22-25)

As Tess and Angel unload the milk to send on the train to the London market, Tess muses on the journey the milk is about to take. Critics call the huge gap between those that consume the milk and those that produce it "alienation." It's one of the by-products of industrialization and urbanization. People move to cities to work in factories and have no idea where their milk (or any other food) comes from. And the things they produce in the factories (fancy clothing, for example), gets sold to wealthy men and women who have no idea where the clothing came from, or under what conditions it was made: alienation. Congratulations, you just learned one of the basic tenets of Marxist thought. And it's something that Tess seems to understand instinctively.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Thirty-Two
Tess Durbeyfield

From the whole extent of the invisible vale came a multitudinous intonation; it forced upon their fancy that a great city lay below them, and that the murmur was the vociferation of the populace.
"It seems like tens of thousands of them," said Tess; "holding public meetings in their market-places, arguing, preaching, quarrelling, sobbing, groaning, praying, and cursing." (32.4-5)

Here, their imagination makes it seem to Tess and to Angel that the great city is somehow overlaying the peaceful countryside. A trick of the noise made by the rivers and streams make Tess imagine the bustle of the city – thousands of human lives, all going through the various overwhelming assortment of human emotions and activities.

Phase V: "The Woman Pays," Chapter Forty-One

Not being aware of the rarity of intelligence, energy, health, and willingness in any sphere of life, she refrained from seeking an indoor occupation; fearing towns, large houses, people of means and social sophistication, and of manners other than rural. (41.12)

Tess avoids towns and cities by instinct – she doesn't trust them. The "manners" of "rural" people are more natural, and, though less "sophisticat[ed]," they are somehow safer.

Phase VI: "The Convert," Chapter Forty-Seven

He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke; these denizens of the fields served vegetation, weather, frost, and sun. He traveled with this engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam-threshing machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. […] The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him. (47.4)

This guy rents out his steam-thresher to different farmers all over the county, since the technology is still so new that not everyone has their own. But the new technology doesn't seem to have any place in the fields, where tradition and superstition are still the rule. He travels through these rural areas, but he never becomes part of them. He's always an outsider.

[…] it was the engineman. The isolation of his manner and colour lent him the appearance of a creature from Tophet, who had strayed into the pellucid smokelessness of this region of yellow grain and pale soil, with which he had nothing in common, to amaze and to discompose its aborigines. (47.3)

The man who runs the steam-powered threshing machine doesn't belong in the field – he's a representative of the modern, industrialized world. He's not painted in a very flattering light, either – he's like a "creature from Tophet" (the Hebrew version of hell), and has nothing "in common" with the field workers.