Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Fate and Free Will

By Thomas Hardy

Fate and Free Will

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Eleven

As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: "It was to be." There lay the pity of it. (11.64)

The rape scene is shrouded in ambiguity. First of all, none of it gets described – the narrator backs away and talks in general terms about how rapes have always happened, and describes the setting of The Chase where it's happening. Secondly, the narrator seems to go back and forth about whether "fate" or "free will" is to blame for the rape. This final paragraph of the chapter (and of the whole first phase of the novel) doesn't resolve any of the ambiguity. The narrator quotes the village people's "fatalistic" expression, "It was to be," but he's only quoting what other people say. The narrator adds, "there lay the pity of it" – is he saying that it's a "pity" that Tess should have been fated to be raped, or that it's a "pity" that the village people should blame things on fate, when they could do something to stop it? More ambiguity!

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. (11.63)

Okay, so that previous passage suggested that fate had nothing to do with it – Tess's rape was something that people were responsible for. But here's a passage that comes two paragraphs later that uses words like "doomed," which suggests that it was Tess's "doom," or "fate" to be raped. Which is it? It's another ambiguity in a scene that's already incredibly ambiguous.

[W]here was Providence? 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)

The superficial meaning of "Tishbite" is pretty clear: the narrator is suggesting that "Providence" must have been "sleeping" to have allowed this to happen to Tess. This is a bitingly cynical remark, of course – and goes against all of the fatalistic language elsewhere in this chapter that suggests that it was Tess's "fate" to fall into Alec's hands at this point in her life. This passage thrusts the responsibility firmly on the people involved: "Providence" was sleeping; it wasn't the fault of "fate" or anything outside of the control of ordinary people.

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. But while allowing for that possibility, the narrator brings the story back to the "average human," and rejects the idea of fated "retribution." But the possibility is still there, even if the narrator "scorn[s]" it – was she fated to be raped, or not?

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

Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will. The word had been given; the number of the day written down. Her naturally bright intelligence had begun to admit the fatalistic convictions common to the field-folk and those who associate more extensively with natural phenomena than with their fellow-creatures; and she accordingly drifted into that passive responsiveness to all things her lover suggested, characteristic of the frame of mind. (32.24)

This passage is important both to the idea of "Time" in the novel, and to the theme of "Fate and Free Will." Tess has named the date of the wedding, and has lost any sense of agency in the matter. Now all she can do is wait, "passive[ly]," for the wedding to take place. It's out of her hands, and she's given up personal responsibility for it.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Thirty-Four
Joan Durbeyfield

"And take the Complete Fortune-Teller to the outhouse" […] The Complete Fortune-Teller was an old thick volume, which lay on a table at her elbow, so worn by pocketing that the margins had reached the edge of the type. (3.34-5)

Tess's mother is superstitious about keeping the Complete Fortune-Teller indoors after dark, so they tuck it into the outhouse. Her mother's superstition contrasts strongly with Tess's pragmatic realism, and we discuss that in the "Memory and the Past" theme analysis. But for our discussion of Fate and Free Will, it's interesting that Tess's mother puts so much faith in the ability of this particular book to prophesy Tess's future. Whenever you're reading a book that discusses a book that gets read and re-read until its pages are "so worn" that "the margins had reached the edge of the type," it's a good idea to stop and pay attention.

This is clearly a book that Mrs. Durbeyfield reads frequently. But the trouble is that she's not a good reader. As we learn in the next chapter, the book tells her that Tess will marry a gentleman – that's true. But the circumstances under which she marries the gentleman (and which gentleman she marries) are still fuzzy. Mrs. Durbeyfield doesn't read critically – she interprets what the book tells her in the most superficial possible way, and sees her own desires reflected in the text. Hardy is showing his readers what not to do.

This incident had turned the scale for her. They were simple and innocent girls on whom the unhappiness of unrequited love had fallen; they had deserved better at the hands of Fate. (34.72)

When Tess hears the bad news about Retty's attempted suicide and Marian's drunkenness, she blames it on "the hand of Fate." Sure, the two girls were disappointed, but blaming fate for a suicide attempt and the decision to forget her troubles by getting blistered shifts the responsibility onto an abstract idea.

Phase V: "The Woman Pays," Chapter Thirty-Five
Angel Clare

"Decrepit families postulate decrepit wills, decrepit conduct." (35.61).

Angel blames Tess's past (i.e., her rape) on the fact that she comes from a "decrepit" family. Broken-down families create people with broken-down wills – people who can't think and act for themselves. So Angel seems to be coming down pretty firmly on the side of "free will" for the reason of Tess's rape, and he's putting an awful lot of the blame on the side of her "will," as opposed to Alec's. We all know that Tess's "will" and wishes weren't consulted at all by Alec, but Angel assumes that they were, and that she complied.

Phase VII: "Fulfillment," Chapter Fifty-Six
Alec D'Urberville

"I couldn't help your seeing me again!" (56.107)

Alec argues that his meeting with Tess again after so many years was fate, and that it means that they are meant to get back together. Tess still argues against fate, and insists that it's free will, and not fate, that makes the world go round. Of course, once again, her will wasn't consulted in the matter: she couldn't "help" that he saw her again.

Alec D'Urberville

"Why do you own such a horse?"

"Ah, well may you ask it! It was my fate, I suppose. Tib has killed one chap; and just after I bought her she nearly killed me. And then, take my word for it, I nearly killed her. But she's queer still, very queer; and one's life is hardly safe behind her sometimes." (8.12-13)

Alec uses "fate" as an excuse for owning a horse that occasionally tries to kill him when he's attempting to frighten Tess on the carriage ride to The Slopes. And the strange thing is, Tess seems to accept his answer – "fate" is real to her, something that can be called up to explain the unexplainable.