Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Justice and Judgment

By Thomas Hardy

Justice and Judgment

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Thirteen

She had no fear of the shadows; her sole idea seemed to be to shun mankind – or rather that cold accretion called the world, which, so terrible in the mass, is so unformidable, even pitiable, in its units. (13.13)

Tess has often been associated with nature and with the ancient worship of female nature goddesses (see 2.6, for example, where Tess and the other women of Marlott participate in the ancient celebration of the earth goddess, which now takes the form of the club-walking). So it makes sense that she should feel safe in the woods. Her only real danger is from people – especially people as a group, or an "accretion" – because it's as a group that people judge and gossip.

Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly. (13.15)

We discuss this passage in the analysis of the theme of "Man and the Natural World," but it's also important to consider in this context. The only law that Tess has broken is a social law, that people shouldn't have sex before they're married – and that is a law that was invented by humans. But she, and most other people, have so internalized those social laws that they have forgotten where they came from. They've forgotten that those laws are not actually a natural or fundamental part of the world.

Tess is mixing up epistemology (social codes and man-made ways of understanding the world) with ontology (the way the world really is, without the perspective forced on us by society). Civilization provides us with epistemology, the social framework through which we see the world, while nature represents ontology, because it just is, with or without that social framework. Congratulations, you just passed Metaphysics 101!

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Fourteen

But now that her moral sorrows were passing away a fresh one arose on the natural side of her which knew no social law. When she reached home it was to learn to her grief that the baby had been suddenly taken ill since the afternoon. (14.30)

Once again, we're seeing a distinction between "social law" and "natural" law – between epistemology and ontology.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Twenty-Six

The fireplace confronted him with its extinct embers; the spread supper-table, whereon stood the two full glasses of untasted wine, now flat and filmy; her vacated seat and his own; the other articles of furniture, with their eternal look of not being able to help it, their intolerable inquiry of what was to be done? (36.1)

When Angel wakes up the morning after Tess's confession, his whole world has collapsed. All his perceptions of Tess seem to have been wrong, and his whole outlook on life seems to fall apart. And yet the room itself looks just the same – the supper that they never ate is still sitting there. The inanimate objects around him, like the furniture, are still the same as ever, and their sameness, after the collapse of everything he ever thought he knew, seems almost to mock him.

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

All material objects around announced their irresponsibility with terrible iteration. And yet nothing had changed since the moments when he had been kissing her; or rather, nothing in the substance of things. But the essence of things had changed. (35.2)

After Tess confesses to Angel, his inner world goes all topsy-turvy. Everything he ever knew, or thought he knew, has to be re-evaluated. Tess isn't the person he thought she was (or is she?). But of course his state of inner agitation and confusion isn't reflected in the outside world – the room itself, and all the "material objects around" them, stay the same. The world itself is utterly indifferent to what's going on in the hearts and minds of these two people. They're both utterly alone.

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

[…] but, outside humanity, she had at present no fear. (41.27)

Again, it's civilization, and people, that Tess fears – nature and the outdoors seem safe to her.

She could not have borne their pity, and their whispered remarks to one another upon her strange situation; though she would almost have faced a knowledge of her circumstances by every individual there, so long as her story had remained isolated in the mind of each. It was the interchange of ideas about her that made her sensitiveness wince. (41.13)

Tess doesn't mind the idea of each person at Talbothays dairy knowing what happened to her, individually, but she hates the idea of them gossiping about her. People aren't to be feared individually – as individuals, they can pity and understand one another. But as a group, as a society, they are to be feared because they form social laws and conventions, and judge more severely.

Phase VI: "The Convert," Chapter Fifty-One

Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? (51.8)

Tess is crying out against the injustice of the universe – if she's never knowingly done wrong, or at least, has never had bad intentions, why should she be punished? The answer would seem to be that the universe is, in fact, an unjust place. The bad aren't always punished, and the good sometimes get punished for crimes that they didn't commit.

Phase VII: "Fulfillment," Chapter Fifty-Three
Angel Clare

[…] he had asked himself why had he not judged Tess constructively rather than biographically, by the will rather than by the deed? (53.25)

Angel realizes his own injustice, and that the only real justice is in judging people by their intentions, rather than by their actions: "by the will rather than by the deed."

Phase VII: "Fulfillment," Chapter Fifty-Nine

"Justice" was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess. (59.8)

The reference to a play by the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, seems at first kind of out of place here. But Aeschylus wrote tragedies, and the phrase that Hardy borrows, the "President of the Immortals," comes from Aeschylus's play, Prometheus, and Prometheus was considered by many to be the ultimate tragic hero. That play is all about punishment and justice, so it's an appropriate reference at this point in Tess. You should also note that "justice" is ironically set off in quotation marks in this passage.