Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Man and the Natural World

By Thomas Hardy

Man and the Natural World

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Nine

The house was overrun with ivy, its chimney being enlarged by the boughs of the parasite to the aspect of a ruined tower. The lower rooms were entirely given over to the birds, who walked about them with a proprietary air, as though the place had been built by and for themselves. (9.1)

The poultry house at The Slopes where Tess works is being "overrun" by nature – the ivy is taking over the outside and creeping in through the chimney, and the interior has been taken over by the birds.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Eleven

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primaeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and around them the hopping rabbits and hares. (11.61)

It's strange that in the climactic moment of Alec's rape Hardy chooses to pull back and describe the woods and the animals that surround them. Why does he do that? What's the effect? Well, as we suggested in the previous quotation, it seems that Hardy wanted to leave the scene ambiguous. So pulling back to describe the setting seems appropriate – it's like putting your hand over your eyes or looking away at a particularly gruesome scene in a movie – only Hardy's doing it for us.

But why describe the woods and trees in this way? Again, here's that word "primaeval," which means primitive (in a non-derogatory sense), and time-out-of-mind ancient. So Hardy is setting Tess's rape in the context of something ancient. Is he suggesting that rape is something that's happened for millennia? Maybe – but that doesn't mean that he's excusing it.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Twelve
Joan Durbeyfield

"'Tis nater, after all, and what pleases God." (12.83)

This is Joan Durbeyfield's fatalistic response to the news of Tess's rape. Her response is like the response of the people the narrator quotes in the passage quoted above: "It was to be." Her remark that it's "nater" (i.e., "nature") puts the blame of it on someone other than Alec or even Tess. It's only "natural" that Alec should have taken advantage of Tess. So again, here's another character who's suggesting that fate is stronger than free will, but it's not a character who is particularly trustworthy or reliable. We can't take Mrs. Durbeyfield's words at face value.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Thirteen

On these lonely hills and dales her quiescent glide was of a piece with the element she moved in. Her flexuous and stealthy figure became an integral part of the scene. (13.14)

Once again, the narrator associates Tess with nature. Here, she actually seems to become one with nature. She becomes "an integral part" of the landscape, and is "of a piece" with nature. It's more of the earth goddess thing again, although it sounds pretty hippy.

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)

Tess thinks that she's broken a universal law – something natural and fundamental. But really, the only law that she's broken is a social law – one that humans invented. It's a "necessary" social law, the narrator adds (he doesn't go so far as to say that the taboo against pre-marital sex is a bad one), but it's not a natural law. And notice also that he says that she was "made to break" that law – in other words, she isn't at fault, and the sin isn't hers.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Fourteen

So passed away Sorrow the Undesired – that intrusive creature, that bastard gift of shameless Nature who respects not the civil law. (14.58)

It's another juxtaposition of nature and civilization – Sorrow was a "natural" child in that he (or she?) was born according to "natural" laws, as opposed within the socially sanctioned bonds of marriage.

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

The night came in, and took up its place there, unconcerned and indifferent; the night which had already swallowed up his happiness, and was now digesting it listlessly; and was ready to swallow up the happiness of a thousand other people with as little disturbance or change of mien. (35.80)

Thanks, Hardy – what a depressing thought. Misery is spread equally over "a thousand other people," and the world itself doesn't care or notice. The idea here is that we're all alone in an unfeeling and unsympathetic universe. That's certainly how Angel is feeling the morning after Tess's confession to him.

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

Towards the second evening she reached the irregular chalk table-land or plateau, bosomed with semi-globular tumuli. (42.11)

So the landscape here is covered in rounded hills, or "tumuli," that Hardy compares to "bosoms"? Yes, this is weird. Yes, this needs a closer look. What do breasts generally signify? They usually symbolize fertility, life, and sustenance. So the land here seems to be nurturing and fertile, but it's really "chalk[y]" and, as Marian calls it, "starve-acre."

Inside this exterior, over which the eye might have roved as over a thing scarcely percipient, almost inorganic, there was the record of a pulsing life which had learnt too well, for its years, of the dust and ashes of things, of the cruelty of lust and the fragility of love. (42.8)

Tess's body seems almost to dissolve into the landscape as she works in the turnip field. Remember that earlier scene in which the narrator suggests that the female field workers become one with the field in a way that the men cannot? This is similar – but here, she's not just in sympathy with the ground, she herself is "almost inorganic," or without life. Almost, but not quite – there's still a "record" of life, but it's the "record" of a sad life.

Thus Tess walks on; a figure which is part of the landscape; a field-woman pure and simple, in winter guise. (42.6)

Remember when Tess was working at the harvest way back in Phase II? The narrator describes all the female field workers as being part of the field (14.10). This is a similar moment, but it doesn't seem as positive here. Here, Tess is anonymous – she's a "figure," and a "field-woman." She melts into the landscape because of the monotony of the work. She's not unique anymore.