Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Memory and the Past

By Thomas Hardy

Memory and the Past

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Two

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 women's club in Marlott is a holdover from the ancient springtime rituals of the pagans – which is why Hardy references the "Cerealia," or festival to the Roman goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of the earth, agriculture, and all growing things. Yes, our word "cereal" comes from the name of the Roman goddess Ceres. Springtime festivals in honor of the earth goddess were the especial responsibility of women, because those festivals were all about new life and seeds, and nurturing – all things associated with femininity and motherhood. So Tess and her female friends are being associated with this long and ancient lineage of women that is even older than the D'Urberville connection on her father's side of the family. After all, the spring festival and the worship of the earth goddess go back way before 1066, the time of the first Sir Pagan D'Urberville. So again, this passage dissolves the distinction between the contemporary and the time-out-of-mind ancient.

In those days, and till comparatively recent times, the country was densely wooded. Even now, traces of its earlier condition are to be found in the old oak copses and irregular belts of timber that yet survive on its slopes […] The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain. Many, however, linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form. The May-Day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or "club-walking," as it was there called. (2.4-5)

This passage shows the contrast between old and new that is so important to Hardy in this novel. Old customs might evolve and take on new names, but they still linger in some form. It's also interesting that he associates the old customs, like the May-Day dance, with the old forests of the area (the "old customs" came from the "shades" of the old forest). The forests are ancient, and seem to have an almost supernatural power (they were, after all, associated with the druids), and the origins of old, pseudo-pagan customs like the May-Day dance can be traced back to the days of the druids and the ancient, primeval forest. This description of Tess's club-walking ties the contemporary custom of dancing in the springtime with the older custom of the May-Dance, and traces both of those customs back to the ancient, primitive forest. It almost dissolves the distinction between the modern and the ancient.

Pedigree, ancestral skeletons, monumental record, the D'Urberville lineaments, did not help Tess in her life's battle as yet, even to the extent of attracting to her a dancing-partner over the heads of the commonest peasantry. So much for Norman blood unaided by Victorian lucre. (2.37)

Tess might have noble blood, and an ancestry that she could trace back to the Norman Conquest (see the Historical Context note in our summary of Chapter One), but because she's poor, she's in the same boat as the rest of the peasant class in Marlott. This ironic remark by the narrator doesn't just reflect on Tess's disappointment that Angel asked another girl to dance at the club-walking festival. It pulls back and makes a general remark about the whole Victorian period – lots of noble families were strapped for cash, and the Victorian period is often considered the time when the middle class rose to prominence, as people worked hard and made their way up the social ladder. So by the time Tess's story is taking place, many people who were officially in the middle class (they had earned their money as merchant or entrepreneurs, or as doctors or lawyers) were actually more wealthy than those who were officially "noble" (i.e., those who had inherited their money and lands from their parents and grandparents). So, in this passage, Hardy is taking Tess's immediate disappointment and putting it in the context of this huge socio-economic trend of the rise of the middle class. It's really a drastic juxtaposition, if you think about it.

Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style. (2.7)

The group of women participating in the spring club-walking in Marlott reinforces the contrast between old and new, past and present that Hardy suggested in the passage quoted above. Only here, it's the ages of the women's dresses that create the contrast. Some of the dresses are fresh and new, while others are yellowed and "cadaverous" – that particular word choice suggests dead bodies, or cadavers, which seems a rather incongruous description for a costume to be worn for a festival celebrating spring and new life.

Besides the contrasting color of the dresses, the styles create a contrast between past and present: some of them are of a "Georgian" style. The novel, as we know, takes place in the late Victorian period (Queen Victoria reigned between 1837-1901, and the novel was written in 1887-1890). A "Georgian"-style dress would be a dress made during the reign of George IV, who died in 1830. But there were three Georges who reigned before George IV – the first one became king in 1714. So a "Georgian" dress could be really old. After all, the description does suggest that those dresses had "lain by folded for many a year."

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Three

There still faintly beamed from the woman's features something of the freshness, and even the prettiness, of her youth; rendering it evident that the personal charms which Tess could boast were in main part her mother's gift, and therefore unknightly, unhistorical. (3.13)

Tess's mother is still attractive even after having given birth to nine children (nine!). So her mother isn't only pretty, she's fertile (maybe too fertile, in Tess's opinion – her parents have a hard enough time supporting themselves, let alone a large family that's getting bigger all the time). And the "personal charms" that Tess has inherited from her mother include the prettiness and the fertile womanliness.

The narrator's claim that that inheritance is "unhistorical" and "unknightly" just means that it has nothing to do with the family vault at Kingsbere or the aristocratic D'Urberville lineage. It might be "unhistorical" in that it's not something that an "antiquary" like Parson Tringham can trace in the library, but it is something that connects Tess to a matriarchal, or female, lineage that goes way, way back. Remember the women's club-walking from the previous chapter? That female custom had its origins way back before Sir Pagan D'Urberville ever arrived in England. This quotation, like the description of the female club-walking, connects Tess to an ancient female inheritance, as opposed to her old and historical, though not quite so primitive, father's lineage.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Five

[The Slopes] was of recent erection – indeed almost new […] Far behind the bright brick corner of the house […] stretched the soft azure landscape of The Chase – a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primaeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew-trees, not planted by the and of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows. All this sylvan antiquity, however, though visible from The Slopes, was outside the immediate boundaries of the estate. (5.21)

Alec D'Urberville's house, called "The Slopes" (what, doesn't your house have a pompous-sounding name?), is fantastically shiny and new. Its modern construction forms a drastic contrast with the ancient, "primaeval" forest of The Chase that stretches out behind the house and lawn. So again, Hardy is contrasting old and new, ancient and modern, pre-industrial and post-industrial. But he takes care to point out that The Chase doesn't belong to The Slopes – the ancient forest of The Chase is "outside the immediate boundaries of the estate." So the modern D'Urberville family doesn't control the forest – no one does.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Eleven

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. The narrator rejects this idea (for more on this idea, check out the analysis for the "Fate and Free Will" theme), but it still brings up the idea of sin.

Who is sinning here? Against whom? Is Tess to blame for any of this? Hardy doesn't think so – look at the subtitle of the novel: "A Pure Woman." But contemporary critics thought so, and so do other characters in the novel. So this is an important passage to consider – maybe Tess is paying for the "sins" of others, but we don't have to look so far back to find the cause. It's not some kind of divine retribution for the sins of the ancient D'Urberville family that got Tess into this pickle, but her father's laziness. If he were a more responsible parent, Tess wouldn't have had to take that late night journey that ended with the death of their horse. And a responsible parent wouldn't have sent a sixteen-year-old girl so far from home without knowing anything about the people who would be taking care of her. So maybe this passage is asking us to look more closely at cause and effect – to reject romantic ideas about sin and retribution, and to consider the effects of our actions more carefully.

Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Sixteen
Tess Durbeyfield

"Pooh – I have as much of mother as father in me!" she said. "All my prettiness comes from her, and she was only a dairymaid." (16.7)

Tess is rejecting her patrilineal inheritance – the noble lineage passed down from her father's side, in favor of her matrilineal inheritance from her mother.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Thirty

The light of the engine flashed for a second upon Tess Durbeyfield's figure, motionless under the great holly tree. No object could have looked more foreign to the gleaming cranks and wheels than this unsophisticated girl, with the round bare arms, the rainy face and hair, the suspended attitude of a friendly leopard at pause, the print gown of no date or fashion, and the cotton bonnet drooping on her brow. (30.20)

Again, past and present are juxtaposed here. Tess represents the past, or perhaps not so much the past, as something timeless: either way, the contrast between her figure and the modern train with its "cranks and wheels" is pretty striking, and Hardy wants to call our attention to it.

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

The old men […] talked of the past days when they had been accustomed to thresh with flails on the oaken barn-floor; when everything, even to winnowing, was effected by hand-labour, which, to their thinking, though slow, produced better results. (47.8)

The old men working with the steam-powered threshing machine are nostalgic for the good old days, when everything had to be done by hand. There was a lot of resistance to industrialization in the nineteenth century, especially among the older generation, because the invention of all these new machines meant fewer jobs for the workers.