Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Time

By Thomas Hardy


Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Two

Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then. (2.21)

The distinctions of time and age are dissolved in the entire group of club-walkers in Marlott because old and young women, with dresses old and new, are all participating in the modern version of a very ancient custom. The distinctions of age are completely dissolved in Tess individually, as well: she's only about sixteen years old, but she looks very "womanly" for her age. And all the "phases of her childhood" can still be seen in her features. She's almost like a hodgepodge of different ages: twelve-year-old Tess is still visible in her cheeks; nine-year-old Tess is still apparent in her eyes; her smile occasionally offers a glimpse of five-year-old Tess. If you think that's a pretty strange way of describing the heroine of this novel, you're not alone. Take a look at Tess's "Character Analysis" for more on this – for now, in this context, we're interested in the way that Hardy uses this description to collapse the distinctions of time.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Three

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed. (3.37)

During the 19th century in England, the government passed all kinds of Reform laws making education mandatory for boys and girls all over the country, and they made a standard curriculum that everyone had to follow. So all of a sudden, the country had this massive population of reasonably well-educated citizens. But the shift happened so quickly that there was a huge gap in education between children and their parents. The idea of a "generation gap" is nothing new to us, because pop culture and music change so rapidly nowadays that we're used to the idea of a cultural disconnect between ourselves and our parents. But in the nineteenth century, this was a new thing.

And the contrast between Tess, with her book-learning, and her superstitious mother isn't just about education – Hardy describes it as a contrast of different times. Tess is "Victorian" (i.e., from the nineteenth century, during the reign of Queen Victoria), and her mother is "Jacobean" – or, from the late 1600s, during the reign of King James ("Jacobus" is Latin for James, if you were wondering). So, yet again, we have an example of a character who seems out of sync with the passage of time.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Four

In consternation Tess jumped down, and discovered the dreadful truth. The groan had proceeded from her father's poor horse Prince. The morning mail-cart, with its two noiseless wheels, speeding along these lanes like an arrow, as it always did, had driven into her slow and unlighted equipage. The pointed shaft of the cart had entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword, and from the wound his life's blood was spouting in a stream, and falling with a hiss into the road. (4.77)

Wow. Poor Prince! Pierced by a mail cart. We know that this scene is important, because the death of Prince is what precipitates Tess's decision to go to the D'Urbervilles to ask for help. So there's probably more to this passage than just a bloody accident.

Why is it a mail cart that kills the horse? Well, mail carts were symbols of modernity. Hard for us to imagine, in this age of email and instant communication, but the mail cart in the nineteenth century was just about as fast as it got. They were notorious for being fast and silent on the roads, and because they often traveled at night (mail had to be delivered first thing in the morning!), they often caused accidents of this kind. Prince is an old horse, we know – and his name, "Prince," seems to represent a kind of old world order – the decaying aristocracy, which we already know (see the quotation above that discusses the rise of the middle class) is something that Hardy was interested in. So the accident that kills Prince could be seen as a stand-in for the way that modernization was doing away with tradition and the old world order.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Five

In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of the things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say 'See!' to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply 'Here!' to a body's cry of 'Where?' till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome outworn game. We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will become corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. (5.73)

The narrator laments that Tess should fall into Alec's path rather than connect with Angel, and blames the tragedy on Fate with a capital F. Life is full of missed connections, and reality is always just out of sync with the ideal. The narrator does hint at a possible future in which humans progress or evolve into a state in which we're able to make reality closer to the ideal, but then he backs away from that possibility. Kind of a bummer.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Fifteen

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year; the disastrous night of her life at Trantridge with its dark background of The Chase; also the dates of the baby's birth and death; also her own birthday; and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought one afternoon, when looking in the glass at her fairness, that there was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death, when all these charms would have disappeared; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. (15.4)

After Tess's baby dies, she becomes obsessed with marking the passage of time. But if you stop to think about it, we all do this – we count off birthdays, and presidents' birthdays, and random holidays like Labor Day and Administrative Assistants' Day, and Mother's Day, besides all of the religious holidays. Every second of every day is accounted for and named, according to our system of time-keeping. But in Tess's world, they keep time somewhat less precisely – not a lot of stop watches or second hands to mark time down to the smallest increments. And in the midst of counting off the days of the year that are particularly important to her, she begins to wonder about what day she will eventually die. Kind of a morbid thought for a young person to have, but it's an interesting question – we're all going to die one day, and the question that bothers Tess isn't the "how" or even the "how soon?" but "on what day?"

Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Sixteen

On a thyme-scented, bird-singing morning in May, between two and three years after the return from Trantridge – two silent reconstructive years for Tess Durbeyfield – she left her home for second time. (16.1)

There's a possible pun here – did you spot it? For a novel that's so obsessed with the passage of time, and being in sync, or out of sync with the passage of time, the homonym "thyme" at the opening of this chapter didn't occur by accident. Hardy could have used lavender, or rosemary, or any number of other summer herbs.

Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Nineteen

He was surprised to find this young woman […] shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases […] feelings which might almost have been called those of the age – the ache of modernism. (19.32)

Hardy must have been aware that Tess's speech about her oppressive sense of the "numbers of to-morrows just all in a line" would sound strange coming from a relatively inexperienced milkmaid. So he calls attention to the strangeness of it by having Angel wonder about it. Her consciousness of time and of "the ache of modernism" is part of what makes Tess so complex and unique.

"The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven't they? – that is, seem as if they had. And the river says, – "Why do ye trouble me with your looks?" And you seem to see numbers of to-morrows just all in a line, the first of 'em the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel as if they said, "I'm coming! Beware o' me! Beware o' me!" … But you can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!" (19.31)

Did we mention that Tess – both the character, and the novel as a whole – is obsessed with the passage of time? The sense of a whole string of "to-morrows" that you can't stop just drove the late Victorians crazy. It's that oppressive sense of time that brings in the modernist movement in the early 20th century, with writers like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. Hardy is expressing some of those anxieties about time through Tess's voice.

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." Now that Tess has named the day of the wedding, she is tied down to a specific time frame. She feels that she can't fight time anymore, and just has to wait, passively, for the wedding to take place. Before, when the day was still up in the air, the thing was somehow out of time, but now that the date is pinned, it's become more real and immediate.

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

"Older than the centuries; older than the D'Urbervilles!" (58.30)

When Angel realizes that he and Tess have arrived at Stonehenge, he exclaims immediately about how old it is. It's older than the D'Urbervilles, and "older than the centuries." Older than time? Earlier in the novel, the ancient, "primaeval" forest of The Chase near Trantridge, and the May Dance tradition were our previous markers of the really, really ancient. Now, Stonehenge just blows them all away in the absolutely, time-out-of-mind, ancient-beyond-belief category.