Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Themes

By Thomas Hardy

  • Fate and Free Will

    Basically, in the world of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, your history determines your future, but you don't have much control over it. Or do you? Different characters take different views on this.

    Does being a D'Urberville mean that Tess necessarily will have the kind of sketchy morality that Angel thinks all aristocrats have? No, of course not. But is Tess's rape a result of her being a D'Urberville? Well, kind of—but only due to bad choices on her father and mother's parts. So whether the tragedy is caused by fate or free will is still an open question at the end of the book.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Is Tess's rape a result of fate, or free will?
    2. Why do so many of the rural characters, like Joan Durbeyfield, like to blame things that happen on fate?
    3. Why does Tess reject the idea of fate, even though it would help to excuse what happened to her?
    4. After Tess's rape, the narrator quotes "Tess's own people" who are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: 'It was to be' (11.64). Does he mean Tess's family, the ancient D'Urberville family, or other common people? Why would their reaction be so "fatalistic"?

    Chew on This

    Although Tess's tragedy is primarily caused by events over which Tess has no control, it is impossible to argue that her suffering was the result of an adverse, abstract "Fate."

    Despite the many characters that blame their misfortunes on the will of a perverse "Fate," Tess insists on blaming her own suffering entirely on human causes.

  • Memory and the Past

    In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, this theme is obviously connected with the more general theme of "Time," but while that theme has to do with the passage of time, this one has to do mostly with characters' relationship to the past. Many characters, like Jack Durbeyfield, want to live in the past, and others, like Tess, are continually re-living their own history while trying to run away from it. Is the past something you want to escape, or something you want to hold on to?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. In the world of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, is it possible to escape the past? Is it desirable?
    2. Which characters choose to live in the past, and what are the consequences?
    3. In what way does the past catch up with Tess?

    Chew on This

    Despite Tess's best efforts to escape her own history, events of the past—even the distant past—continually come back to haunt her.

    Jack Durbeyfield's failure to understand the relationship of past and present—his reliance on his family's past glory to make up for their present shortcomings—sets Tess's tragedy in motion, and this misunderstanding about the past haunts Tess for the rest of her life.

  • Women and Femininity

    Hardy has plenty to say about this theme. Part of the tragedy of this novel is that Angel idealizes Tess, and thinks of her as a kind of "every woman," instead of as a unique, individual woman. In his mind, she represents some kind of eternal, universal Femininity.

    In the world of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, women have a unique relationship to nature, and to the land, that men cannot share. Women are more in touch with the outdoors, and men are more in tune with modernity and industrialization.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Which is more important to Tess: the beauty and rural traditions she inherited from her mother, or the name and aristocratic bearing she inherited from her father?
    2. Angel calls Tess "Demeter" and "Artemis" during their courtship. Why does he choose these two goddesses in particular? Why does Tess not like being called "Demeter" and "Artemis" (or any other goddess name)? Why does she insist, "call me Tess"? (20.10-11)
    3. Why do other women love Tess so much?
    4. Some critics have argued that Tess is more of a mythic "every woman" than a unique individual character. Which is it?

    Chew on This

    Angel sees Tess as a mythic, idealized woman, rather than as a unique individual, and his failure to recognize that she has a history drives them apart.

    Women of Tess's acquaintance, like Izz, Marian, and Retty, adore Tess in an almost worshipful way, even when they have good cause to be jealous. Their loyal affection for Tess suggests that even to other women, Tess represents a kind of ideal femininity.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Hardy's very interested in the relationship of women to nature, in particular. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, women are more in touch with the earth than men are, and are able to melt into the landscape and become one with the land in a way that men cannot. Being able to stay in touch with the natural rhythms of the earth is obviously something that Hardy values in this novel.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. In the world of this novel, is civilization always a negative force?
    2. Does Angel belong with the side of civilization, or of Nature?
    3. Why does the arrest scene take place at Stonehenge?
    4. Hardy often emphasizes the ancientness of the valleys and forests he describes—"Blackmoor Valley," for example, was once covered in an ancient forest, and "The Chase" is the remnant of that primeval forest. Why should Nature be associated with the time-out-of-mind ancient?

    Chew on This

    Hardy often juxtaposes images of ancient nature with emblems of modern civilization to suggest that the progress of time is not uniform.

  • Justice and Judgment

    "Justice and Judgment" is a big theme in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. If Tess isn't responsible for her actions (she is sent to Trantridge to see the D'Urbervilles against her will; she is a victim of rape; etc.), why does she keep getting punished?

    This is a question that she asks herself (and the universe) at a couple of different points, and it's a question that the reader has to ask pretty frequently, too. Some literary critics have even gone so far as to call Hardy a sadist for punishing Tess so continually for sins she didn't willingly commit.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is Tess's fate "just"? By whose standards?
    2. Why does Hardy not depict Tess's trial or execution?
    3. In the world of this novel, is justice universal, or should it be adjusted to fit individual circumstances?
    4. Is there any character in the novel who accepts Tess without judging her?

    Chew on This

    By refusing to depict the system of justice that arraigned, tried, and sentenced Tess, Hardy creates an ironic detachment from the action of the final chapter and refuses to make himself or the reader complicit in that system.

    Angel comes to realize that justice should not be an inflexible, universal norm to which everyone is held equally, but should be flexible to fit individual circumstances.

  • Contrasting Regions

    19th Century England was characterized by a humongous growth in the population in cities, and a movement away from old-fashioned farming in the country. That movement was a result of all the inventions of the period—new factories in the cities needed workers to make them go, and the new inventions on the farms in the country meant that fewer workers were needed on the farms.

    Because all of these changes happened over such a short period of time, many people were thrown off and confused by the shifts that happened. The countryside looked the same as it had for hundreds of years, but then all of a sudden there would be a smokestack from a new factory on the horizon. The changes were destabilizing, and  Tess of the D'Urbervilles shows us some of the results of those changes.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Why are both of the major pieces of farm equipment described in the novel (the reaping machine and the threshing machine) painted red? (14.8 and 47.8)
    2. Would Tess have been better off if she had moved to the city? Why?
    3. The only scenes that take place in larger towns are when Tess visits the town near Trantridge with the fellow farm workers the night of her rape, when Tess and Angel visit the town near Talbothays just before their wedding, and when Tess moves in with Alec at Sandbourne at the end of the novel. What do these three scenes have in common?

    Chew on This

    Although Hardy frequently idealizes the country in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, he does not wholly reject the changes brought by modern progress.

    The goring of the horse, Prince, by the front pole of the mail coach represents the rapid, and occasionally violent, shift of Victorian society from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, industrial one.

  • Marriage

    Tess of the D'Urbervilles asks the reader to think about the fact that marriage is a social convention: it's a practice that was invented by people. It's something that we learn from society, but not an idea that we're born with. So what's the difference between social marriage, and natural marriage? What are the responsibilities and obligations of each kind of marriage? And who is Tess's real, "natural" husband?

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Who is Tess's real husband, and why is this an important question in this novel?
    2. Why does Tess want Angel to marry 'Liza-Lu after she dies? What kind of marriage would that represent?
    3. How much does Hardy condemn Angel for leaving Tess right after their marriage? Look for specific passages to back up your answer.

    Chew on This

    Although Hardy frequently privileges the laws of nature over the laws of society, it is clear that Alec's claim that Tess is his "natural wife" should be rejected out of hand.

    Despite having two "husbands" at different points in the novel, Tess is never actually married to either of them in the fullest sense of marriage that Hardy proposes.

  • Time

    The passage of time always seems out of whack in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Because of the sudden changes described in the "Contrasting Regions" theme, different parts of the country, and even different characters, seem to be from different historical eras.

    Tess's parents live in the past, but Tess, who has had a better education, is very much a modern girl. Parts of their day-to-day lives are untouched by modern inventions, but then an ultra-sleek train zooms past and reminds them and the reader that the times are changing.

    Questions About Time

    1. In one of the earliest descriptions of Tess, we're told that "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). Why is it important that time doesn't pass evenly or uniformly for Tess?
    2. What other characters seem to be out of sync with the passage of time in this novel?
    3. Tess marks the passage of dates of important events in her life: her birthday, her rape, the birth of her baby, the death of her baby, etc. What other cycles are important in this novel?
    4. Angel is surprised to find Tess "expressing in her own native phrases […] feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism" (19.32). What is the "ache of modernism"?

    Chew on This

    Because so many characters and places in Tess of the D'Urbervilles seem to be out of sync with the passage of time, it is easy to read Tess herself as a pseudo-mythic timeless figure.

    Although so many characters and places in Tess of the D'Urbervilles seem to be out of sync with the passage of time, readers should not fall into the trap of reading Tess, who is a unique and complex character, as a mythic "every woman."

  • Sex

    Hardy had a difficult time publishing Tess of the D'Urbervilles because there was so much sex in it. Sure, most of the sex isn't described in any kind of graphic detail, but we still know it takes place. Hardy leaves out the details of the rape, for example, but it's clear what happens from the fact that Tess goes home pregnant, if nothing else.

    And Tess herself if so sexually attractive and voluptuous that early critics suggested that Hardy change it to make her seem less "succulent."

    Questions About Sex

    1. Is sex and sexuality more associated with nature or with civilization in this novel?
    2. Would the novel have played out differently if Tess had been taught about sex before being sent to Trantridge?
    3. Is it possible to read this novel as a cautionary tale about the evils of refusing to educate young women about sex? Is it productive to read it in that way?
    4. Why was this novel censored when it was first published? Is it really morally corrupting or overly sexual?

    Chew on This

    Tess's increasing self-consciousness about her looks, to the point of self-mortification so that she will be less attractive to men, is clearly a response to leers and comments by other characters in the book, but the narrator's obsessive attention to her physicality makes the reader feel complicit, as well.