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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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" 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.