Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891 and although its sales secured Thomas Hardy’s financial future, it aroused a substantial amount of controversy in Victorian England. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other novels, Hardy demonstrates a deep sense of moral sympathy for England’s lower classes, particularly for a rural woman. He became famous for his compassionate, often controversial portrayal of young women victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of Victorian social morality. The character of Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a depiction of such a young woman. Tess’s character was written by Hardy to act as a vehicle that he could use to challenge the patriarchal attitudes, religious teachings and social change of the Nineteenth Century.
Within the novel, Tess, the heroine, has hardships and injustices endlessly heaped upon her, however, she never wallows in self-pity or abandons hope. Pragmatic and selfless, honest and kind, Tess is clearly presented by Hardy as the subtitle of the novel states, as ‘A Pure Woman ’. Hardy achieves this portrayal of Tess by the constant emphasis on her virtues. Lines such as, ‘there came to her a chill self-reproach that she had not returned home sooner, to help her mother with her domesticities, instead of indulging herself out-of-doors.’ (p. 18) are early examples of Tess’s moral excellence. Tess is frequently seen to act with integrity and responsibility, such as her sense of responsibility for her hapless family, her efforts to commend the other girls to Angel Clare, her patient acceptance of Angel’s judgement, linked to her loyalty, resignation and renunciation, all of which were regarded as female virtues by the Victorians, and finally her refusal to pity herself.
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Emblematic action appears as early as the club-walking scene of Chapter II, in which Hardy presents Tess as both withdrawn, it’s this which prevents Angel from noticing her before the dance, and proud. Hardy uses the ludicrous appearance of Tess’s father in this scene to highlight Tess as having an overbearing and exaggerated pride or hubris. Tess is mortified at the sight of her father but responds aggressively to the derisive laughter of her companions. ‘Look here; I won’t walk another inch with you if you say any jokes about him!’ (p. 12) Tess’s tone is defensive as well as aggressive, and the club-walkers curtail their laughter because they see that she is about to lose her composure. But Hardy’s language also suggests the potential danger of a loss of control in Tess, ‘Perceiving that they had really pained her they said no more, and order again prevailed. Tess’s pride would not allow her to turn her head again, to learn what her father’s meaning was if he had any’ (p. 12 – 13).
The linking of Tess’s sense of pride with a potential loss of order is an example of Hardy presenting Tess’s vulnerability to pride and does well to suggest a certain rashness in Tess’s character. In addition to describing Tess’s moral excellences, Hardy also early on in the novel blends innocence with sexuality when describing Tess. He uses different literary techniques such as intrusive narration, symbolism and setting to achieve this. The first time the reader witnesses Tess, physical description is predominant. Tess, for instance, is: ‘a fine and handsome girl … (with a) mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes … wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment’ (p. 12).
Although this is the first instance of Tess, the complexities of her character that, in part, give rise to her later misfortunes already begin to become apparent. Hardy immediately weaves innocence with sexuality and continues to do so throughout the novel. Again in Chapter V at Trantridge, where Tess travels to claim kinship with the D’Urbervilles but is in fact sent to find a husband; behind her mother’s request is the assumption that Tess will marry a gentleman who will provide for the Durbeyfields. It is this aspect of the visit to the D’Urbervilles that disturbs Tess most, highlighting her particular sexual innocence. Tess is unaware of her own sexuality and thus cannot perceive the danger that Alec presents to her. Hardy turns the story of man’s fall from god’s grace on its head by presenting the man as the tempter and seducer rather than the women, appearing to confront the Victorian idea that women are dangerous and the ones needed to be controlled.
Tess’s physicality is referred to so frequently in the novel that it’s hard to not think of her attractiveness as her defining characteristic. Some characters in the novel aren’t able to see past her good looks. Again referring to Chapter V, The scene in which Tess first meets Alec, we witness the first instance of this: ‘She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now, and it was this that caused Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted. It had troubled her mind occasionally, till her companions had said that it was a fault which time would cure.’ (p. 45)
The ‘luxuriance of aspect’ and ‘fullness of growth’ is Hardy’s way of saying that Tess is surprisingly developed for her age. Later on, when Alec runs into Tess again, he can’t stop talking about her mouth, ‘Surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!’ (p. 378) highlighting Alec’s obsession with Tess as purely physical, and his physical attraction to her is to do with her beauty. Tess at times is self-conscious and embarrassed by her good looks. When she travels alone after Angel Clare has left her, she goes so far as to disguise herself so that she’ll be able to avoid the unwanted remarks and leers of men on the road. She snips off her eyebrows and ties a bandage around her chin. She sees her own physical attractiveness as a sin, it’s something she cannot help, but her physicality tempts men, and causes them to accuse her of deliberately tempting them, as Alec does ‘You temptress, Tess; you dear witch of
Babylon!’ (p. 378). The descriptions of Tess’s physicality, and the different attitudes towards it, lead to another question about Tess’s character, is she a kind of mythic every woman, who stands for a universal female experience. Tess insists she is not and that she is just a regular girl however Angel sees Tess as an idealized woman, rather than as a unique individual. Tess’s female acquaintances, like Izz, Marian and Retty adore Tess in an almost worshipful way, even when they have good reason to be jealous. Their loyal affection for Tess suggests that even to other women, Tess represents a kind of ideal femininity. Just as Angel idealizes Tess, Hardy frequently idealizes the country, presenting the rapid, and occasionally violent, the shift of Victorian society from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, industrial one. At the beginning of the novel, Tess is shown to be participating in a modern form of what is actually an ancient tradition that had to do with worshipping the earth and fertility goddesses.
Hardy laments that these practices are dying out so Tess is introduced as part of a dying tradition. Tess’s connection to nature becomes continually stronger with Hardy adding additional intrusions of pagan past upon Tess’s world, ‘the forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain’ (p. 10). There’s also the woodland around the D’Urberville estate, where ‘Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows’ (p. 40). Hardy also frequently associates Tess with nature, he writes lines such as ‘a field-woman is a portion of the field… she had somehow… assimilated herself with it’ (p. 104) to show this. Tess is almost an incarnation of nature, and certainly a representative of an older order which has somehow placed itself within her. The connection Tess has with nature is also used by Hardy as a tool for him to present Tess’s other characteristics as natural therefore good.
Tess undergoes so much hardship and bears such great burdens, however, she has one major weakness throughout the novel. Her greatest weakness is her family, particularly her brothers and sisters, and it’s this weakness that Alec exploits to great effect. Her journey to The Slopes, at the beginning of the novel, and her subsequent return to Alec near the novel’s end, is all predicated on her willingness to undergo great pains to make her family’s life better. Alec promises financial aid to the Durbeyfield family several times, to which Tess cannot object. He has ulterior motives, however: to subdue Tess and make her his own. Thus, Hardy paints a grand portrait of a well-rounded character in Tess Durbeyfield, whilst making the point that this world punishes virtue and rewards sin.