Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) published this novel in 1891, close to the end of the Victorian era. We might recall that at this time the United Kingdom faced issues relating to poverty, a shift from manual labour to industrialisation, a questioning of traditional Christian religious beliefs, and the oppression and abuse of the general populace and proletariat class. Furthermore, women during Victorian times, in an ironic twist—since the monarch was a woman—had few rights, and had to try and exist in a patriarchal, male-dominated society where the woman’s place was at the home rearing children and tending to her parent’s, then husband’s needs. The Victorian English man and woman also had to deal with issues of suffrage: only men who met a property qualification were allowed to vote by 1884, and women were not allowed to vote without restrictions until 1928.
In this Victorian backdrop, Hardy introduces us to Tess, a young country girl living in the Wessex area. As a Romanticist, Hardy describes Tess in terms that allude to nature and builds this image of a girl of the land with certain characteristics that men find alluring and that distinguish her from the rest of her sex. There is a lot of symbolism in Hardy’s novel, use of imagery, allusions to paganism and pagan rites, nature is studied in depth with loving detail, characters are portrayed using Greek gods and myths. Tess and nature, in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” are one and the same, Hardy revealing the rape of nature by industrialisation and progress through the vicissitudes of his protagonist. Tess is described as a girl with pale skin, luscious red lips and eyes that alternate between all the colours. But Tess describes her world as tainted, “a blighted star,” and feels that her destiny is preordained and that she is not deserving of happiness no matter how hard she struggles to attain it. Immediately, Hardy foreshadows events and we realise that this will not be a ‘feel-good’ novel where the heroine succeeds.
Parson Tringham informs Tess’s father that they come from a noble family named D’Urbeville. This sets into motion a chain of events and results in Tess being sent off to visit relatives bearing that name in the hope that she will be able to help her parents rise up from poverty. Basically, her parents—especially her mother—hope that she will meet a male relative and manage to get herself wed to him. Tess does indeed meet Alec D’Urberville Stoke, a man who describes himself, “I am a bad fellow—a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability.” Alec is bewitched by Tess’s beauty. He sees her as a sex object which he must possess. And so we get the first taste of Tess’s curse, which is her beauty, for in Victorian society a man could justify his actions by blaming a woman for being too beautiful! Indeed Alec rapes Tess. When she gives birth to Alec’s child, she names it Sorrow. The child is born weak and with health problems and dies. Hardy introduces us to issues related to religion when Tess is not permitted to baptise her child traditionally with the blessing of a priest before it dies.
In a bid to leave her problematic parents and Alec behind, Tess moves to a dairy farm, Talbothays. There she meets and falls in love with Angel, a cleric’s son. Angel refuses to conform to the conservative teachings of his faith. Instead, he confesses his love of nature, the country lifestyle and the genuine world of the farmer and the common folk. Angel describes Tess as a young Artemis and Demeter. The references to Tess being like the Greek goddesses Artemis and Demeter are not coincidental, since Artemis represented virginity and young girls, and Demeter represented the harvest and the sanctity of marriage. Not surprisingly, he chooses to marry Tess for whom he has built up this idealistic image in his mind, even though Tess tries to warn him that she is only human, and that he should not place such unrealistic pressure on her and have such high expectations of her. And so, when this love is tested, Angel proves that he is immature and hypocritical. When Tess opens up to him and tells him of her ordeal with Alec—her rape—Angel turns his back on her and blames her for what has happened, for not being his version of a chaste virgin. He moves abroad and leaves Tess to fend for herself.
Tess moves to Flintcomb-Ash where she is forced to work on an unforgiving harsh land which is hard to till. To add to her woes, she is partnered with a harvesting machine which requires that she toil relentlessly to keep up with it. Hardy, through this machine, reveals how industrialisation was taking over from the proletariat and also delves into the corruption of nature by progress and industry. He also reveals how, during the late Victorian times, workers could barely earn enough labouring at farms to feed and clothe themselves: basically, they earned slave wages at increasingly seasonal and temporary posts. This led to a breakup of the traditional family structure since wage earners, specifically women who earned even less than men, were required to stay away from home for prolonged periods.
Succumbing to poverty, and feeling dejected at having been abandoned by her husband, Tess submits to Alec’s persuasions and returns to him offering her body but not her soul. He is willing to take care of her and her family in return for sex.
Hardy ends his story with Tess taking matters into her own hands again and with a promise of a better life for the newer generation. Hardy presents this as the rebirth cycle of nature which occurs with the receding winter and the advent of spring. For the sake of not spoiling the story further for readers, I will not reveal the ending.
In conclusion, Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbevilles, has created a pessimist’s view of Victorian society, one might say a true representation, where the idealistic image of the hardy and wholesome countryman is not so idealistic in real life: these were people with real issues, chronic problems associated with being neglected by the ruling class, left to their own devices to earn a living, forced into seasonal and temporary labour with slave wages; this was a society overrun by cruelty, oppressive systems of government with restricted suffrage, trampling of women’s rights, a time when religion could be twisted to serve personal gain at the exclusion of others. Perhaps this is why the work is now a cornerstone of English Literature, for it has a didactic nature, allowing readers to draw conclusions from a young, innocent girl’s plight to find true love, for, is that too much for someone to expect: aren’t we all entitled to love and be loved?