Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
10 July 2003


A social prophet attempts to influence facets of people’s behaviour through media such as novels, plays and films. Novelists who have used their work in this way to criticise, debate or satirise aspects of society have included Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Thomas Hardy. Prophetic novels are often ahead of their time and remain relevant for centuries to come, as has the work of these men. Dickens wrote scathingly of the poverty and deprivation of English industrialisation in the middle of the 19th century, with a message that contributed to the abolition of lassez-faire capitalism. Huxley, a prophet for our own time, warned in the 1930s about the dangers to humanity of genetic engineering when it was still little more than a dream of science fiction. Orwell offered warnings of political corruption and totalitarianism during the first half of the 20th century and is still remembered often today as we strive to avoid or dismantle totalitarian states. Hardy is equidistant between the chronological extremes of these three novelists. His work challenged a number of contemporary social factors of the late 19th century.

Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles addresses three major aspects of Victorian society: morality, religion and inheritance. Published in 1891, Tess aims to influence contemporary attitudes in these areas by demonstrating the flaws of the existing mores. While showing his considerable powers as a master storyteller through his skilful use of language and carefully crafted characters and scenes, Hardy also contrasts different types of behaviour and belief to better convey his prophetic message.

Hardy’s heroine, an innocent young woman named Tess Durbeyfield, questions Victorian attitudes to “old families”. At the time an “old family” – that is, noble and well-off ancestry – was a great asset; sharing a name with a historical figure brought one respect, power and possibly wealth. At the very beginning of the novel Tess’s father Jack discovers from a local parson that he is descended from the D’Urbervilles, an ancient family. This triggers a terrible chain of events for Tess: Jack celebrates the news with a visit to the pub, and becomes so drunk he cannot make a trip to market early the next morning. Tess volunteers to go instead, but because she is “not skilful in the management of a horse,” there is an accident that results in the horse’s death. Without a horse the Durbeyfields are left with no source of income, so Tess is sent to ask for help from a rich family of “D’Urbervilles” nearby. However, these are not really D’Urbervilles, but members of the nouveau riche who have adopted the name as their own. A young man, Alec D’Urberville, lusts after Tess when she comes asking for help. He offers her work and, after several months’ uneasy acquaintance, rapes her.

Here Tess’s grand lineage has done nothing to help her. It has rather caused her harm. Her ancestry continues to haunt her, as in the legend of the D’Urberville coach: “a non-existent coach can only be heard by one of D’Urberville blood, and it is held to be of ill-omen… it has to do with a murder…” On the two occasions Tess hears the coach, the knowledge of the legend distresses and frightens her. Here again her ancestry is a negative influence in her life. Throughout the story it remains so and is mentioned at Tess’s death in the last paragraph: “the D’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing.” This epitomises all her ancestry has done for her – nothing. In using this strong statement with a character we like and sympathise with, Hardy challenges the reader’s beliefs about the honour and worth of noble ancestry.

Hardy also uses Tess to question Victorian morality, especially the prevalent attitudes about sexuality and marriage. The novel’s original subtitle, A Pure Woman, caused particular controversy when it was first published. After Alec’s rape Tess is no longer viewed by society as “pure”; instead she is a sinner and an outcast. It is of no matter to society that Tess’s “sin was not of [her] own seeking” but was imposed upon her by Alec. As she is not a “maid” she is perceived as unworthy of a normal happy life. However, in addition to her innocence of intent in the matter, she has committed no crime under Nature’s laws, which Hardy portrays as the most perfect and just of moral systems: “she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment”.

Tess soon recovers from the rape and the subsequent birth and early death of a son. She is ready to continue in life as if nothing untoward had happened, but society will not let her. Hardy sees this as unnatural and perverted: “But for the world’s opinion,” he comments, “those experiences would have been simply a liberal education.” Statements like this were intensely controversial in 1891 and must have played a significant part in the subsequent changes in attitudes towards sexuality.

These attitudes, of course, were based around the idea that sex was an act that should only take place between a married couple. This sanctity of marriage was also evident in the expectation that a husband would care for his wife, both physically and emotionally, for the duration of the marriage. However Tess’s situation belies that expectation, and Hardy uses her example again to challenge Victorian attitudes to marriage. After marrying Angel Clare Tess confesses her involvement with Alec. Angel is enraged and abandons her, leaving her only a little money – unable to forgive her despite his own similar past “sin”. After spending the winter working hard for little pay on a distant farm, Tess returns to Alec, who takes her in and provides for her family. While both men abuse her emotionally, her rapist cares for her physically at least. This situation challenges the Victorian ideal of a husband who is caring and reliable at all costs.

Next to morality, religion was a pillar of Victorian society. Agnosticism was a movement with few adherents; of more importance to the people of the day were the three splinter groups growing out of the Anglican Church, the High, Middle and Low Churches. Hardy was semi-agnostic himself, appreciating pure religion but despising organised systems. He directly challenges the Church on a number of levels in Tess.

Hardy questions the humanity of the Church towards its members using Angel Clare as a representative. Angel is the son of a parson and his two elder brothers are both ministers; he was brought up in a strictly religious atmosphere. Although he claims to be agnostic – “it is a system of philosophy. There is no more moral… work” – he is still indoctrinated with the beliefs of his parents, as is shown by his rejection of Tess. He can offer no rational explanation for his grief at the realisation that he has not married a virgin, even admitting “you were more sinned against than sinning,” but still callously pushing her away. This unkind and unthinking behaviour is due entirely to Angel’s religious upbringing and in using him as an example, Hardy questions the value of the Church in individual’s lives.

One individual who seems to benefit from the Church is Alec D’Urberville. Some time after his rape of Tess he joins the Low Church movement and becomes an evangelical lay preacher. He thinks himself fully converted and reformed, but as soon as he meets Tess again he leaves the Church to pursue her. Here Hardy shows the false and transitory nature of many “conversions” and challenges the evangelical movement in particular.

It could be said that Tess’s downfall is brought about by a member of the Church – Parson Tringham, who first brings the news of the Durbeyfields’ noble ancestry. This leads to Tess’s disastrous meeting with Alec, as we have seen, and this rape in some way causes all the other negative events in the novel – from Angel’s abandonment to Tess’s final crime and resulting death. Despite having “doubts as to his discretion in retailing this curious bit of lore,” the parson, as another representative of the Church, has unwittingly set into motion the chain of events leading to Tess’s terrible end.

Hardy also uses several small but telling examples of flawed behaviour due to religion to question the value of the Church in society as a whole. At one point Tess meets a wandering preacher who paints damning biblical texts on wayside fences and buildings. Hardy says that “people might have cried ‘Alas, poor Theology!’ at the hideous defacement” – again illustrating a negative effect of the Church’s influence.

Soon after her time with Alec, Tess goes to church one morning. At this time she is pregnant and other parishioners “whisper” and gossip when they see her there. Tess “grew sick at heart, and felt that she could come to church no more”. She is denied sanctuary even in a holy building which should be a source of comfort to her.

Later again Tess returns home from the farm where she was employed after Angel abandoned her. She finds that her baby’s grave in the churchyard is “obliterated” by weeds, and tries to make it visible again. “Some people of scrupulous character” see her doing this and remember her past, and through their “great influence” Tess and her family are evicted from their home – a result of Tess’s “evil influence”. In fact this misfortune to the family is a result only of the judgemental nature of the neighbours; they are judgemental because their religious beliefs require them to be, and so it can be said that the Church has evicted the family because of Tess’s “sin”.

All these references to the Church show it as Hardy saw it – a false, meddling institution luring people with promises of salvation and rewarding them with perceived damnation and personal harm. In this vision he is acting as a teacher, encouraging people to look beyond the hypocrisy of the Church to true faith, or to let go of religion altogether. He is also acting in the novelist’s capacity as a prophet, for these and similar hypocrisies have been understood during the last hundred years, and as a result individual focus on institutional religion has lessened. In his statements about religion, as in his questioning of the value of morality and inheritance in Victorian society, Hardy is fulfilling both these roles to bring his audiences a challenging novel about his society in its worst moments of oppression.

In acting as a prophet and teacher while telling an intense, moving and believable story, Hardy joins an illustrious company of great prophet-writers who have helped to bring about crucial social changes. In the tradition of Dickens before him Hardy cried out against injustice in society; in an early example of the style of Huxley and Orwell he warned of the consequences resulting from the continuation of these injustices. His influence upon these later writers must have been profound. As a member of a prestigious line of literary prophets, he wrote to change his society for the better. His work functions as part of a whole – a member of a sequence of great world-altering writings.


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