Free Will and Humanity in Tess of the d’Urbervilles

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Thomas Hardy is among the most well-known proponents of naturalism - the pessimistic belief that human behavior, choices, and ultimately destinies are highly influenced, if not predetermined, by their environment. Naturalism suggests that human customs and societal structure directly emulate those of the natural world, implying that humanity has no control over, and therefore, needs not take responsibility for, its actions. However, Hardy is hardly married to this principle. Naturalism is not the only philosophical basis of his works. In his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, author Thomas Hardy contends that humans are not solely victims of fate or nature’s cruelties, but victims of ourselves and our conventions. Our “blighted star” did not destroy Tess; humanity did.

Throughout the novel, Hardy characterizes nature as a force of peace and beauty rather than malice, especially in relation to Tess. She is most at home in nature, often acting as if she is a part of it herself. When Tess is at her happiest, the world around her reflects it, and when nature is at its most scenic, Tess’ mood is consequently elevated. She disappears into nature at several points in the novel, integrating herself almost completely into it. In the aftermath of Tess’ disastrous stay at Tantridge, nature serves as her sanctuary. Tess readily pours herself into fieldwork, “assimilating herself with [her surroundings]” and envelops herself totally in the English countryside (Hardy 88). There she finds refuge from the prying, judgmental eyes of society. Tradition and cultural convention are caustic and ultimately devastating forces in Tess, eventually leading to the “destruction of [the novel’s] heroine” (Shumaker). Nature grants her temporary relief, reviving her natural optimism and innate desire to be good. As Tess travels to Talbothays, Hardy narrates, “ the sense of being among new scenes where there were no insidious eyes upon her [...] sent up her spirits wonderfully” (Hardy 103). Tess, craving an escape from the uncompromising, unforgiving culture of 19th century England, is most content in the natural world, free from the constricting bonds of human convention.

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Tess’ acute discomfort with her own society stems, in part, from humankind’s rapidly increasing removal from nature. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is set less than a century after the Industrial Revolution, a fact which unmistakably influences the work. Hardy consistently extols the virtues of the pastoral life, demonizing industry and technological advancement. He voices his opinions through various literary devices, including metaphor. In the novel’s second phase, Hardy presents his readers with a particularly gory anecdote in which the wildlife in a wheatfield is cornered by a mechanical reaping machine and ruthlessly beaten to death by its operators (Hardy 87). This passage has two meanings - first and most evidently, it demonstrates humanity’s remorseless, unhesitatingly cruel destruction of the innocence around it, both that of nature and of youth. Throughout the novel, the narration and character dialogue seem to insist that our world is an inherently cold and barbaric place; however, that idea is contradicted consistently by the landscape descriptions widespread throughout phases one, two, and three. This scene implies that our world’s blight is humanity, not the world itself. Secondly, it represents the changing times in 19th century England. In the industrial era, lower-income people often migrated to the cities in hopes of securing a factory job and therefore a steady source of income. However, because of low wages, the high cost of living, and various other factors, people became so severely indebted that they were unable to ever leave. Similarly, as literary scholar Jules Law notes, Hardy tends to “historicize his landscapes and buildings” (Law). The author creates and employs several anachronisms throughout the novel, juxtaposing his changing world with a traditional agricultural one. For example, when Tess and her then-lover Angel bring milk from Talbothays to the nearest train station, she remarks that their cargo will soon reach “‘[s]trange people that [they] have never seen [...] [w]ho don’t know anything of [them], [or] where [the milk] comes from,’” some of whom have never even seen a cow (Hardy 187). This scene is a somewhat jarring reminder to the reader that the unpleasant world outside Tess’ safe haven still exists. The farm itself seems entirely unaffected by the rapidly progressing times, creating a stark contrast between the world ruled by man and the world ruled by nature. Hardy contends that, as humanity’s technological prowess grows, our inborn connection to nature begins to dissipate; thus, social law and natural law become increasingly distant. Consequently, our perception of nature has become corrupted, created only through a lense warped by religion, tradition, and cultural convention.

The human perception of nature is inextricably tainted with our own social conventions. In the aftermath of her rape, Tess sees herself and her “unintact” state as something alien and perverted, an ugly red stain on the otherwise pure fabric of nature. She “look[s] upon herself as a figure of guilt intruding into the haunts of [nature’s] innocence” (Hardy 86). She believes herself and her situation to be an affront against the world itself, a violation of not only social law, but natural law. However, as Hardy ironically muses in a separate work, entitled the Mayor of Casterbridge, nature seems to possess a “jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles” (Law). Tess, like many in 19th century England, believes social and natural law overlap heavily, however, as the novel proves time and time again, this is largely untrue. Throughout the novel, many characters seem resigned or even apathetic to the terrible situations they find themselves or the people around them in, claiming that it “is nat[ure]” or “what pleases God” (Hardy 82). For example, after Tess escapes her rapist and abuser and returns to Marlott, her parents berate her for not manipulating the situation to benefit herself and her family. Rather than fight against or even simply recognize Alec D’Urberville’s traumatizing violation of their daughter, they deem it an inevitability - the work of “fate”. The Durbeyfields attribute their daughter’s misfortunes to random chance, blatantly ignoring the significant role they and their choices played in bringing Tess to Tantridge and into the hands of a sexual predator. If John Durbeyfeild had simply abstained from drinking the night before his journey to town, Tess would have never been raped, would never have lost her husband, and, ultimately, would never have been hung for murder. Tess’ family failed her; their selfish choices, not fate, tied their own daughter a noose. All living beings have free will, and very rarely do the effects of such stay isolated to their respective creators. In the 19th century, “fate” was used as an excuse not to take responsibility for one’s actions or their ramifications.

Like many other women in the 19th century, Tess is controlled not by herself, but by the authority figures, and specifically the men, in her life. Throughout the novel, Tess’ character is comprised only of “the formulations of others and herself” (Kincaid). She is subject to constant manipulation by the people close to her, eventually resulting in her “fall”. First, Tess is put under immense pressure by her family to improve and maintain their reputation. When Tess is asked to go live with her D’Urberville “kin” in Tantridge, she is initially hesitant, telling her family that she “‘[doesn’t] quite like Mr. [Alec] D’Urberville” (Hardy 47). Her family is quick to ignore and even criticize her reservations, guilting her into going despite them, and she, in her characteristic passivity, acquiesces easily. This pattern repeats itself several times later in the novel, and Tess neglects to stand up for herself on any occasion, demonstrating her passive, almost nonexistent character. Tess’ most prominent character trait seems to be the “curious absence” of definition - her “speech, decision-making, [...] and even sense of self” are so submissive as to almost be ambiguous (Lovesey). However, in Victorian Britain, an archetypal patriarchy, passivity and submission are traits admired in women. Hardy’s characterization of Tess, as well as her ultimate demise, illustrates the damaging effects of patriarchy on women and society as a whole. Tess’ yielding nature allows her to be manipulated easily as she participates in the societal convention that ultimately destroys her.

In conclusion, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an irony-laced social criticism of Victorian society, some of which still holds true to this day. Tess’ innocence is remorselessly stripped away by those around her and the inflexible, almost vindictive judgement of Victorian England dooms her to a life of hardship and suffering. Fate allows people to blame their shortcomings on an external source, therefore avoiding responsibility. Humanity, not fate, is the driving force behind our destinies.

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Free Will and Humanity in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“Free Will and Humanity in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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