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Tess of the D'Urbervilles: Two Different Perceptions of Woman's Nature in Hardy's Novel

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of Thomas Hardy’s best novels – perhaps it is his very best. The beautiful simplicity of his style when, as usual, he forgets he is writing, the permeating healthy sweetness of his description, the idyllic charm and yet the reality of his figures, his apple-sweet women, his old men, rich character as old oaks, his love-making, his fields, his sympathetic atmosphere – all these, and any other of Hardy’s best qualities we can think of, are to be found widest commonly spread in Tess.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is not only the richest novel that Hardy ever wrote, it is also the culmination of a long series of Victorian texts, which identify, enact, and condemn the alienated condition of modernity. The undermining of a reader’s expectations is already common in the Victorian novel form. Yet Hardy goes further with irony and surprise than even his favorite novelist, the equally subversive William Makepeace Thackeray. Doubleness, multiplicity, and irony are key aspects of a strain of Victorian aesthetics and artistic practice working at the limits of conservative doxa from the 1830s until the end of the century. It is through this intellectual formation that Hardy’s work can best be understood.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it is not the image of girl that is split into two characters, although the tendency, although the tendency is represented in Angel has prolonged inability to reconcile his image of the innocent milkmaid with the reality of a sexually experienced girl. His remark to Tess that ‘You were one person; now you are another (Tess of the D’Urbervilles) might be interpreted as an attempt to deny or defend against the possibility that he might love her in spite of her experience. The double standard that he employs in judging Tess and not himself is both a curious and characteristic example of the kind of doubling one finds in the attitude toward girls in a great deal of fiction. The sleepwalking scene at Wellbridge, for example, when Angel attempts to bury Tess, might be interpreted as an extension of the doubling, an attempt to deny the sexual nature of woman.

It is rather the attitude towards woman in Tess of the D’Urbervilles that is split into two characters. Alec and Angel, one taking an attitude that woman is primarily a sexual object, the other an attitude that denies her sexual nature through idealization. The approximate representation of these two attitudes may be seen in an apparent doubling of male characters similar to the one of female characters, at least to the extent that the heroes or other principal male characters are frequently to be found in rivalry with a rake or other figure who has had a wider and often socially unacceptable sexual relationship with a woman or whose relationship with women seems primarily sexual.

Tess is the most satisfying of all Hardy’s heroines. She is by no means so empty-headed as they are won’t to be, but, like her sisters, she is a fine Pagan, full of humanity and imagination, and, like them, though in a less degree, flawed with that lack of will, that fatal indecision at great moments. All of Hardy’s fiction reflects his deep pessimism. In his novels, man never seems to be free; the weight of time and place presses heavily on him, and, above everything, there are mysterious forces, which control his life. Man is a puppet whose strings are worked by fate, which is either hostile or indifferent to him. He dedicated himself to writing short stories, but then returned to writing novels and produced two works of great stature.

Literary critics of the day attack these works, accusing Hardy of pessimism and immorality. This hostile reaction convinced Hardy to give up fiction and to go back to poetry, which he had written since his youth. Over the next thirty years, Hardy published eight collections of poetry, which include over 800 poems. At the height of his fame, in 1910, he was awarded the Order of Merit as one of the country’s prominent men of letters. Although his marriage was not happy, the sudden death of his wife in 1912 triggered a period o depression and remorse out of which came one of his finest collections of poetry, Poems of 1912-1913. In 1914, he remarried and continued working relentlessly until he died at the age of eighty-seven. He was buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

The Story and the Theme of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) is a profound and a beautiful study of the frustration of human intention by fantasy and by the harshness of human conventions. Tess and Clare are in part victim of their misperceptions of each other: their story is a particular example of a general human disposition position to believe (erroneously, in Hardy’s view) that the world has been created for the benefit of mankind. Tess is a figure of deep pathos, part Erosun fulfilled, part Agape unrecognized.

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The Story of the Novel

Tess, a poor country girl, learns that she is descended from a noble family the d’Urbervilles. When she goes to find her rich relatives, she is seduced by Alec d’Urbervilles and has a baby who dies in infancy. She goes to work on a dairy farm and falls in love with Angel Clare. On their wedding night, she reveals the secret of her relationship with Alec. Angel reacts angrily, abandons her and goes to Brazil. Out of necessity, and to help her family, she goes back to Alec. When she hears that Angel has returned to England and realizes he has forgiven her, she kills Alec in a fit of anger. Tess and Angel run away to escape from the police but she is eventually captured at Stonehenge and hanged.

The Portrayal of a Pure Girl in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess as Half –woman and Half- girl Hardy prevents his readers from regarding character as a unifying force or coherent reference point. He fractures his central characters through multiple point of view and multiple genres. Just as Marl out itself may be viewed from various locations and positions, so Tess is observed from perspectives that are not only variegated but also are conflicting. Tess is aristocratic by lineage, bourgeois by education, and a rural proletarian by birth. She speaks bilingually; dialect and Standard English. Hardy deliberately makes her half-woman and half-girl. When we first meet her, Tess’s face supposedly reflects different phases of her youth, ”you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then. …. Later, her fluctuating moods alter a face that is sometimes pink and flawless, yet pale and tragic at other times. Hardy claims that she is forever served from her childhood innocence by her experience in the Chase, yet counters his assertion whenever he continues to treat the adult Tess as a childlike innocent.

Tess as a Crumby Girl

Through her suitors often perceive her monochromic – ally Tess is never one thing. When Angel can no longer see her as the equally worshipful narrator does, he must stereotype her as soiled. Yet his earlier idealization of Tess as a nature goodness, which she disowned, was just as reductive. Despite the clarity his surname ”Clare” evokes, Angel shows himself to be as limited in perception as Alec, who first narrowly admires her as a juicy morsel, a ”crumbly girl” (p. 46). Unlike these two central suitors, the narrator does not waver in seeing Tess doubly. For example, even after, she becomes a mother and assumes a more handsome womanliness, and even after her erotic attraction to Angel, she does not lose her virginal qualities for the narrator. However, if the narrator is dual, perspective undercuts the single-mindedness of Alec and Angel; it is not exempt from criticism. The presence of the implied author, known to the reader by the sum of all the text’s point of view, reveals the narrator’s point of view to be overly romantic and egocentric.

As Tess’s third suitor and a mixture of the other two, the narrator combines Angel’s spirituality and Alec’s cynicism. Yet even though he exhibits an erotic sensuousness that resembles Alec’s and often adopts the ever-intellectualized pedantic and circumlouctionary style of Angel, this prime suitor is also mocked by an implied author who asks us to recognize that the narrator is an eager as these who male characters are to possess a femininity which remains unpossessed, dispossessed, unclaimed, and above all, unable to be possessed, because valued for the wrong reasons.

Tess and the idea of Love at First Sight

Numerous Hardy’s critics, among them some of the earliest, have attempted to identify the special features of Hardy’s fictive world (Irwin 1990, p.45). One of the features noted most often, and one that throws some light on the psychology in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is the idea of love at firs sight. It recurs with sufficient frequency to seem at times a virtual prerequisite of romance. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, an early novel that seems to prefigure some of the psychological issues in Tess of the D’Urbervilles more clearly than any other, Stephan Smith falls in love with Elf ride the first time he sees her: It comes to this sole simple thing: that at one time I had never seen you, and I didn’t love you; that I saw you, and I did love you (p. 66). Angel and Tess do not fall in love when they first lay eyes on each other at the May-Day dance in Marlott, but Angel’s memory of this first sight of Tess is used later as a basis for choosing her when they meet again at Talbothays Diary: He concluded that he had beheld her before; where he could not tell. A casual encounter during some country ramble it certainly had been, and he was not greatly curious about it.

However, the circumstance was sufficient to lead him to select Tess in preference to other pretty milkmaids when wished to contemplate contiguous womankind. (p. 155). Love at first sight, or a retrospective appeal to the idea, as in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, usually suggests that the two lovers, sometimes against their will, are fated for each other. The psychological basis of the idea is that the lover has in mind a prior, idealized image that they suddenly encountered object appears to match. Angel is in love with an image of his own making. The image is one of rustic innocence and virgin purity. His first comment to himself about Tess is, ‘What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is” (p. 156). When walking together in the midsummer dawn to the milking: She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman- a whole sex condensed unto one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names (p. 167). When she says ‘Call me Tess’, he does, but he persists in idealizing her. At the heart of his image of her is an expectation of virginity so strong as to be virtually a demand. After Tess’s confession, he told on to the image: ”Nothing so pure, so sweet, so virginal as Tess had seemed possible all the long while that he adored her, up to an hour ago” (301), the discovery of what is later referred to as Tess’s “un-intact state” (p. 435) so alters her appearance in his eyes that she seems to be a different person: ”You were one person; now you are another” (p. 292). Tess, in desperation, asks if he has stopped loving her. He answers that: ”The woman I have been loving is not you”. ”However, who?” she asks: ”Another woman in your shape” (p. 293).


The salient point for a reader for the fiction, however, remains the conflict between the sensuous and affectionate feelings in Hardy’s imaginary world. Equally important to note is that a proper interpretation of the origin and significance of the conflict will not allow it to be in exclusively biographical terms. Although Tess is a creation of Hardy’s imagination, she is also representative in certain ways of an image of the culture in which Hardy lived. While his imagination may be thought to have been first nurtured in a matrix of primal relationships, the most formative of which would have been with his mother, it was later weaned from its personal and provincial origins by a cultural matrix that conceived of the human being as a double, body and soul, split between earthly origins and high aspirations.

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Two Different Perceptions of Woman’s Nature in Hardy’s Novel. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
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