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Tess of the DUrberville

a novel by Thomas Hardy

The later Victorian Age

1861 - 1901 Queen Victoria and her family provided the model of respectability. Explosion of knowledge. Britain competed with other European countries to divide up Africa. The middle class had enormous power in society and in the industry. The 1870s where years where general changes in attitude were beginning to come about, so the society become fragmented, and the changes were frightening for many people and caused the growing of a pessimism that affected also writers and intellectuals. Primarily England was an urban country: the Empire was making its slow and painful transition from an old-fashioned, agricultural nation to a modern, industrial one.

The Victorian novel

The mechanisation of printing made books cheaper and more plentiful, and therefore reading became a national leisure pursuit. Communion of interests and opinions between writers and their readers. Marked interest in prose, the most popular form of literature and the main form of entertainment. Spread of democracy social and humanitarian novels Spirit of moral instability inquisitive and critical novels Victorian novels tended to be of an improving nature with a central moral lesson. The realistic novel finds its best representative in Thomas Hardy: his characters are caught between rural traditionalism and the potential dangers of the modern and urban.

Women in Victorian society

During the Era symbolized by the reign of British Queen Victoria, difficulties went up for women because of the vision of the "ideal woman" shared by most of people in the society. The idea of respectability distinguished the middle from the lower class. Women were seen as pure and virtuous: because of this view, their bodies were seen as temples that should not be adorned with makeup, nor used for such pleasurable things as sex Although women gained more rights, their duties were having children and taking care of the house. While in cities they could not work, except for being teachers and midwives, in the countryside most of lower class women were illiterate and had to work hard to get by.

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840 in the country of Dorset, in the south-west of England. He was educated at the village school and later in Dorchester he was apprenticed to a local ecclesiastical architect. By 1862 he was working and studying architecture in London, and at the same time began writing novels. In 1872 he published Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd, with which he gained fame. Then he devoted his life to writing, in particular to the realistic movement. The most remarkable tragic novels that he wrote are Tess of the DUrberville (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), his last one. These books scandalised Victorian public opinion, so Hardy decided to give up fiction and turn to poetry. He died in 1928 in London.

The novel
Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented: This is the entire title of the novel , written by Hardy in 1891 and his penultimate work. The book initially scandalised Victorian public opinion with is pessimism and appeared in a censored and serialised version, published by the British illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. The novel is divided into seven sections, titled as phases, in relation to the progress of the plot and its moral implications. Various phases of the novel have been named according to various life phases of Hardy's heroine: "The Maiden," "Maiden No More," and so on to the final phase, "Fulfillment."

The poor parents of the young Tess Durbeyfield find out they are descendents of a rich and aristocratic family, the DUrbervilles. So the girl is sent by her family in Marlott to claim kinship with the Stoke-DUrberville. There, she meets the familys son, Alec, that attempts to seduce her, but she resists. Finally one night he takes advantage to her and later Tess gives birth to a child that soon after dies. Then she leaves the area and goes to work in Wessex at a dairy farm where she meets Angel Clare, the younger son of a parson, interested in farming methods. They soon fall in love. On their wedding night she tells him her past, and he rejects her with puritanical horror: he leaves for Brazil and abandons Tess.

After suffering for affliction and misery, Tess meets Alec again and discovers he has been converted to Christianity. Now he falls in love with her and claims that he is more her husband than Angel, so Tess accepts to become Alecs mistress. Meanwhile Angel has had a change of heart and comes back to England, where he is searching for Tess. He finds her in Sandbourne living as Alecs wife: at first Tess tells him to leave her, but in desperation kills Alec and escapes with Angel. They are caught as they rest in Stonehenge and Tess is sentenced to death by hanging. Before she dies, she asks Angel to take care of her younger sister Liza Lu. In the last scene Angel and Liza Lu walk away from the town of Wintoncester where Tess has just been hanged.


Tess Durbeyfield
Shes the central character of the novel, that takes her name. Intelligent, remarkably attractive, distinguished by her deep moral sensitivity and passionate intensity. Hardy makes her to be somewhat of a mythic heroine: she has to face the troubles of life and is presented as a tragic victim: she embodies the qualities of affections and trust, the powers of suffering and survival, she has energy to endure and go on living and in the end she offers her life as a sacrifice. Although she has an illegitimate child, her community doesnt treat her as an outcast: this was totally against Victorian morality.

Angel Clare
Tess s husband and true love. Hes an intelligent, kind and attractive young man. When Tess relates her own tale, he seems to have forgotten his own lurid tale and denies Tess the forgiveness that she so willingly granted him, indicating a fault in Angel's character: his intractability. He has a deeply theoretical attitude. His love for Tess, a mere milkmaid of the lower class, is one expression of his disapproval for tradition. He seems reasonable but makes decisions based on impulse, not rational thinking.

Alec Stoke DUrberville

Tesss fake cousin and then lover. Manipulative and sinister, handsome and amoral young man who does everything he can to seduce the inexperienced Tess. Afterwards he tries to help her but is unable to make her love him. Rapacious and possessive, Alec believes that his status in society and his financial situation gives him power to possess and control Tess. Hes driven by senses and passions.

The style used is simple but creates a blend of traditional culture and modern sensibility, realistic descriptions (especially of nature) and poetic images. Hardy employs the Victorian omniscient narrator, who is always present and ready to give his comments, opinions and views of life. He often presents the action through the eyes of a hypothetical observer with whom the reader is implicitly invited to identify himself. Hardy even anticipates the cinema thanks to his narrative techniques, similar to the camera eye and the zoom, used nowadays.



Nature plays a leading role in Hardys novels because the vicissitudes of the characters are always inextricably connected to it. Hardy is able to describe the emotions with natural images and presents different aspects of nature such as weather, landscapes and animals, using their connotations to show Tess's feelings of happiness and sorrow. Natural laws exist independent of humanity. Hardy wanted to portray an atmosphere where there werent manners and a strict code of behaviour, that were anything but natural. Hardys love for nature is reflected particularly in his use of metaphors, similes and personifications.

According to Hardys point of view, life is a tragedy and everyone has a terrible destiny, full of sorrows, against which one can fight, but without any chance of winning. Fate plays a predominant role in what happens to Tess. She often regrets ever having been born: life itself appears to be her tragic error, and death is the only just end for her. Hardy uses the determinism, showing the way in which individuals inevitably succumb to natural laws and economic processes, despite their hopes and ambitions.

One of the main themes in the book is purity: Tesss working experiences vary from poultry farming to dairy farming and, later, to work in the fields: it is hard work, but it belongs to a world which is not corrupt, but is pure, just like Tess. The novel in fact has a subtitle: A pure woman: a pure woman who has a tragic destiny. Hardys treatment of Tesss behaviour and of her unfortunate sexual relationship caused great scandal in Victorian society, in which women cannot be dishonored by sex.

Relationships between men and women

Tess is an exploration of love and passion. Alec is a man driven by his senses, while Angel focuses on his ideals and dreams. While to Alec Tess is an erotic object existing exclusively for his enjoyment, to Angel, Tess is the essence of purity. Tess herself combines Alec's sensual nature tempered by Angel's spirituality: she prefers, however, to live in a state of unerotic relationship, in which the fantasy of romance is often more attractive to her than the more sexual aspects of love. The standards of Victorian society about sex condemned Tess for having premarital sex, but Hardy explores sex as both a painful and a pleasurable experience.