"Never in her life- had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgements had come".
Initially condemned for being ‘immoral’ and pessimistic when it was first published in 1891, Tess of the D’urbervilles is a moving novel about the hypocrisy of social convention. But most importantly, this poetic Thomas Hardy novel is best known for its harrowing depiction of the wronged Tess.
Presented by Hardy as a mythic heroine, whereby she is often referred to in mythical terms, such as being called the ‘Daughter of Nature’, Tess Durberyfield is a loyal young woman, committed to doing the best she can for her family. However, it is her inexperience, beauty and lack of wise parenting that leave her extremely vulnerable. Being the eldest daughter of an impoverished family from Marlott, Tess’s misfortune begins when her father discovers a link between their name and the noble line of D’urbevilles. As a result of this, Tess is encouraged by her ambitious and greedy parents to go “claim kin” by working at the D’urberville mansion. Unfortunately, it is here, while working for the amoral Alec D’urberville, that Tess meets her downfall.
Manipulative, sinister and impulsive, Alec does everything in his power to seduce the inexperienced Tess; raping her out in the woods one night. When Tess inevitably becomes pregnant with Alec’s child, she is established as a religious symbol, representing the idea of ‘fallen humanity’. Moreover, in depicting the injustice Tess suffers as a result of tyrannical Alec D’urberville, Hardy suggests Tess represents Christinaity’s ‘original sin’, where although she suffers crimes that are not her own, she will will a life more degraded than she deserves.
This allusion to ‘original sin’ is explored further in the next chapter (‘Maiden No More’), after Tess returns home a ‘fallen woman’. For instance, Tess is left grief-stricken and miserable when her young baby, Sorrow, dies. A year later, to the much needed relief of the reader, Tess enjoys a period of contentment and friendship whilst working as a milkmaid at the Talbothays dairy farm. There she meets a Parson’s son, named Angel Clare, who she slowly falls in love with. Despite this happiness, Tess’s past troubles continue to haunt her when the noble Mr Clare asks for her hand in marriage. Torn by her conscience, Tess believes the moral thing to do would be to reveal everything to her prospective husband, and not remain silent, under her mothers strict orders. However, once she writes a confessional note and slips it under Angel Clare’s door, it slides under the carpet, causing him never to see it.
After the wedding, consumed with guilt, Tess decides to confess all. But Angel cannot forgive Tess and leaves for Brazil alone. Although left with some money to support herself, Tess is too scared to inquire after her husband’s welfare and consequently succumbs to poverty. Along with Talbothays’ Marion and Izz, she is forced to work on an unpleasant farm. It is here that again Tess involuntary succumbs to the cruel Alec D’urberville.
When Angel returns to England and is ready to forgive his wife, it is too late. Upon discovering Tess in the fashionable city of Sandborne, he soon learns that Tess was unable to resist Alec after she had been abandoned. Tess then tells Angel that he must never try and find her again, going upstairs heartbroken to the point of madness. It is then that she stabs Alec D’urbeville to death in his sleep. Hiding out in an empty mansion, the travelling to Stone Henge to rest, Tess awakes to find that a search party has discovered them. As a result of this, Tess is arrested and says she is ‘ready’ to die because she always knew that “too much happiness couldn’t last”.
In conclusion to this, although a major theme of Tess of the D’urbervilles includes men dominating women, Hardy is shown to sympathize with England’s lower class, particularly rural women. As well as this, the novel can be seen as a compassionate (and sometimes controversial) depiction of a wronged woman who has been victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of English social morality that leaves you with the single sorrowful utterance that is – ‘poor Tess’!