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Tess of the d’Urbervilles | Themes

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Pride

Tess, from the outset, is described as having pride. When her father is mocked, she loses her temper over the insult because "Tess's pride would not allow her to turn her head again, to learn what her father's meaning was, if he had any." Tess begins with pride as a positive trait, but it becomes something of a hindrance, leading her into destitution when she refuses to compromise by asking for the Clares' help, which Angel arranged for.

Tess's father's extreme pride leads him to respond to the discovery of their ancestry by spending money they can't afford and drinking so that Tess and her brother—both barely awake—are left to complete the work he fails to do. This leads to the death of Prince, their horse. The same pride over the discovery of their ancestry leads Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield to send Tess into Alec's clutches. Tess's pride makes her seek work rather than a handout, for "Tess's pride made the part of poor relation one of particular distaste to her."

It is not only the Durbeyfields who are guilty of pride. Angel's pride is stung by Tess's past, although he too comes to their marriage with a secret. His reaction, and the pride that won't let him stay and work things out, sends him away to Brazil, causing the ruin of Tess's life.

After Angel leaves, Tess lets pride keep her from returning to the employ of the Cricks as well as seeking money from Mr. Clare. Furthermore, she gives her money to her parents rather than admit she has no further funds, taking "twenty-five of the fifty pounds Clare had given her, and hand[ing] the sum over to her mother, as if the wife of a man like Angel Clare could well afford it, saying that it was a slight return for the trouble and humiliation she had brought upon them in years past." Tess's pride causes a duality in her character: for one so honest and moral, her exaggerated sense of pride impels her to perpetuate a lie and causes hardship for herself and others. Indeed when the hardship is no longer bearable, she ignores her pride and demeans herself, according to her own moral standards, far more than seeking money due her as Angel's wife.

Fate

Fate, or destiny determined by a power beyond an individual's control, is a clear and pervasive theme in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. No matter what Tess attempts, trouble follows and impedes her. From the moment her father learned of the family's heritage and went to the pub to celebrate, the wheels of Tess's fate were set in motion.

Seemingly random events—the pub, the beehives, the dead horse—happen on the day on which the Durbeyfields learn that they are d'Urbervilles. It is as if awareness of their ancestry sets their fate into motion. It is fate, or predestination, that Tess cannot escape.

In fact the narrator implies the crime Tess suffered at Alec's hands may have been her fate because of her ancestors. "Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time." At the same time the narrator opposes the idea that although "to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature." The acknowledgment is that her fate is unjust, but fate has little to do with justice.

Fate is also addressed in more subtle ways. Tess's goals are out of reach because of fate. "She had hoped to be a teacher at the school, but the fates seemed to decide otherwise." In reality the obstacles she initially faces—her family's poverty and her father's drunkenness—are fated. She was born into this family, and their situation is out of her hands. She may strive to change the course of her life, but the novel sets forth the idea that fate cannot be overcome.

Tess also looks at other characters' fate rather than merely bemoaning her own. When hearing of Retty's attempted suicide and Marian's drinking after Angel and Tess married, Tess is critical of their treatment by fate. "They were simple and innocent girls on whom the unhappiness of unrequited love had fallen; they had deserved better at the hands of Fate." But Tess, too, believes their actions are fated—they had no choice other than what they have done. To accept fate in such a way indicates determinism, that individuals have no control over their actions. And this is more or less Hardy's belief.

Ultimately the most direct statement about the inevitability of fate is made when Jack Durbeyfield dies: "Thus the Durbeyfields, once d'Urbervilles, saw descending upon them the destiny which, no doubt, when they were among the Olympians of the county, they had caused to descend many a time," says the narrator. And "severely enough, upon the heads of such landless ones as they themselves were now." Fate has dealt cruelly with the Durbeyfields, and whether or not it is a visiting of the "sins of the father," this final act of fate in Tess's life is the one that takes away her ability to follow her sense of morality. Responsibility for her family, foisted on her when her father dies, causes her to accept the only path left to her for providing for them. Accepting Alec's offers results in his fate—death—at her hands, much as in the legend of the d'Urberville coach, where the sound of an invisible coach serves as a bad omen.

Injustice

The theme of injustice pairs with both pride and fate. There is little justice in the lives of the rural classes in Hardy's novel. However, the leisure to ponder such things is not theirs to have. At Farmer Groby's farm, they "worked on hour after hour, unconscious of the forlorn aspect they bore in the landscape, not thinking of the justice or injustice of their lot." The ability to ponder such questions is a privilege that comes with financial security and leisure.

Conversely, for all his weaknesses Angel does consider what is fair and just in his courtship of Tess, even if he misjudges this. He is aware she is powerless because of her gender and economic status; therefore he treats her more justly than anyone else has done. "Their condition of domiciliary comradeship put her, as the woman, to such disadvantage by its enforced intercourse, that he felt it unfair to her to exercise any pressure of blandishment which he might have honestly employed had she been better able to avoid him." Indeed, even after abandoning her unjustly, he thinks about being fair, becoming "weary and anxious" and wondering "if he had treated her unfairly." Whether these thoughts redeem him is another matter.

Any question he has on the matter is one Tess can answer when she reaches the end of her endurance and "a sudden rebellious sense of injustice caused the region of her eyes to swell with the rush of hot tears." Angel has abandoned her unfairly and has added to the many difficulties she has had to face. She writes to him eventually to tell him "You are cruel, cruel indeed! I will try to forget you. It is all injustice I have received at your hands!"

For Tess there has been no fairness, no justice. Hardy emphasizes this at the conclusion of the novel. "'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess."

Purity and Fallen Women

The theme of purity and its inversion, fallen women, is central to the novel. Tess strives to maintain her purity, but it is under attack from the moment she meets Alec. However, the text hints at this from the first sight of Tess—in a white dress with a red ribbon. She is presented as "pure" (white dress), but there is a hint of sexuality (red ribbon). This is further addressed when Tess meets Alec—and he tucks flowers in her dress and feeds her red fruit (strawberries). Her initial appearances do not convey an awareness of the threat to her purity; however, a reader of the era would have seen it.

When Tess is aware of the threats to her purity, she is defenseless. "'But I don't want anybody to kiss me, sir!' she implored, a big tear beginning to roll down her face, and the corners of her mouth trembling in her attempts not to cry" (Chapter 8). After she has been raped, she is at a loss as to how to address the matter. "Suppose your sin was not of your own seeking?" (Chapter 13). The question of purity is not only thematic in the text; it is also a theme, a social issue, and a driving force behind the novel.

As part of this theme, addressing the topic of marriage is inevitable. Alec, Angel, and Tess all ponder whether or not Alec is her rightful husband. As the man who ended her purity, the only way to regain it to any degree is via marriage to Alec. Tess fears that her impurity will be exposed by her very clothing. "Suppose this robe should betray her by changing color, as her robe had betrayed Queen Guinevere" (Chapter 32).

When Tess attempts to right the situation, to end her ties to Alec and rejoin her rightful husband, the novel flips the colors that were the initial symbolic representation of the theme of purity and fallen women. Early on Tess is in a white dress with a red ribbon, and as the inversion happens, the white ceiling is covered by a red stain.

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