TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES
For most readers, the major issue in this novel is whether Tess is
victimized, whether she is responsible for her fate, or whether she is
partially victimized and partially responsible for her fate.
The title of the first section with its reference to maiden
indicates Tess's innocence; she is, as Hardy describes her, "a mere
vessel of emotion untinctured by experience" (page 9). The deep
emotions that move Tess and the feeling with which Hardy writes about
her led J.I.M. Stewart to write, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles is
not merely an emotional novel; it is one of the greatest distillations
of emotion into art that English literature can show."
PHASE THE FIRST: THE MAIDEN
THE OPENING: CHAPTERS 1
The opening two chapters introduce several major themes: the effect of
the past in the present, coincidence or chance, degradation of the
poor, integration into the folk or community, and the fertility of
Both Tess's father and Tess are involved with the past.
Parson Tringham impulsively reveals his illustrious family tree to
Durbeyfield. The immediate effect of this meaningless information about
the past is Durbeyfield's foolish behavior: he is taken by his own self
importance and then becomes drunk. The long-term consequences of
Tringham's chance revelation continue to the end of the book. Consider,
as you read, how much of an impact the revelation of her ancestry has
on Tess's life. Is chance or coincidence operating in the timing of the
revelation, that Dubreyfield must take the beehives to market early the
When we first see Tess, she is participating in a
Cerealia. This local tradition has lost its original meaning as a
festival for Ceres, a Roman goddess representing the generative
(reproductive) power of nature. The fertile, sheltered Vale of
Blackmore is a perfect setting for a cerealia, and it provides a safe
home for Tess. Does she leave it because of events arising out of
Thus, the past continues in degraded forms into the
present, i.e., with the decay of the mighty d'Urbervilles into the poor
Durbeyfields, with the Dubeyfield family's shiftlessness, folly, and
irresponsibility, and with the loss of the Cerealia's meaning.
The past and the present mingle in other ways in the
first two chapters. Among the young walkers in the Cerealia are a few
middle-aged and even elderly women. Earlier ages appear in Tess's face,
sometimes "her twelfth year in her cheeks or her ninth sparkling from
her eyes" (page 10).
The mingling of the past and the present continues
through the novel. In the next chapter Tess is contrasted with her
mother; between them "there was a gap of two hundred years" and "the
Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed" (page 18). Tess has a
contemporary education and can speak standard English; her mother
relies on superstition and folklore, learns ballads by hearing them,
and speaks the local dialect. The newly erected d'Urberville home is
in the Chase, a primeval forest, and the use of the original farmhouse
in which generations of farm families lived for a henhousealso
intermingles the past and present.
Do all these references to the connection of the past
and the present create a feeling that the past is inescapable?
From his first appearance as an unnamed young man, Angel
Clare seems somewhat isolated from his brothers and aimless, apparently
"a desultory, tentative student of something and everything" (page 10).
He seems to be a young man who chooses his own path, for he does not
leave with his brothers. He does not notice Tess, who is
indistinguishable from the other young women; she is still integrated
into the rural community, though she catches Clare's attention by
standing apart, hurt at his not having danced with her. Leaving, he
regrets having ignored her but accepts that there is nothing he can do
about it. Do his behavior and apparent character traits here foreshadow
in any way his later behavior with Tess? Tess's separateness from the
other girls or her community is temporary; in the next chapter, she
joins the other dancers with pleasure.
DISCUSSION OF TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES