1. Discuss the character of Tess. To what extent is she a helpless victim? When is she strong and when is she weak?
Tess is a young woman who tends to find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is a victim, but she is also, at times, irresponsible. She falls asleep while taking the beehives to market, which ends up killing the family horse, Prince. She decides to visit the d’Urbervilles in Trantridge, giving rise to all her future woes, partly out of the guilt and responsibility she feels toward her family. She wants to make good, but in trying to help her family she loses sight of her own safety and her own wants and wishes. She becomes Alec’s victim in the forest. She probably should have known not to put herself in such a situation, but she has few other options. Here, it seems as though she is destined to rely on others, even when they are unreliable.
But Tess is also a strong woman throughout the novel. She stands up for herself and refuses to crumble under pressure. She chastises herself for her weakness after her sexual escapade with Alec. If we agree with her claim that this indiscretion is a moment of weakness, we probably also feel that such weakness is not unlike that of most human beings. She is hard on herself for letting herself become a victim. At the burial of her child, Sorrow, she weeps but collects herself and moves on as a stronger woman. Overall, her determined attempts to escape her past primarily reflect her strength.
2. Discuss the role of landscape in the novel. How do descriptions of place match the development of the story? Does the passing of the seasons play any symbolic role?
The landscape always seems to inform us about the emotion and character of the event. Whjen the novel opens at the village dance, the sun is out and the day is beautiful. This celebration is where Tess and Angel meet, even if only briefly. The weather turns as Tess returns home, where the scene is less elegant. Throughout the novel, many of the bad events occur in a dark and deep forest, and Alec and Tess interact numerous times in such a forest.
The seasons bring changes to the story as well. At Talbothays Dairy, the summer is full of budding love between Tess and Angel. When they profess their love for each other, it begins to rain, but neither one cares: the weather cannot affect them. When they separate, Angel goes to Brazil and finds the farming extremely difficult, while Tess goes to work at the farm at Flintcomb-Ash, where the work in the rugged, depressing stubble fields is harsh and grueling.
3. Hardy rarely questions public morality openly in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Nevertheless, the novel has been taken as a powerful critique of the social principles that were dominant in Tess’s time. How does Hardy achieve this effect? Why might we infer a level of social criticism beneath Tess’s story?
Our sense that Tess of the d’Urbervilles implicitly criticizes Hardy’s society owes much to Hardy’s use of a classical tragic plot ending in an undeserved punishment. Tess’s story contains many features of Greek tragedy, as Hardy’s reference at the end of the novel to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound reminds us. The classical tragic hero, according to Aristotle, is noble and dignified, and is punished on a far greater scale than his small sins warrant, with death. Tess too is highborn and honorable, and her momentary submission to Alec brings her a far greater suffering than she deserves, as even Alec comes to realize. In addition, as is usual with the demise of tragic heroes, Tess’s execution feels more significant than a mere death—it feels like a great and noble sacrifice to some higher power’s will. But in her case, the higher power is not the gods, but Victorian social forces. It is the Victorian cult of aristocratic lineage that drives Tess to seek the patronage of Mrs. d’Urberville and meet her seducer Alec. It is the unfair class system that allows a rich nobleman to impregnate and abandon a lower-class girl without consequences. It is also the Victorian myth of the pure virginal bride that unfairly keeps Angel from accepting Tess as his wife, despite his own besmirched sexual history. These social injustices bring undeserved suffering to Tess, as the ancient gods brought undeserved suffering to the tragic hero. It is thus the tragic structure of Tess of the d’Urbervilles that causes us feel indignation at the unfairness of Victorian society, without the need for any outright denunciations by the author.