“Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?” “Never heard it before, sir!”
In this passage, from Chapter I, the local parson informs Mr. Durbeyfield of his grand lineage, thus setting in motion the events that change the fate of Tess Durbeyfield forever. Interestingly, the parson’s tone is casual, as if he is unable even to conceive of how his news might lead to tragedy later. For the parson it is genealogical trivia, but for Durbeyfield it feels like fate—the deepest truth about himself, like Oedipus’s discovery of his own identity. The fact that this prophetic news is delivered on the road, in an open field, right at the beginning of the work is reminiscent of the opening of Macbeth. There, the witches address Macbeth as “Thane of Cawdor” and “King of Scotland,” just as the parson addresses Durbeyfield as “Sir John.” As in Macbeth’s case, the noble address leads to disaster and death—in this case, the death of the “rightful” d’Urberville, Alec.
Hardy emphasizes the irony of Durbeyfield’s situation not only by contrasting the common peddler on the road with the image of the “renowned knight” who was his forebear, but also by contrasting the modes of address of Durbeyfield and the parson. The parson has just addressed him as “Sir John,” which sets the whole conversation in motion, but we see here that the parson soon lapses back into the familiar tone more appropriate to one addressing a social inferior: “Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield. . . . “ Durbeyfield does the same: despite his discovery that he is Sir John, it is he who calls the parson “sir” here. The ironies multiply, making questions of class and identity complex and unstable, as Hardy intends to depict them.