Tess of the d’Urbervilles

by: Thomas Hardy

Tess Durbeyfield

She was a fine and handsome girl—not handsomer than some others, possibly—but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment.

The narrator describes Tess’s physical appearance for the first time. He describes the way she looks many times throughout the novel, consistently giving an image of a beautiful but naïve girl. This description also shows Tess’s confidence in her individuality, as she alone wears a red, not a white, ribbon. From the beginning, readers see that Tess lives as her own woman, despite how other characters try to reduce her.

The oppressive sense of the harm she had done led Tess to be more deferential than she might otherwise have been to the maternal wish; but she could not understand why her mother should find such satisfaction in contemplating an enterprise of, to her, such doubtful profit.

After Prince the horse dies on Tess’s watch, she feels guilty for falling asleep and letting him die. Her guilt leads her to grant her mother’s wish by going to work for the d’Urbervilles. Tess embodies the stereotypically female trait of obedience, but she secretly questions why her mother thinks they will gain anything from Tess’s journey. While she does not display any sense of rebellion, she evidences more intelligence and thoughtfulness than her parents.

As Tess grew older, and began to see how matters stood, she felt quite a Malthusian towards her mother for thoughtlessly giving her so many little sisters and brothers, when it was such a trouble to nurse and provide for them. Her mother’s intelligence was that of a happy child: Joan Durbeyfield was simply an additional one, and that not the eldest, to her own long family of waiters on Providence.

The narrator describes how Tess grows critical of her mother as she begins to see the irresponsibility of having so many children while lacking the resources needed to properly care for them. Such an insight helps readers see Tess’s superior intelligence but also her ignorance. Readers later learn that because Tess does not understand how procreation works, she can’t take measures to prevent a pregnancy.

After wearing and wasting her palpitating heart with every engine of regret that lonely inexperience could devise, commonsense had illumined her. She felt that she would do well to be useful again—to taste anew sweet independence at any price.

After Tess returns home from the d’Urberville estate, for a time she remains depressed and will not leave the house. However, she eventually decides that she prefers usefulness and independence. The fact that Tess overcomes her depression after her traumatic experience by analyzing her options reveals her tremendous emotional strength.

Almost at a leap Tess thus changed from simple girl to complex woman. Symbols of reflectiveness passed into her face, and a note of tragedy at times into her voice. Her eyes grew larger and more eloquent. She became what would have been called a fine creature; her aspect was fair and arresting; her soul that of a woman whom the turbulent experiences of the last year or two had quite failed to demoralize.

After the death of her baby, the narrator notes that Tess developed from a girl into a woman. Having gone through horrible experiences, she has lost all her innocence yet gained depth and insight. However, in the narrator’s eyes and in the eyes of others, this maturity makes her a “fine creature,” showing that men were likely more interested in the beauty her newfound depth brings to her than in the trauma she has been through.

The irresistible, universal, automatic tendency to find sweet pleasure somewhere, which pervades all life, from the meanest to the highest, had at length mastered Tess.

When Tess begins working at Talbothays Dairy, she starts enjoying life in a way she never had before. Here, the narrator identifies the human desire to seek pleasure in life as “universal” and describes its powerful effect on Tess. Although she cannot change what has happened to her, she has the mental strength to put her traumas behind her for a time.

She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

As Tess travels, she finds pheasants who have been maimed by hunters and compares their plight to her own. The birds’ death throes put her woes into perspective. She regrets pitying herself for society’s condemnation of her when she sees the physical suffering of the animals likewise victimized by cruelty. After all, none of the pheasants had done anything to deserve their fate. Tess has the insights of a woman born before her time, knowing that what happened with Alec was not her fault and she doesn’t deserve to bear the punishment for his acts.