Tess of the d’Urbervilles follows Tess through the last stages of her life. The reader is witness to the starting point of her eventual downfall, Alec raping her and the ramifications of that on the rest of her life. As the novel progresses, the reader learns more about Tess’ true nature and how her end comes about because of the imposition of conventional values on her by other people, Alec’s misinterpreting her feelings, Angel’s religious dogmatism and the views of the people Tess interacts with.
The character of Tess does not change throughout the whole book, rather, the full understanding of her character is revealed to the reader as the story unfolds. The classic notion of a tragic hero occurs throughout the history of literature, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Othello, and even Oedipus Rex. Essentially, a tragic hero is an inherently noble character of great standing who suffers from a fatal flaw, be it pride, ambition or lust. The combination of this fatal flaw and a healthy dose of supernatural intervention results in the downfall of the tragic hero, before which he realises his fault.
Tess is of course a far cry from this description; she is but the daughter of “the commonest feller in the parish” although she does possess many noble characteristics, and an almost equal amount of faults. Though not as obvious as witches or fairies, Hardy suggests throughout the novel that there are greater powers at work, manipulating the Tess’ situation, leading her to her doom. As opposed to the classic tragedy Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a domestic tragedy and is filled with pathos.
Pathos presents its heroine as isolated by a weakness that appeals to the reader’s sympathy because it reflects personal experience. More often than not, a domestic tragedy will contain a pathetic female sacrifice, from Clarissa Harlowe to Jame’s Diasy Miller. In contrast to classical tragedies where massacres occur to cleanse the whole system, as in Hamlet, domestic tragedy concentrates on a single character, Tess in this case, partly because of the society being more strongly individualised yet at the same time constrained by traditions and orders.
Characteristic of pathos is also the inarticulateness of the tragic heroine, Tess does not realise what Alec wants to do to her in the Chase till it is too late and again she does not point out Angel’s hypocrisy when he refuses to forgive her for her lies. Tess is possessed of pleasant enough qualities to stand her in good stead with any man. She is “a fine and handsome girl” who is deceptively mature and grows to a young woman. Emphasis is placed on the attractiveness of her eyes, her “velvet” lips, her sensuous “cooing voice, plaintive in expostulation”.
That she is capable of pride and independence is also shown repeatedly throughout the book, clearly she is only “a peasant by position and not by nature” and this can be seen in her determination in leaving Alec, her unwillingness to reveal to her parents the truth of her marriage. It is “pride, false shame, whatever it may be called, on Clare’s account, which had led her to hide from her parents the prolongation of the estrangement. ” It is this pride which also prevents from staging an emotional scene to win back Angel’s love.
Besides her physical qualities, Hardy also creates sense of Tess’ kinship with Nature and her frailty amidst her surroundings. She is “a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” and nearer the end of the novel, despite the trials and tribulations she has gone through, she is still “a vessel of emotions rather than reasons”. The reader senses in Tess a instinctive, emotional quality that is in sharp contrast to Angel’s “concentration”, “contemplation” and “thinking”. Tess is continually compared to animal life, she “was as warm as a sunned cat” and is often related to birds like the sparrow.
This sense of her being one with Nature is succinctly put across in Hardy’s description of her as “a figure which is part of the landscape. ” Ironically, Tess’ good qualities indirectly lead to her downfall as they become more a curse than a blessing. Her beauty is what attracts Alec and leads to her rape. Her beauty then attracts Angel, who misinterprets her beauty and sees her as “a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature”. She comes to realise the curse of her beauty as she reaches Chalk-Newton, where “she mercilessly nipped her eyebrows off, and thus insured against aggressive admiration she went on her uneven way. ”
Her pride is also a major flaw in her character as it leads to sudden impulses of anger, as when her father is drunk in the inn, “Pride, too, entered into her submission – which perhaps was a symptom of that reckless acquiescence in chance, too apparent in the whole d’Urberville family”. Tess’ submissiveness is often a lack of forethought; a willingness to accept whatever may come. This characteristic is derived from her parents and shares it with other rural characters like her fellow milkmaids and Talbothay’s. She is also submissive to people, to Alec, and to Angel she says, “I will obey you and be your wretched slave. However, Tess is not to be underestimated and she is not afraid to show anger, culminating in her striking Alec “without the slightest warning”, and when she finally writes her second anguished letter to Angel, in both instances, Tess is described as acting “passionately. ” In her link with Nature, Tess has in her “the appetite for joy which pervades all creation”. Her moral values are those of the natural world, believing in the ever-present possibility of regeneration, but her character is tempered by her having received an education, and absorbing values of Christianity and convention.
It is asserted that “most of the misery had been caused by her conventional aspect. ” Certainly it is Tess’ upbringing which makes her feel guilty at the birth of her child, which allows her to accept so completely Angel’s cruel verdict on her, and which persuades her that there was a moral validity in her association with Alec. Her tragedy results from the imposition of conventional values on her by other people, but her suffering is intensified because of her willingness to accept and acknowledge those values.
But Tess also has a spirit of self-sacrifice that endears her to the reader, attracting pity and respect for her nobility. She slinks away to Talbothay’s to avoid Alec, turning her back on her former life, and when her marriage to Angel is ruined, she offers to end her life so that Angel may marry again. At the end of the novel, she gives herself up to the authorities, asking Angel to marry Liza-Lu and take care of her family without any blame on how much Angel has hurt her. Throughout the novel, Hardy creates an atmosphere of something intangible that influences the events that transpire.
There is a sense of the inevitability of death, the individual life of growth and decay takes place amongst other, larger patterns of “flux and reflux – the rhythm of change” which “alternate and persist in everything under the sky”. The decay of the d’Urberville family and the “brief glorification” of the gnats are part of the same inevitable process. Tess is linked to the world in her brevity but also identical in the “inherent will to enjoy”. With the death of her child, Tess’ “spirit within her rose automatically as the sap in the twigs.
It wasthe invisible instinct towards self-delight. ” and she is locked throughout the novel in the inevitable struggle between mortality and the will to live. The reader gradually realises that mortality cannot be defeated and Tess’ fate cannot be avoided. As Tess is hung at the end of the novel, the reader reads, “And so the President of the Immortals had finished his sport with Tess. ” In the end, Tess is the story of how someone recognisably like ourselves is broken by a conflict between the inner and outer world.
Tess is in no way as great as Macbeth or Hamlet, but she is a noble figure who the reader realises is a puppet whose strings are worked by fates which are either hostile or indifferent to her. Tess is a pharmakos figure, the scapegoat and victim in domestic tragedies. She is neither wholly innocent nor guilty as what happens to her is far greater than anything she has done could deserve in retribution, yet she is part of a guilty society, living in a world where the injustices that happen to her are and inescapable part of existence.
At the end of her life, she has apparently reconciled the conflict of values, she realises her faults and the reality of her situation after much suffering. Hardy shows how an individual’s life is determined only partly by her own efforts, and how much depends upon the pressure of things over which the individual has no control. The tragedy of Tess is that she comes to realise her weaknesses too late to redeem herself but in sacrificing herself, she ensures that Angel is a changed man and her family’s welfare is secure.