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“Thus, the thing began. Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all respects…”

Thomas Hardy was influenced by the ideas and social issues of his time. He read Darwin’s world as a world driven by chance and utterly indifferent to the fates of its people. In this novel we meet Tess an innocent young girl until the day she goes to visit her rich ‘relatives’, the D’Urbervilles, in hope that they might help her alleviate her own family’s poverty. Her encounter with her manipulative cousin, Alec, leads her onto a path that is beset with suffering and betrayal. When she falls in love with another man, Angel Clare, Tess sees a potential escape from her past, but only if she can tell him her shameful secret. Tess finds herself in a world where she questions religion, questions faith, looks for meaning in life, and searches for the truths that mankind has sought for centuries.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Published by Vintage
ISBN-10: 0099511622
ISBN-13: 978-0099511625

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6 Responses to “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

  1. Amy Brady Says:

    I do realise thta this part of the Book Club site is dedicated to Victorian fiction but I’d like to issue a comment about Darwin’s influence on Victorian poetry. Contributors might be interested to read Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” which (amongst other things) gives the impact of Darwin on the late 19th century religious mind. The last 2 verses spellout the influence of Darwin on Arnold’s mind:

    “The Sea of Faith
    Was once,too at the full, and round the earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled,
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind. down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! For the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love,nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night. “

    Helen Reply:

    And interestingly Dover Beach is the poem that is recited in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday and perhaps averts disaster.

  2. Rachel Says:

    I read “Tess” for A Level and it depressed me so much that I haven’t picked it up since. It has just finished depressing me all over again.

    There are many many themes in the book which I could probably wax lyrical about (it’s amazing how much one’s brain recalls from its A Levels!) but I am struggling to see that any of them are to do with Darwin.

    Unless of course it is that depressing chaos of Tess’s fate and the fact that, rather annoyingly, she makes no attempt to have any control over, that echoes Darwin’s abandonment of fate for science?

  3. Clare Says:

    I am only about a third of the way through ” Tess” but it is clear that Hardy is making use of some “Darwinian ” ideas from very early on in the novel. Yes it is depressing but does anyone else sense that the author is treating Tess with an almost clinical detachment? Maybe that is why although it is very dperessing (as Rachel notes) nevertheless you do get the feeling that Hardy has set out to illustrate a kind of experiment! Have any other readers picked up a feeling of “Inevitability” about this novel ? A feeling that the characters are not free but “put in motion” by a scientist? There’s a feeling that Tess’s fate is sealed from when she hears news from her parents that her father is of great though decayed lineage – Hardy is clearly making him ridiculous. This idea of a ‘Degenerated blood-line” is very Darwinian and Hardy is pretty meticulous in the way he keeps pointing at ways in which “Sir John” Durbeyfield has fallen into alcoholism and is now almost a figure of fun with “fat round his heart” which comes from his degenerate lifestyle and which is gradually killing him. Hardy also paints Tess’s wife Joan as a sort of “sub-species” – attractive but not terribly intelligent and slow in thought. This is fatal for Tess as her mother fails to sum up the character of Alex Durbeville in time.As a result her daughter is raped. The thinker Malthus is also mentioned early on when the teeming brood of little Durbeyfields are described and it is made clear through Tess’s thoughts that she feels her useless and degenerate father has been irresponsible in siring too many offspring. One thing I really did find ironical and interesting: just before the horse Prince is killed by the mail-coach, Tess and her little brother are discussing Other Worlds. Tess explains that this is a Fallen World (which is surely a religious theory?) which is why their father is always ill and things are harsh for them. Her brother speculates as to what other Good Worlds (the planets he can see) ie Unfallen Worlds would be like. So this is a part traditionally religious, part scientific discussion! Soon after these musings of a weakly philosophical nature, Tess falls asleep and the horse is skewered. Do any other readers agree that there is a kind of irony in the way Hardy engineers this accident just after these youngsters have made an attempt to interpret their own existence?

  4. Clare Says:

    Have found another echo of Darwin in “Tess”! He describes interestingly the characters and natures of the cows when Tess becomes a milkmaid and very much gives each beast an individuality and temperament and shows how they may respond to a milker or not if they don’t like them. Surely this has something to do with Darwin’s work on the Expressions of emotions in animals? This finally culminates in the story of the bull who kneels because a drunken fiddler plays a christmas carol (even though it is summer) in order to escape from the bull who has him trapped in a field! ” William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon and ’twas not Christmas Eve…” Ch XVII ‘The Rally’ Interestingly after this, Angel Clare remarks that “ carried us back to mediaeval times when faith was a living thing!” (Rather a post-Darwininan remark shwoing doubts about the truth of religion??) Again and again Hardy is describing and mocking supersition in this novel. Does anyone else agree with me?

  5. Helen Says:

    Like you Rachel, the last time I read Tess was for A’level and yes, it was depressing all over again. However, I was glad to revisit Hardy’s writing, particularly the way he uses imagery to mix the natural world and the actions and fate of men and women, and to hint at what is to come: eg the necklace Angel gives Tess where the stones are winking like toads’ eyes and Tess’s dress catching and trapping insects as she walks through the fields.
    Since learning more about Darwin, it’s too easy to make everything Darwinian! However, one of his ideas was that survival of the fittest meant survival of those who best adapt to their environment. Also that changes in the species are driven by chance happenings.
    Could this apply to the themes of fate and chance in Tess?
    Did Tess have to die because she couldn’t adapt to her environment? Did chance play a part in Tess’s fate as it does in nature?
    Finally, did anyone listen to the first episode of the classic serial on R4 on Sunday? It’s Hardy’s Two on a Tower. From the opening scene, Darwin’s ideas were present.