Tess of the D’Urbervilles

 A Novel by Thomas Hardy



Analyzing the triangle formed by its three main characters and the moral consequences involved.



A very first reading of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles leads us to realize that its narrative is full of comparisons: poor and rich, good and evil, upper and lower class, besides past and present.

In religion, ethics and philosophy, references to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ refer to a spectrum whose extremes symbolize what is morally positive (“good”), and morally negative (“evil”). Sometimes, ‘good’ is seen as a broader concept difficult to define, while ‘evil’ is always defined in a much more straightforward way: simply the opposite of what is good. And considering that “good” and “evil” reflect no more than only personal judgments or social consensus (related to issues linked to human laws or religious norms), it becomes obvious that all kinds of simplistic Manichaeism must be avoided whenever analyzing human behavior and its motivations.

Concerning these concepts, many of the non-progressive religious and philosophical traditions claim that ‘evil’ behaviors are “aberrations” which result from the flawed human condition, commonly attributed to the presence of individual free will, this modern value which “disregards” holiness and divinity, being based on the “ignorance” of any moral or religious truth, according to them.

Specifically in our novel, such conflicts are performed by the three main characters, forming a triangle whose vertexes are Tess (the corrupted purity which becomes a kind of divinity to be sacrificed), Angel (the genuine and uncompromising representative of the ‘good’ who, along the novel, learns about hell and the mundane – surprisingly, to us, during his disastrous experience in Brazil) and, finally, Alec (who, although personifying ‘evil’, rescued the ‘heroine’ from misery after all, some might say).


 Angel Clare is a smart young man who decided to become a farmer, as a way to preserve his intellectual freedom against the pressures of life in the city. As his name in French suggests (something close to “Bright Angel”), he does not seem to belong to this world. As a typical progressive young man of the nineteenth-century, Angel sees human society as something that must be improved, strongly believing in the nobility of men, being his love for Tess a blatant expression of his contempt for tradition, as she belongs to a much lower class. But he only awakens to the true complexity of morality in the real world after his great failure in Brazil, which made him realize how unfair he had been to Tess.

And, on the opposite side, we have the handsome and amoral Alec, son of a wealthy merchant who carries the surname that his father bought. He is an unscrupulous manipulator who does everything to hoodwink the most inexperienced, as in the passage in which he seduces Tess, just like the serpent of Genesis did in relation to Eve. His first name, Alexander, recalls the conqueror Alexander the Great, who used to take advantage of everything and everyone, regardless of any moral or decorum.

His surname, Stoke-d'Urberville, symbolizes both the division of his ethos and the non-aristocratic origin of his family, which is cleared by the nobility of the name acquired, revealing their most intimate pretensions of grandeur. Such duality is so intense – and the consequences for Tess are so extreme – that Alec could even be seen as a diabolical character.

Also, the first part of his surname suggests an association to an intense and malignant energy, as an oven burning flames similarly to hell. Like Satan, Alec symbolizes, finally, the basic pulses that drive people away from any supposed “moral perfection” or “feelings of greatness”, as it could be affirmed by those self denominated as the most “chaste” ones, “genuine” bearers of the morality.

In her turn, Tess somehow reflects a feature common to the Romantic characters, in a time when Western literature was dominated by the theme “destination”, and characters appeared as if they were puppets, always resigned to forces strong enough to make them submitted to an inexorable fate, which was completely out their control and that could determine the course of their lives, despite their individual choices, desires and actions.

However, her process of evolution throughout the novel allowed her to reach a final libertarian moment of “metaphysical freedom”, achieved through the conscious exercise of her faculty to decide through free will. And, despite being based on a genuine choice between alternatives, such moment of decision is drawn with tragic tones, albeit in somewhat gracious way, as a meek expression of her innate love pulses, making her forget about the harsh consequences of her acts, since the only thing that would count was the possibility of being with her beloved Angel once more.

 Such line of analysis ultimately leads us to the Freudian quotes concerning the two opposing impulses: Eros, a sexual pulse of life with a tendency to preserve life; and Thanatos, representing a pulse of death which brings segregation to everything that is alive, causing destruction. But, similarly to our already mentioned spectrum (necessarily free of any oversimplification), we realize that both pulses do not act in isolation, as they will necessarily be working together in the real world, being sometimes even difficult to identify where one begins and where the other ends.

Obviously, the modern concepts of psyche were not available to the writer and his first reading public. Hardy, therefore, uses the resource of reaching the sensitivity of his public through the artifice of raising all moral judgments, from the vulgarity of earthly life to the transcendence of the mythical plan. So, from various biblical and pagan references present in the novel, Tess can also be seen both as an Earth Goddess or as the victim to be sacrificed, on behalf of the preservation of the “purity” and the “holiness”, culminating in the final scene in Stonehenge, where Angel recognizes that Tess is “lying on an altar”, similar to the old sacrifices that used to happen there. But, in a broader sense, Tess is sacrificed by the laws and customs of the nineteenth century, revealing all the injustice and hypocrisy of the Victorian Age.

Tess may also be seen as a “pawn” in the hands of men and, according to the feminist perspective of today, her “sacrifice” could unfairly be considered sexist. But the truth is that Thomas Hardy, through his Tess of the d'Urbervilles, transgresses the most conventional representations of the secondary role that was meant for the women of his time, suggesting that male readers would have total accomplishment in the spread of the taboos associated to women sexuality, if they insist to keep that same hypocritical morality.

The narrator even ignores a probable common contempt against the figure of the “dishonored” woman and, instead of this, leads us (and mostly of his first readers) to the complete understanding of Tess’s outrage and thirst for revenge: it is not the fact of being officially accepted as the wealthy Mr.Stoke-d'Urberville’s mistress that would make all her past of poverty and social woes be forgotten: in fact, Tess was forced to resume her relationship with Alec only in order to support her mother and siblings, avoiding sufferings like hunger and preventing them to continue to face the misery of being homeless.

But Hardy’s Tess is, above all, a symbol of the uncertainties involving the conditions of survival, as well as the unstable notions of class division in that increasingly industrialized Britain, where some could maintain the glamour of a high social status, acquired through the possession of the means of production, while harsh economic realities would be experienced by many others, frequently uprooted ones migrating to the cities or, even, genuine representatives of the ancient rural aristocracy, facing the effects of their drastic process of degradation.