Chapter 51

Synopsis of chapter 51

The day before they have to move out, Old Lady-Day, Tess's mother and older siblings are out, saying their goodbyes. Joan has decided to take lodgings at Kingsbere, the ancestral village of the d'Urbervilles.

Alec rides by, not knowing the family's misfortune. He immediately offers to put the family up in the little cottage Tess lived in whilst at 'The Slopes', but Tess refuses again, slamming the window shut on his arm.

She is overwhelmed by life's unfairness, which for the first time includes Angel's treatment of her. She angrily writes a note to him and gives it to the postman. She asks the younger children at home to sing something. They have a song about earth's miseries and heaven's joys. Tess refuses to tell her mother about Alec's offer.

Commentary on chapter 51

For the first time, Tess is angry with Angel at his unjust treatment. The note she writes is impulsive, though she claims she has thought it through. In the way of such novels, it is these letters that reach their destination, not the long thought-out letters which might avoid harm.

More on Hardy and children: It is worth commenting here on the Durbeyfield children. Only the oldest three are named and characterised; the younger four remain totally anonymous. Generally Hardy does not deal much with children in his novels. This is in contrast to most other Victorian novelists, especially Dickens, who portray children in detail. At the beginning of this novel (Ch 3), Hardy's comments about the number of children in the family are negative, suggesting that large families and poverty go together.

The Egypt of one family...the Promised Land of another: a reference to the Israelites finding Egypt had become a place of slavery. They leave to find the Promised Land, which will flow with 'milk and honey' and where they shall be free (Exodus 1:13-14; Exodus 3:7-9). various degrees of legal entitlement to property. See Ch 50 for life-holders and Ch 9 for copyholders. Free-holders had permanent possession of their land and house.

'Here we suffer…': from a Sunday School (see below) hymn by Thomas Bilby written in 1832. Victorian hymns often saw life as a period of suffering, more than compensated for by the joys of life after death. They reflected the reality of social conditions and gave some means to make them bearable.

Sunday school: originally formed as schools to educate working children, Sunday schools became incorporated into all churches during the nineteenth century, as a way of teaching the Bible to children. Hardy himself was a Sunday school teacher for a short while.

Providence and their future kingdom: Providence is here used as a term for God as a caring and protective force in life. 'Future kingdom' would thus be entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven after death (see Matthew 5:10; Revelation 2:10).

'Not in utter nakedness...': from Wordsworth's poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, V.63-64. Hardy had attacked Wordsworth already in Ch 3 for his Romantic view of childhood (see 'Hardy and Children' above).

Social context

Hardy writes a long paragraph about changing patterns of rural population and depopulation. Much of it is copied from his essay The Dorsetshire Labourer, which was partly based on his own experiences whilst growing up. Hardy is trying to show us how rural life had become impermanent, even nomadic. The only means of social welfare at the time was in the parish system of Poor Relief. Once people moved out of their parish, they were not necessarily entitled to parish relief if they could not prove residence. If the novel is read symbolically, such a condition could be seen as the human condition as a whole, rather than just a specific manifestation of a process at a particular moment of history.


gratuitousness: the state of something happening when unasked for or unwanted

huckster: peddler, travelling salesman

palliate: soothe over, lessen pain

mullion: the bars dividing a window

Investigating chapter 51

  • What is the full significance of Old Lady-Day for the Durbeyfields?
    • Consider their past and their future. How are these changing?
    • Consider their security and support network. What will happen to these?
  • Why does Joan choose to relocate to Kingsbere?
    • Do you think it is a wise choice?
    • List all the repercussions arising out of Parson Tringham's discovery in Ch 1.
  • There seems to be some discrepancy about whether the family has to move out at once or whether they could have been allowed to stay on a while longer.
    • Can you explain the discrepancy?
  • For what does Tess still blame herself?
    • Is she justified?
    • For what does she now refuse to take any further blame?
  • In what way is the spider symbolic?
  • How is the coach story prophetic or anticipatory?
  • Look at the paragraph beginning 'To her and her like....'.
    • What does it mean?
    • Is it true to the story?
      • Is this really what Hardy has shown us about Tess?
    • What seems to be at the heart of Hardy's protest?
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