Various aspects of style are studied elsewhere, in Imagery and symbolism and Perspectives and viewpoint particularly. This section covers the following:

  • Diction and vocabulary
  • Drama and dialogue
  • Register
  • Literary allusions
  • Other rhetorical devices

Diction and vocabulary in Tess

Sophisticated diction

Victorian lodge in the countryside, photo by Mark Hope, available through Creative CommonsHardy was a provincial writer, writing mainly of country people, yet the diction and range of vocabulary used in Tess is frequently sophisticated. He is consciously writing in the style of the traditional nineteenth century novel, which tended, if anything to an elevated style as it sought status for itself, and to educate its readers.

More on maintaining the status of the novel: Jane Austen's witty, ironic style necessitates an educated diction as much as the ability to capture the speech of well-educated, upper middle-class characters who were trained in the arts of conversation. Writers like George Eliot and George Meredith continued to move fictional diction towards the erudite for an intelligent, well-educated readership.

Hardy himself was consciously self-educated, and when he portrays educated people, such as the Clares, he really displays his learning through generating learned conversations. He is also prepared to engage in theological discussion, from which many writers shy away from.

Local dialects

At the same time Hardy knew how to reproduce the typical language of ordinary, uneducated people. He has a remarkable ear for dialect yet is able to reproduce it in a way that can be understood by a wider readership.

The effect of character on diction

As Tess's perspective is the central one, the diction that surrounds her is language that she would have been able to understand, if not use. When the perspective changes to the author or Angel, then the register and vocabulary alter noticeably, producing a great range of diction. A full appreciation of this can only be gained by analysing a few paragraphs closely, to trace the correlation between viewpoint, perspective, character and diction.

An awkward style?

Some earlier critics suggested Hardy's style was frequently awkward, even clumsy. He uses erudite words unpredictably and for no obvious reason when a simpler one is available:

  • He talks of 'autochthonous idlers', referring to ordinary, local bystanders talking to the steam engineer
  • This is in contrast to genuine dialect words that would have meaning to the speakers though not to us.
  • Certainly, a few sentences are ambiguous and others almost incomprehensible. Usually, however, there is a reason for this:
  • For example, Angel's partially thought out ideas are not expressed clearly because they are really confused
  • The same could be said for the authorial comments at times, too!

On the other hand, when he wants to show Tess deeply moved, he causes her to write the most fluent letter in the novel (Ch 48; see The use of letters). We are convinced that a powerful overflow of emotions can produce a rare eloquence.

Drama and dialogue


Novelists understand that, as much as readers want to hear the narrator telling the story, they want to hear their characters speak. When this happens freely, the novel approaches drama. Dialogue allows:

  • Variety and tension
  • Confrontation and argument
  • Sympathy and the deepening of relationships.

It gives solidity to major and minor characters (see Characterisation). Hardy was particularly defensive of his country characters, attacking those who saw them stereotypically as 'Hodge' (Ch 18). He felt that the best way to defend them was for readers to hear them talk intelligently.

In fact, the only unconvincing dialogue is between the Clare brothers, and Alec's religious language as a convert. The former may well not be inauthentic, but the latter certainly is. It could be argued it is inauthentic because Alec is. More probably, it is inauthentic because Hardy had just not exposed himself to that particular religious group.

Naturalistic brevity

Hardy's dialogue is generally understated, with small fragments between narrative passages rather than anything lengthy:

  • Tess's confession, which could have been written out in full, is avoided altogether
  • Similarly, the final argument between Alec and Tess is only given in snatches as the landlady overhears it.

Hardy is also often content to leave the reader to imagine gestures or tones, rather than making them explicit.

Character through dialogue

  • Tess is not allowed any eloquence in speech; her purity lies in her simplicity; her complexity in unspoken feeling
  • The two suitors are allowed much more eloquent expression, indicating less their sincerity than their persuasiveness. Words are a form of power for them, power over the much more inarticulate Tess
  • Tess's parents are full of words, expressions of their empty aspirations
  • By contrast, the words of the dairymaids are sincere, simple and to the point.

Words are communal as well as individual expressions in Tess. Hardy reminds us that the travellers who have seen most say the least - the Arctic birds the girls see whilst swede-hacking (Ch 43).


Drama is achieved non-verbally by actions and episodes. Victorian drama tended towards the melodramatic and the grotesque, as with Charles Dickens. Hardy also includes such melodramatic episodes in most of his novels, such as the children hanging themselves in Jude the Obscure.

In Tess, the most obvious examples of melodrama are:

  • Alec's murder, with the blood dripping through the ceiling
  • The deaths of the slaughtered pheasants around Tess
  • Angel's sleepwalking
  • The Durbeyfields camping out by the Kingsbere vaults.

Hardy frequently imbues his melodramatic episodes with symbolic significance, to suit his thematic purpose. Other episodes more symbolic than melodramatic include:

  • Tess's boots being found by Mercy
  • The sign-painter with his texts in red paint
  • Tess's letter slipping under the carpet

See also: Pace; Imagery and Symbolism

The rape / seduction scene is memorable for the way in which it is built up to and its inevitability. However, here Hardy achieves dramatic tension though silence and ambiguity rather than explicitness, forcing his readers to realize the situation. In a sense, the precise details matter less than the consequence.


As with diction, Hardy's register can vary from the simple and straightforward to the allusive, erudite and ambiguous. At some points, he appears to be merely telling a story to a reasonably well-read audience. At other times, he appears to be advocating a view of the world that lies in direct contradiction to cultural norms.

Hardy treats his readers as equals; he expects them to make sense of the story with him. He does not lecture or patronise (though occasionally shows off in his allusions) but draws alongside. He is a traditional story-teller at work, involving his audience creatively, making them think, keeping them in suspense: above all, he has a sure sense of who his audience was.

Allusion and rhetoric

Although rhetoric was a subject that would have been studied at Grammar Schools, Hardy is not obviously a literary writer when it comes to using such rhetorical devices. He prefers to show his literariness in his allusions. Hardy frequently quotes directly or indirectly from other texts, or creates images out of other images, especially paintings. We are made aware Hardy is a well-read man, who expects the reader to be equally as well-read. This can be both flattering and frustrating. He draws on particular well-known sources.

The Bible and Book of Common Prayer

Both the Bible and Book of Common Prayer would have been familiar to Hardy's readers, though are less so today. However, it is important to know the original context of the incidents to which Hardy alludes in order to gain his full meaning (which crossref-it pop-ups explain).

It is particularly important to know when an original text is misquoted. Thus, the sign-painter's writing 'THY DAMNATION....' is a misquotation from 2 Peter 2:3, which actually reads 'Their damnation...' and refers to a specific group of people. Hardy's point in the misquotation is both that Tess sees herself condemned, and that society as a whole adopts this misquotation in condemning people before they know the full facts.

English literary classics

Other literary allusions are to Shakespeare, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (see Subtexts), all well known to contemporary readers. Other allusions to contemporary poets such as Swinburne or Browning may not have been so easily recognised, and so Hardy tends to quote these in full.

Classical references

Some of Hardy's classical allusions would have been well-known, but others less so. Hardy uses his allusions here rather as a poet would, almost as a private frame of reference, rather than public.


This is also true of his allusions to paintings, some of which are quite obscure, for example the allusion to the Wiertz museum in Brussels (Ch 39). Hardy would have seen and studied certain works of art, but could hardly have expected his readers to. Most Victorian novelists saw themselves as educating their public and this cultural education would not have been resented by Hardy's readers. They would have been prepared either to do the work necessary to fill in their knowledge, or to construct from the context the best sense they could (see Perspectives and viewpoint).

Allusion and character

Sometimes Hardy puts his allusions into the mouths of his characters, usually Angel and Alec, who have been well educated. At times, this fails to work. Alec quoting Paradise Lost (Ch 50) or large sections of the Bible suggests a prodigious reading programme embarked on since he was a convert, which scarcely seems credible to modern readers. However, he would have received a classical education which insisted on the memorising of large, quotable chunks of literature. (Some Victorian novels start each chapter with just such a memorable quotation.)

Allusion for comic effect

Hardy often uses allusion for comic purposes, as when he gets Jack and Joan to muddle up their history when talking of their ancestry. References to ‘Oliver Grumble' and ‘King Norman' are there for Hardy's educated readership to laugh at the ignorance of these pretentious yokels. These malapropisms were a stock in trade of all comic writers of the time.

Other rhetorical devices

Occasionally Hardy uses litotes or double negatives and personification.

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