Inner conflicts: body against soul

Expression of the physical and the spiritual

Hardy frequently portrays Tess as a physically attractive woman. At the same time, she is a sensitive, moral being who has an innate spirituality. These two aspects are expressed at three levels in the novel:

  • Suitors - Tess's physical aspect attracts Alec; the spiritual aspect, Angel. The two men are often contrasted (see Characterisation: Alec; Angel)
  • Within Tess - the two aspects cause considerable conflict, as she finds it difficult to come to terms with her physical attractiveness internally
  • Parental inheritance - her mother stresses Tess's inheritance of good looks from herself; whilst her father boasts about her family heritage of nobility and a good name (e.g. Ch 7; see Heredity and inheritance).

In the tension between the two, Tess is often paralysed and nearly destroyed:

  • It is only Angel's repentance and revised acceptance of her that finally opens the way to Tess's personal fulfilment and integration
  • This is achieved only at the cost of killing Alec, which in a sense, is a form of killing off one of the opposing aspects, releasing Tess from her paralysis of will
  • The murder both clears her conscience and wipes out the person who only saw her as physical. However, the penalty for this is Tess's own death.


  • Alec is immediately attracted by Tess's physicality, her:
'luxuriousness of aspect, a fullness of growth (which she) had inherited...from her mother' (Ch 5).
  • The whole of chapter 5 is full of sensuous description, as well as a sense of Alec imposing physicality on Tess
  • In the violation scene, Hardy brings out Alec's coarseness as opposed to Tess's 'beautiful feminine tissue' (Ch 11)
  • This is then repeated at Flintcombe-Ash, where Tess's physical qualities quickly penetrate the spiritual veneer of Alec's conversion. He sees her as a temptress (Ch 45)
  • Tess's encounter with Alec revives her sense that:
'in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong.' (Ch 45)
  • This is despite the fact that Tess had tried previously to deny her physical attractiveness in her journey to Flintcombe-Ash (Ch 42)
  • Even in the harshest circumstances, she remains attractive and is even dressed-up by Izz in the same way in which she was displayed by her mother (Ch 6, 7, 44).


  • Tess's conversation with her brother Abraham on her first journey reveals a thoughtful, indeed tragically minded girl. Hardy's narrative reinforces this with:
'the sigh of some immense sad soul, conterminous with the universe in space, and with history in time' (Ch 4)
  • Tess's conversation at Talbothays with the assembled company, about how she can make her soul leave her body (Ch 18), sets her apart from the others but immediately attracts Angel
  • When Tess hears Angel play his harp, it takes her out of time and space (Ch 19). Hardy's language suggests the neglected garden becomes for her a Garden of Eden
  • Tess is given a 'strange and ethereal beauty' at dawn, when the Garden of Eden imagery is repeated. This attracts Angel even more (Ch 20)
  • Angels' tendency to idealise is stressed (Ch 20). The implication is that his love is not focussed on a real woman, and this forms one reason for his rejection of her on their wedding night
  • Similar idealisations of Tess' spirituality continue in Ch 27, the scene of the first proposal by Angel. Hardy's comment: 'Spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh', draws on the language of incarnation
  • However, Tess's moral sensitivity gives her a sense 'of a certain moral validity in the previous union' (Ch 29). This feeling, that in some sense Alec is her husband, increases her conflict and gives both men power to coerce her, so that she cannot withstand their inducements to a physical relationship.

These are just some examples. You may well be able to think of others.


  • There is a consistent series of descriptions and images associated with red and white (see Colour symbolism). Red represents Tess's physicality (and her history as a ‘scarlet woman'); white her purity and spirituality
  • Parts of the body are frequently mentioned, especially lips, hair and bosom, reminding the reader of Tess's physical attraction
  • Images of fruit and flowers, especially those growing prematurely, also represent her body, especially the roses and strawberries that Alec presses on her (Ch 5)
  • Images of mist and the early morning and setting sun represent her ethereal qualities, especially at Talbothays. These are balanced by images of lush fertility, representing the fullness of natural, physical processes
  • Images of hell at Flintcombe-Ash represent lust and passion; of Eden, represent the spiritual aspects of love.

Related themes: Tess as a 'Pure Woman'.

See also Characterisation: Tess.

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