Moral patterns

The events of Tess of the d'Urbervilles can be seen against the framework of two styles of narrative, which both operate within established moral expectations.

The moral structure of the traditional English novel

The traditional English novel is very moral in its structure:

  • Good is rewarded, eventually and bad punished
  • True love finds its consummation
  • Pretence and guilt are exposed
  • The good people learn from their mistakes after a period of testing.

In some novels, this pattern is comedic; however in those novels involving seduction, it is tragic.

More on Victorian tragedies: In Mrs Gaskell's Ruth, the heroine still lives unhappily long after recognising the wrong choice made. In George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Maggie actually dies.

In the main, Hardy follows these patterns. Yet readers may feel by the end of the novel that the moral scales have been tipped against Tess. The consummation of her love and the reward for her faithfulness have both been very fleeting, and she appears to be punished rather than rewarded. This is consonant with the Victorians' moral feelings towards the 'fallen woman'.

So, is Tess's death the result of a conventional moral lapse (a sexual relationship outside of marriage), or the working of some outside force (society, destiny)? Hardy's melodramatic gesture of Tess killing Alec rather than just leaving him makes this a more difficult question to decide. Perhaps Hardy means to leave it as an open question, writing as a modernist rather than a Victorian.

Clearly, Hardy has employed some ironic devices to counter the normal expectations of the traditional English novel. In many novels, society is a force overcome by the lovers – ironically, in Tess, society wins.

The moral pattern of Romances

The Romance genre places emphasis on:

  • The adventures of the single hero or heroine
  • A promise offered or a destiny decreed
  • Loss, descent, testing and trial
  • A gradual rising of prospects
  • Gaining the promise as a reward.

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy leads Tess down into her underworld experience (see note on 'places of testing' in commentary on Ch 43), and she is briefly allowed to rise and enter her paradise. However, she is not allowed to stay there.

In both patterns, death interferes with what is expected:

  • In a traditional novel, the villain is not punished by being murdered by the heroine
  • Whilst this may happen in the Romance, the slaying of evil usually means a release into the realm of paradise, not a quick sojourn before the death of hero or heroine.

The significance of Tess's ‘fall'

One of the noteworthy shifts in the moral pattern of Tess is how early in the novel Tess 'falls' into sexual wrongdoing. Unlike the character Maggie Tulliver in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, whose 'fall' is part of the Victorian menclimax at the end, Hardy creates a situation in which Tess's seduction seems inevitable, given her ignorance of men. One reason is that Hardy does not regard it as a sin in the traditional sense. It is a setback, but one which, for another girl, could realistically be surmounted. In fact, had Angel reacted otherwise, it would have been surmounted. Hardy is thus fairly and squarely putting much of the blame back on the men in a way not typical of Victorian writers.

Nevertheless, Tess sees her subsequent life in the light of this 'fall', believing the bad things that happen to her to be a punishment which she deserves. This feeling of guilt is only lifted after Alec's murder, when Tess's passionate desire to reunite with Angel takes her beyond conventional morality.


So Hardy does allow the lovers a brief paradise and portrays it intensely. Most readers have a sense of Tess gaining her reward, of its intensity and the probability that it cannot be transcended. This allows Hardy to finish on a positive note, despite the tragic circumstances.

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