Time structures

Phases of life

The most obvious way the novel is patterned is the one clearly indicated by Hardy: the division of Tess's life into a number of phases. The pattern of these phases indicates a number of 'falls' for Tess, and then her attempts to recover as she seeks to regain personal happiness.

Hardy suggests Tess's resilience by these repeated attempts or 'rallies', resilience he sees in all women, but which he makes a particular feature of Tess's character. Only at the end does she appear to have fallen too deeply, but she is then given the opportunity to gain the long sought-for happiness, a last chance. In taking the opportunity, she also meets her death.


These phases are paralleled by the places Tess stays in (see Journeys in Parallels and repetitions) and the cycle of the seasons (see Seasonal imagery in Geographical symbolism). In all, six years are covered.

Some parallels are significant, for example:

  • It is in September that Tess is violated by Alec and proposed to by Angel
  • For the first three winters, Tess secludes herself at Marlott; the fourth winter is the disastrous honeymoon; the fifth winter is the dreadful time at Flintcombe-Ash. All are types of death experiences
  • Ch 44 places Tess's journey to Angel's family at Emminster to within a day of the anniversary of her marriage into the family.

Omens and prefiguring devices

A different sort of time structure is to be found in Hardy's use of devices which prefigure or anticipate events. His use of omens is a particularly dramatic form of this. As in the case of Hardy's use of pathetic fallacy, the reader is never quite sure whether Hardy believes in omens or not. But the country folk do, and the gothic novel uses them frequently to increase dramatic tension:

  • The legend of the d'Urberville coach is mentioned by Angel in Ch 33, in connection with the d'Urberville past crimes
  • Alec mentions it in a parallel device in Ch 51
  • The ride in the wedding coach seems blighted by such a reference
  • The stay at the d'Urberville mansion is ‘haunted' by the cruel faces of the d'Urberville portraits
  • Tess becomes entombed with effigies of her ancestors in the d'Urberville vault, wishing she too was dead
  • In Ch 33, after Tess's wedding, there appears the ill omen of a cock crowing in the middle of the day. Like the Talbothays staff, Hardy's readers would recognise this reference to the Bible, associated with Peter's unfaithfulness, his denial of Jesus, after passionate assurances of his loyalty (Luke 22:33-34; Luke 22:60-62). It prefigures Angel's denial of Tess in the same way.

Other prefiguring devices include:

  • Stories: the Jack Dollop stories (Ch 21, 29) prefigure Tess' sorrow
  • Folk songs: the ballad in Ch 32 of the mystic robe prefigures the failed marriage
  • Blood: the rose pricking Tess (Ch 6) is an old fairy-tale motif of love and death
  • Kisses: Tess rubs off Alec's kiss (Ch 8). Can she rub out the past so easily?
  • Spots: Ch 34 has a number of omen-like devices, including 'a spot like a paint-mark'.

Individually these could just be considered symbolic images, but together they form a consistent pattern of foreboding.

Ironies and delays

One of the main ironic patterns, beginning from Ch 1, is the glory attached to the name of d'Urberville, all the references to which are singularly inglorious. This association is continued by the antics of Alec d'Urberville, who keeps appearing / being mentioned to Tess at inappropriate moments. The sense that the past will not leave her alone reinforces the inevitability of Tess's fall:

  • One good example is in Ch 30. Having just passed a d'Urberville house, and having just confessed she is of d'Urberville blood, Tess then hears Angel talking about Alec. The moment of confession is ironically turned into a moment of secrecy and haunting for her
  • The plot structure of linking old Mr Clare to Alec makes this ironic pattern all the stronger
  • The reappearance of voices from Trantridge in Groby and the Darch girls is a physical metaphor of Tess's past dogging her.

Coincidence is a prominent structuring device used to line up everyone at the same place at the same time. It culminates in the coincidence of Tess actually meeting Alec again, almost on the day of her wedding anniversary.

The constraints of delay are imposed on the third and fourth phase, which creates tension. During this time, Hardy analyses Tess's increasing inner conflict (see Inner conflicts: body against soul).

A web

Some critics, such as Ian Gregor, have suggested that Hardy's structures should be seen as a web. Everything is interconnected: nature, community, characters, actions, images. Thus, landscape is connected to character; seasons to actions and images; outcomes to characters etc.

It has been suggested that the tension to hold the web together in Tess is between the stratagems which humans devise for themselves, and the events over which they have no control. It is an ironic tension, since the characters do not usually realise the limits of their control.

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