Chapter 13

Synopsis of chapter 13

Tess settles back into village life. At first, she is an object of interest among her former school friends. She goes to church, but finds herself subject to stares and whispers, and cannot bear to go again. In fact, she becomes more and more reclusive as winter draws on. The chapter finishes with Hardy defending Tess against her feelings of guilt.

Commentary on chapter 13

Although the chapter seems straightforward enough, there are two areas of difficulty:

  1. Culturally, we live in a very different world of sexual mores:
    • The rigid moral conventions of Victorian society insisted there was no sex before marriage; nor was it talked about. Pregnancy outside wedlock was the greatest shame a girl could suffer. In the country areas and among the working class, there was a more relaxed attitude, but marriage was always expected at the end of the day
    • Today, religious families and groups still hold to these beliefs, as active values rather than as strict social conventions, but many in society do not. You need to put yourself back in time to appreciate Tess's situation.
  2. Hardy tries to defend Tess by distinguishing between social conventions and natural law. However, it is a dangerous argument as he excuses too much:
    • According to ‘natural law,' Alec could be excused as he is only doing what alpha males in nature do
    • Hardy has previously mocked Wordsworth for his idea of 'nature's holy plan' (Ch 3), but seems to be going some way here to endorse this notion
    • So there are perhaps some contradictions in Hardy's defence of Tess.

'in love with her own ruin': this is actually a quotation from a sermon rather than from a poem, one by the Puritan preacher Robert South (1634-1716). The term 'ruin' reinforces the Victorian idea of the utter shame of having sexual encounters before marriage.

Church bells, photo by Brian Webster, available through Creative Commonschiming: the chiming of the church bell is a steady ringing of one bell to tell people the church service is about to begin. This is not the same as ringing or pealing all the bells, which would have gone on for some time before the service and have gone through a variety of peals.

chanting: in the liturgy of Victorian churches, reading passages from the Bible, especially the Psalms, in the form of chanting was quite usual.

the Morning Hymn: a hymn beginning 'Awake my soul and with the sun', written by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711). He had also written an Evening Hymn, equally popular. Tess would have learnt both at school.

'Langdon': all chants and hymn tunes have names. This was a setting of Psalms 102:1-28 by Richard Langdon (1730-1803). In Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, he gives a very full account of just how well local church-goers knew all these tunes.

the world is only a psychological phenomenon: Psychology was in its infancy in Hardy's day. The links between psychology and philosophy were still strong, especially in theories which recognised the importance of the senses to construct the world for us. There is also a figure of speech called the pathetic fallacy which links nature to psychology.

More on pathetic fallacy: this figure of speech is where the feelings and emotions of a person are projected on to nature. For example a narrator might portray that: 'the trees sobbed in the breeze', because they themselves are sad. It has been said of Hardy that he did not know whether the pathetic fallacy was in fact a fallacy or not. This passage illustrates such ambiguity well, raising the questions: Is it just Tess or is it nature as well? How alive is nature? For a further example, see Ch 28.

this encompassment of her own characterisation..: possibly one of the most convoluted and difficult sentences in the whole novel. Hardy is getting himself into a tangle! It seems to mean that what Tess imagines about herself was wrong. She has constructed a moral world from bits and pieces of social convention which she has built up so that they seem to be rather terrifying laws.


The chapter covers the rest of the autumn and moves into winter. The season is clearly symbolic of Tess's own sense of desolation and nothingness, even deadness to life outside of her.


accretion: accumulation

anomaly: something out of place, not fitting

attenuated: weakened or thin and extended

lumber: at the back of the church, spare timber would have been stored for when repairs were needed. The bier, for carrying dead bodies, was also stored there.

meretricious: superficial and flashy

Investigating chapter 13

  • Go through the chapter and list words and phrases that show Tess's isolation.
    • How does Hardy show Tess is living on the margins or borders of her society?
      • Is this isolation self-induced or the result of society ostracising her?
  • What inner resources does Tess seem to have?
    • What hinders her from drawing upon them?
  • Explain the sentences beginning:
    • 'She had no fear of the shadows...'
    • 'A wet day was the expression....'
  • Do we believe Hardy when he says Tess's feelings of guilt have come from social convention?
    • If not, where else might they have come from?
  • Should a novelist just tell us about important states of mind of his main characters, or should he actually show it?
    • Does Hardy really show us that Tess is not a 'figure of Guilt', or just tell us?
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