Tess as an outsider

Characters on the margins

A number of critics have identified Hardy's interest in putting his characters on the margins of their society. They do, and yet do not, belong to it. This is part of their complexity as people. Sometimes, this is symbolically re-enacted in the places they live at. For example, Clym, in The Return of the Native, lives on Egdon Heath, cut off from the mainstream of society. The margins of the heath are explored by Hardy and a number of significant episodes happen there. This theme is therefore linked to those of rootlessness, wandering and pilgrimage, each associated with the loss of – or search for - identity.

Marginality in Tess

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy establishes this theme through:

Difference of character

  • Tess differs from her family in terms of responsibility and guilt
  • Tess differs from the villagers in terms of her ancestry, especially in her pride, even though she has friends there.


  • Tess is intelligent and has enough education to have become a teacher
  • Tess marries an educated member of the gentry, potentially a gentleman farmer
  • Tess becomes the mistress of a wealthy man.

These potentials are enough to set her apart from her companions, but she is hindered from translating potential into reality, so fails to enter a new social class

Losing community

Tess increasingly loses a sense of community, and actually fails to have any central location in her life. Instead she ends up living on borders and margins:

  • She loses her place in her parents' home (Ch 38)
  • She loses the community of the villagers and remains on the edge of society when she has an illegitimate baby (Ch 14)
  • Then she loses her parental village altogether (Ch 53)
  • She loses the community of Talbothays
  • She fails to establish community with her parents-in-law (Ch 41, 44)
  • Her stay at Flintcombe-Ash is only in lodgings (Ch 42). In fact, here she deliberately set about 'disconnecting herself by littles from her eventful past' (Ch 41) and seeks to shed her good looks
  • She has to flee the resort of Sandbourne, which is itself on the margins of the heath (Ch 54).

However, this loss of community is held in tension with the sense that Tess is part of the landscape:

  • Ch 16 notes 'she felt akin to the landscape'
  • Her very loss of identity in Ch 42 means she becomes 'a figure which is part of the landscape'
  • This connectedness is expressed symbolically, too (see Geographical symbolism).

Related themes: Tess as secular pilgrim; Disempowerment of the working class

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