Heredity and inheritance

In the questions Hardy raises about the effect of Tess's family ancestry, he combines themes about both nature and time.

The hopes of inheritance in Tess

In the early discussion between Tess's parents at the end of Ch 7, they discuss her advantages in going to work at the d'Urbervilles:

  • To her father, Tess's trump-card is her ancestry, or d'Urberville lineage
  • To Mrs. Durbeyfield, Tess's hope of fortune is the pretty face she inherited from her.

At first, it appears the mother is right. Alec doesn't believe in Tess's claims, and, in any case, as he is not true family, it would not have made any difference to her fortunes if he had. But as the story progresses, Hardy interjects three further elements.

Tess's innate nobility

Hardy has given Tess innate aristocratic qualities which distinguish her from the other village girls and later, from the other dairymaids. They are what catch Angel's eye (see Characterisation: Tess):

  • She appears to have a far greater sense of responsibility and leadership than her parents possess (see Tess as a 'Pure Woman')
  • She has an innate pride which will not stoop to playing the poor relative
  • She has an innate modesty and humility.

None of these qualities are likely to have been taught her by her parents or even by the village.

Time's revenge

Hardy suggests that the way in which Tess is treated by men is no more than what her ancestors did to other girls. It is as though time is having its revenge. He ties this in with the legend of the d'Urberville coach, in which a murder was committed, and which brings some sort of curse with it (Ch 51).

The degrading of nobility

Hardy gives to Angel a pseudo-scientific theory that old families lose their genetic energy, and need to be replaced by more recent gene pools. This is part of his attempt at modern thinking (Ch 35). And as far as Jack Durbeyfield goes, Angel could well be right. Hardy suggests that Tess has an inherited family weakness, the:

'acquiescence in chance too apparent in the whole d'Urberville family' (Ch 47).

Ultimately, Tess is perceived as suffering under her family name.

Hardy cleverly links this theme with another, much used by Victorian writers such as Dickens, that of prodigal parents:

  • Jack's irresponsibility is being profligate (e.g. Ch 1, 3, 14, 41)
  • His grave with its epitaph, 'How are the Mighty Fallen' still unpaid for (Ch 54) is a sign of this
  • Joan's prodigality is similar (Ch 7, 12).

Hardy's intentions?

In the end, the reader is not sure what Hardy really wants to say on this issue.

Angel, too, sends mixed messages:

  • He wants to see Tess as a country girl with a fresh gene pool
  • At the same time, he presents Tess as a d'Urberville to impress his mother.

Hardy, perhaps, had a similar ambivalence about his own family, whose ancestors were of considerably higher social rank than he was.

Related themes: Tess as a 'Pure Woman'; Patterns of the past; Modernity

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