Various aspects of Tess are discussed under Themes, particularly:

Topics discussed here are:

  • Characterisation techniques
  • Tess as a 'vessel of emotions'
  • Tess's aristocratic traits
  • Tess as a woman in love
  • Tess's faults
  • The limits of Tess's endurance
  • Tess as a male construct.

Characterisation techniques

To present the many facets of a complex character during the course of the novel, Hardy employs the following techniques:

Direct narration: Hardy tells us what sort of woman Tess is as part of the story. Ch 27 is a very full description of Tess's physicality, her sensuousness, relayed as part of the narrative.

Authorial comment: Hardy stops the narration to point out certain facets of Tess or to defend her in some way:

  • For example, in Ch 31, on the sixth page, Tess and Angel are engaged in dialogue. But Hardy comments several times directly, such as:
    • ‘With the woman's instinct to hide, she diverged hastily...'.
      • The reader has then to balance Tess's supposedly typical female behaviour with her urge to tell Angel everything
    • A few lines further on, Hardy comments explicitly on this inner struggle:
      • 'It was no mature woman with a long dark vista of intrigue ...'
  • The thrust of the comments is to establish both Tess's typicality and her difference.

Highlighting what other people see in Tess, for example:

  • The parts of the body that Angel or Alec particularly notice
  • Their first impressions
  • The way in which the dairymaids perceive the depth of Tess's love.

Speech: Tess speaks in her own voice, as in Ch 34, allowing us to form an idea of what she is like.

Inner thoughts, direct or indirect, of Tess:

  • This is used less frequently than with many modern novelists
  • There is no attempt at any stream of consciousness technique.

Imagery and symbols: see Imagery and symbolism

These techniques are combined in many different ways. A helpful exercise is to take several pages at random, and see which examples of the above list can be found, and in what combination. Hardy is a story-teller who keeps the narrative moving - comments are fairly brief in comparison with those of many other Victorian novelists (see Voice and tone).

Tess as a 'vessel of emotions'


In many ways, Hardy's construct of Tess is very traditional, regarding women as intuitive and emotional rather than rational and intellectual:

  • This is apparent when Tess tries to argue with Alec about religion (Ch 47). Hardy doesn't even present Tess's attempts to state Angel's arguments, which she finds hard to recall
  • He makes the point that her agnosticism is merely an imitation of Angel's, rather than her own thought-out position
  • Although there was an expression of Tess's own theology, when she rejected the sign-writer's gospel of condemnation (Ch 12), Hardy refuses to make anything of this.

A 'vessel of emotions rather than reasons'

Hardy's construct of Tess is to see her as a 'vessel of emotions rather than reasons':

  • He refers to 'her absolute want of training'
  • This seems to contradict earlier references to her 'sixth standard' education, which would certainly have included some training in understanding and reproducing arguments
  • Hardy aims to present a deeply feeling woman, rather than a thinking one, as if the two were contradictory (by contrast, George Eliot's heroines managed to combine the two aspects very convincingly)
  • From a feminist point of view, such presentation opens Hardy to criticism (see Feminist interpretations).

Hardy's ideal woman?

Hardy appears to make Tess his absolute woman, totally feminine:

  • In a strange remark in Ch 21, where he contrasts Tess to the dairymaids, Hardy states she is 'more woman than either'
  • She has a high degree of femininity, her emotions (as 'deeper-passioned') absorbing life and processing sensory impressions in a way that does not happen for men, or to such an extent in other women
  • In Victorian culture where the 'otherness' of women was stressed, Hardy's remark would have more credence than it does today.

Tess's aristocratic traits

Elegant appearance

In Ch 21, when comparing Tess to the other dairymaids, Hardy states Tess is 'more finely formed':

  • Since her mother, for all her buxom beauty, is never portrayed this way, it seems that this is due to the D'Urberville genes
  • In taking her to Talbothays, Hardy is consciously setting Tess in her ancestral lands (Ch 15, a chapter worth studying for comments on her femininity as well).

Various aspects of this genetic endowment are discussed in the theme sections Heredity and inheritance and Tess as a 'Pure Woman'.

Innate nobility?

Not all of Tess's difference is unambiguously from her aristocratic genes:

  • For example, Tess's desire to be a truth-teller belongs to her finer sensibility (Ch 28), regardless of whether this is inherited from an aristocratic background or part of her unique character.

The burden of aristocracy

Angel finds the whole notion of aristocracy difficult. His ideas of the down-grading of the genetic pool:

  • Don't make sense in regard to Tess
  • Don't fit into his construct of Tess as a child of nature, the natural dairymaid
  • Cause him to make poor decisions, such as leasing the old D'Urberville mansion for their honeymoon without inspecting it first. The atmosphere in it is heavy; images of entrapment abound; and the portraits of the women on the wall project themselves on to Angel's feeling of betrayal (Ch 24-26).

By contrast, Alec dismisses all aristocratic claims as being as counterfeit as his own.

Tess as a woman in love

Joy and tension

Hardy's portrayal of Tess in love is finely done. The sense of inevitability gives it both a tragic intensity as well as heightening the suspense about whether Tess will have the resolve to confess her past. Above all, the tension of happiness and unhappiness co-existing is well portrayed.

For Hardy the basis for all love is a deeply instinctual 'will to enjoy':

'the invincible instinct towards self-delight' (Ch 15), and 'the appetite for joy' (Ch 30).

This is why Tess finds herself in love despite her resolve never to marry after her initial negative relationship:

  • She cannot help herself: it is her nature and instinct
  • She knows her resolve to keep her original vow will not hold out, so confession becomes crucial – yet also delayed.

Hardy portrays Tess as having a complex set of emotions, yet bring unable to resolve them in any coherent way.

The initial stages of love

The first stage of Tess falling in love is realised when she and Angel discover 'there was an understanding between them' (Ch 23) during the flooded lane episode:

  • They are on the same wave-length
  • They are insiders and the other three dairymaids are on the outside
  • Tess can understand Angel's allusive talk, a sign of her intelligence.

Chapters 24 – 30 contain vivid descriptions of a woman in love and also of how she is perceived by her lover:

  • The depiction of verdant nature in high summer symbolises the passionate nature of their love, the lack of actual physical sex heightening this (in sharp contrast to Alec's relationship with her)
  • Angel perceives her physicality (Ch 24), even though his construct of her is to stress her 'ethereality'
  • Tess's 'mute obedience characteristic of impassioned natures' (Ch 30) indicates how Hardy sees her as overwhelmed by her passion.

A developing relationship

Once Tess and Angel have declared their love, the next stage is the 'allowed courtship' of informal engagement (Ch 31):

  • The lovers' freedom is stressed, and their naturalness with each other
  • Hardy also uses terms associated with worship and devotion, indicating how each sees the other as perfect
  • Such quasi-religious language foregrounds the ‘religion of love' (see also Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights).


At the same time as devotion grows, so does conflict (Ch 28, 31). Attempts to resolve the conflict threaten to overwhelm the narrative, as Hardy deliberately delays confession. Tess is unable to deliberately deceive, but ironically her conflicted anxiety produces the same behaviour as if she were deceitful. Her lack of resolve becomes a flaw (Ch 30), with inevitably tragic consequences.

Delayed consummation

The third stage of Tess and Angel's relationship is marriage. Yet instead of heralding the onset of fulfilled love, there is the long-awaited reversal anticipated by the Genesis subtext: Tess is thrown out of paradise by Angel's moral failure. Her rejection from the marriage bed reminds her that since Alec has had intercourse with her, perhaps he is in some sense a husband (Ch 36). However, Tess's faithfulness to Angel bears the mark of a saint in its unwavering devotion.

Finally, Tess and Angel are reunited and their love is truly consummated in the New Forest. The lovers re-enter paradise, cut off from the world. Hardy's style here raises the novel to the level of Romance, even of myth, as the lovers head towards Stonehenge, a place of sacrifice.

Tess's faults

Hardy does not make Tess perfect (see Tess as a pure woman).

Hereditary flaws

  • Hardy attributes to Tess's ancestry her 'slight incautiousness' (Ch 14)
  • Her proximity to the d'Urbervilles at Talbothays reminds her they are a fallen family (Ch 15)
  • The link of the d'Urbervilles with death is strongly maintained. In Ch 15, Tess thinks of the day of her own death as she gazes in the mirror
  • Her failure to seek help is more ambiguously portrayed, as reticence may stem from pride, perhaps the noble pride of her ancestors. Thus, she will not beg or make a scene to win Angel back; and she will not seek help from the Clares (Ch 41).

Passivity in the face of fate

Tess's postponement of confession to Angel, though a fault, is totally understandable. Her passivity thereafter (in Ch 35-37) comes from:

  • A sense of guilt, that she is being punished as she deserves
  • The sense that she lives on a 'blighted planet' and cannot really expect any happiness.
  • Hardy portrays Tess as having a mixture of motivations, thus creating a psychologically believable complexity of character.

Sexual sin?

Whatever Tess's faults, Hardy is at pains not to condemn her for her initial relationship with Alec. This was problematic for Hardy's Victorian readership. More problematic for a modern readership is her murder of Alec, even when it is seen within the context of what Tess has endured thus far.

The limits of Tess's endurance

Misguided devotion

If Tess's passivity seems a flaw, her heroic patience in the face of suffering that follows during her time at Flintcombe-Ash shows admirable strength and endurance of character. However, Hardy makes it clear it is partially based on an altogether too-high regard for Angel's integrity, even perfection. Her worship of him has become idolatry. To that extent, it is poorly grounded and is bound to break under great pressure.

A cry for help

Tess's letter to Angel in Ch 48 is remarkable:

  • The pressure of her feelings gives Tess a new fluency
  • There is a sense that Tess is fast reaching her limits of endurance, her breaking point
  • For readers, pathos is increased by the awareness that the letter may not get to its destination in time, since Alec's pressure seems relentless and Tess's own circumstances offer little means of escape.

Re-evaluation of Angel

Tess snaps in Ch 51:

  • A sudden sense of Angel's unfairness (which readers may have recognized for the last few chapters) overwhelms her and for the first time Tess reproaches Angel
  • Resistance to Alec is now bound to fail, despite her continued resistance at Kingsbere
  • How Tess finally gives in is not described, only its results
  • Hardy does convey her existential despair in the desolate cry: 'Why am I on the wrong side of this door?' (Ch 52).


Tess loses her sense of self in returning to Alec and he continues to goad her, trying to conform her to his will. It is only Angel's return that allows Tess to re-assert her identity. Thus, her murder of Alec is portrayed not as a fault but as liberation:

  • Tess refuses to remain broken
  • Rather than experience guilt, Tess knows a sense of freedom
  • She is at last able to be her own woman or, rather, completely Angel's woman (see Tess as a male construct below).

Tess as a male construct

This question of Tess 'being her own woman' or 'being Angel's woman' raises the question of identity and constructs.

Hardy's fictive creation

Tess is Hardy's construct. The reader has to accept her fictiveness as part of the contract of reading a novel. It only becomes remarkable when we begin to see patterns or distortions, even contradictions, within this authorial construct. In Tess, these contradictions arise between:

  • What Hardy shows us of Tess, in her actions and words
  • What he comments to us about her.

The comments suggest an undue defensiveness of her, and, therefore, suggest Hardy has engaged with her as an individual rather than just as a narrator of her story.

Alec's version of Tess

Alec's construct of Tess lessens her identity as a complex woman and as such is dangerous for her to succumb to:

  • Alec sees Tess as sexual object, well-endowed as a woman
  • He also sees her as someone bound to succumb, if not to his charms, then to his power
  • He sees himself as master
  • Even as a repentant convert, he sees Tess primarily in sexual terms, as a seductress, a temptress, and makes her take a bizarre oath not to tempt him (Ch 45)
  • The feeling this produces in Tess is:
    • 'that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle ... she was somehow doing wrong'
  • Alec takes no responsibility but consistently pushes the blame onto Tess, even for his backsliding (Ch 46)
  • To Alec, Tess is the Eve who holds the forbidden fruit out for him to eat. (Genesis 3:6-7).

Angel's version of Tess

Angel's construct of Tess also lessens her identity as a complex woman, dangerously idealising her:

  • 'His love inclined to the imaginative and ethereal' (Ch 31). He constructs Tess for his parents in these terms (Ch 26)
  • He does see Tess as a physical being (Ch 24), but his own lack of passion cannot sustain this perception
  • Eventually, his idealisation cannot be reconciled to the real Tess, whom he regards as 'another woman' to be unfeelingly rejected.

Angel's alternative construct of Tess is to see her as an educational project. (There is frequently a love-education nexus in Victorian novels. Cathy educating Hareton in Wuthering Heights is an excellent example.):

  • Angel does it more from social motives than from love (Ch 32)
  • Tess is a quick learner, and is soon aping Angel's ideas and speech
  • Had Angel persisted, she would have made an educated wife. However, Angel abandons the whole project.
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