Disempowerment of the working class

The world of the agricultural labourer in Tess

The society of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is basically focussed on the rural workers in farm and village. Within the novel, towns exist only very peripherally, while the middle-class and gentry hardly impinge, except for the male protagonists who are themselves uprooted from their normal community.

This rural community is the one in which Hardy grew up, and with which he continued to associate himself, though his portrayal of the rural workers is much less optimistic than in earlier novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd. Echoing the real economic constraints of the 1890s, Hardy depicts agricultural labourers primarily as:

  • Losing power and control over their own lives
  • Losing stability and security
  • Losing community.

The loss of common land

Traditionally, in the days before the Enclosure Acts (the majority enacted by Parliament between 1750 and 1830), those living on the land had had access to common land, from which they could support themselves. They may have owed labour to landlords etc., but there was some degree of permanence and independence in many of their lives (see Agricultural and social conditions).

With drastic changes in farming methods and because of the rural depression at the beginning of the nineteenth century, much of this common land was lost. Dorset was one of the worst hit of the English counties. Workers usually owned little beyond a yard and a site on an allotment on which to grow food (Ch 50). They were employed by farmers, and their contracts were often only for a year or even quarter year.

Transience of work

'Hiring fairs', where labourers would present themselves for employment, became very significant, but such workers were very much at the mercy of the farmers and the economic conditions.

Hardy also illustrates this in Far from the Madding Crowd, when Gabriel Oak seeks work as a shepherd.

There was little social welfare, only a harshly administered Poor Law (enacted 1834) that often broke families up.

All this Hardy shows us, especially in the latter half of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The workers at Flintcombe-Ash present themselves at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas (Ch 46), in readiness for Old Lady Day, from which is when new contracts were dated (Ch 51, 52).

Tess's employment

Tess herself finds it impossible to find a regular job once she leaves 'The Slopes':

  • She finds almost no work at Marlott besides the annual harvesting, which required all hands in the village
  • The work at Talbothays is largely seasonal – dairymaids are laid off once the milk yield decreases
  • The work at Flintcombe-Ash is hard and not really suitable for women.

Thus Tess is consigned to a semi-nomadic existence, with no economic power at all.

Impermanence of home and loss of community in Tess

The growth of the tied cottage system, when accommodation went with a job, also made life for rural workers less secure. Once the job was lost, then the cottage was too, causing further impermanence and loss of control (Ch 38).

Tess's family had hitherto escaped this system, as Jack Durbeyfield was a 'livier', a leaseholder whose family were allowed to lease a cottage over the lifetime of three generations. Often the lease had to be renewed between each generation, but there was a legal right to do this. This afforded some permanence, as long as the family was earning enough to cover the rent.

However, Jack was the last of the three generations and the landlord wanted the house to become a tied cottage. This meant the Durbeyfields became homeless on Jack's death (Ch 50, 51).

A similar thing happens in The Woodlanders, where Marty South's cottage is taken at her father's death, and then torn down, so there is no more record of it.

Mechanisation of labour in Tess

Hardy describes farm machines on two occasions: the wheat harvesting (Ch 14) and the threshing of the stacks (Chs 47, 48). The second occasion is particularly dramatic:

  • The machine is steam-driven
  • The imagery Hardy uses is of hell, with its noise and fire
  • The mechanic has no connection with the land or its community. He merely travels around nomadically with the machine

In contrast, another nomadic figure, the Reddle Man in The Return of the Native, still manages to be part of the community despite his travel.

  • The farm workers become machine-like when tied to the production line of the machine
  • Their work becomes mechanistic and there is no possibility of human relationships
  • The harshness of the conditions add to feelings of alienation and danger for Tess.

Class structures in Tess

The first chapter introduces us to a comic view of class, with working class Jack's sudden pretensions to being upper class 'Sir John' (class pretensions have been a great source of comedy in British culture).

However, in Tess, Jack's pretensions are tragic in their outworking:

  • They expose Tess to exploitation by Alec, representative of the new landowning class (with its own social pretensions of becoming gentry, of turning new money into old titles)
  • They mean Jack has even more excuse to be a spendthrift and idler, and so his family suffers economically.

Angel's middle class parents are shown to be compassionate towards 'the poor' but from within their own class hierarchy. Mrs Clare is particularly class-conscious in choosing a wife for Angel (Ch 26, 49). Hardy gently points out the inconsistency of Christian charity and snobbery, but this class consciousness runs right across all charitable efforts in Victorian England.

Dickens' novel Bleak House becomes a savage satire of such inconsistent attitudes.

Changing ‘class'

Angel himself sees educating Tess as a useful enterprise to make her more 'worthy' of being the wife of a middle class man. His offer to teach her history is particularly ironic (Ch 19, 32). The one heirloom bestowed on her, the jewellery, is Tess's only excursion into middle-class gentility; yet ironically she immediately considers selling it, supposing that it is not appropriate for her to have such finery as a working-class girl (Ch 34). It certainly does her no good.

The Cricks are the only people shown to transcend class boundaries in a positive way. Their rise from working class to middle class is not unlike the Hardy family's own slow rise, through sheer hard work, but not losing connections or community.

Related themes: Tess as an outsider; Sexual predation

See also: Agricultural and social conditions

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