Social realism

Interpretations that are based on theories of social realism may be further divided into:

Contextual and historicist views of Tess

These interpretations rest on the following assumptions:

Nature is objective

Thus the student of Tess needs to study:

  • The actual geography of the region
  • The economic forces at work in the agriculture of the period
  • The social forces at work.

Hardy's circumstances when writing the novel are relevant to its understanding

Thus the student needs to know something of:

  • Hardy's biography
  • The circumstances in which Hardy wrote the novel
  • Its sources in real life
  • Its mode of production
  • Its reception by his contemporary audience.

Only then can we see the text as a contemporary construct, generated by specific forces at a specific time.

The Context section provides much of this material. Students need to be alert to:

  • Contemporary discussion on 'the new woman'
  • Hardy's own writing on the Dorsetshire labourers
  • The novel's serialisation and the changes Hardy was forced to make in production
  • The question of why Hardy placed the novel's setting earlier in the nineteenth century - what would have changed between mid-century Dorset and Dorset at the time of Hardy's writing?

A Marxist analysis of Tess

This type of interpretation is based on:

  • The Marxist assumption of class warfare
  • The exploitative nature of capitalism
  • The basic economic reality of life and society.

Several older Marxist critics, such as Raymond Williams and Arnold Kettle, have given very coherent accounts of Tess that emphasise certain aspects which could otherwise easily be overlooked (see Resources and further reading: Books).

Significant issues

In the light of Marxist analysis, Tess herself would be seen as a representative of the working class, exploited by the two middle-class men. Particularly significant are the following issues:

  • Alec's father, Mr Stokes, was a commercial capitalist, having acquired his wealth elsewhere. It is now being spent in ostentatious luxury, without benefiting the economy:
    • Tied cottages are taken over
    • Production becomes play or leisure
    • Nothing else is now being produced from this capital.
  • Tess, as representative of the working class, is being exploited as a 'play-scheme' supervisor (looking after Mrs d'Urberville's birds), which becomes a sign of sexual exploitation
  • Alec, the son of the capitalist, has never had to work - his idleness becomes a bad influence on the village, which he should be trying to reform
  • His one attempt to identify with the working-class, as a result of his conversion to Christianity, is short-lived, fraudulent and inauthentic (rather like the Russian aristocrat Tolstoy living among his peasants, a romantic gesture which actually changed nothing)
  • This is paralleled by Angel trying to become a farmer, exploiting new lands. Such ill-conceived and inauthentic moves are bound to fail
  • At the level of the petit bourgeois (the kulaks or ‘well-off' working-classes), Groby also exploits Tess and his female workers. This exploitation has a sexual element to it as well
  • Groby's imposition of mechanisation turns work into a mechanistic process, divorcing the workers from the soil and constricting their movements to those of an automaton. The agricultural labourers no longer have any power or control over the means of production and their quality of life is lowered.

Other signs of exploitation and disempowerment include:

  • The tied cottage system, leading to the eviction of Tess's family
  • Landlordism
  • Casual labour, with no long-term security or improvement of pay
  • Hiring fairs, where labour is consigned to sell its services to market forces
  • Lack of social networks, such as unemployment or sickness benefits, part of a lack of government.

The Marxist ideal

An ideal Marxist community is presented at Talbothays, where there is equality of work and labour (though not of pay). Production norms are met voluntarily and there is harmony. Even so, conditions are not perfect. Production lessens over the winter and contracts are terminated, forcing the community to dissolve.

The reason for the decline of Tess's fortunes

According to a Marxist interpretation, Tess's fall is basically economic. It is not just due to Alec's exploitation, which is recoverable. However:

  • Tess has no secure work or home
  • She has no power except her sexuality and labour, both of which are exploited further
  • She is undermined by the false consciousness of her family, especially that of her father, who has bought into the class system in a parody of ambition.

However, a Marxist analysis is essentially a materialistic interpretation, rather than taking into account spiritual dynamics, or the importance of human relationships. It can be seen as reductionist: according to this view, every Hardy novel could be interpreted to fit a preconceived mould, and so one novel becomes quite like all the others.

See also: The Context section as a whole; Hardy's Wessex

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