Voice and tone


The question of perspective leads into voice. Who is actually speaking or thinking the words of the text? And how directly is the readership being addressed? Close textual analysis is needed to discern this.

If we look at Ch 25, where the perspective becomes temporarily Angel's, then the voice shifts between the narrator's and Angel's:

  • 'The white lane stretched before him' is clearly the narrator's voice, but showing us what Angel was seeing
  • 'but they were staring at next year, not the lane' puts us into Angel's thoughts in a humorous, but still narrative way.

Then come some questions:

  • 'He loved her; ought he to marry her? Dared he to marry her? What would his mother....' The voice has now clipped into Angel's own voice, being phrased in free indirect speech, so the narrative still uses 'he' rather than 'I', but otherwise the words are exactly what Angel's inner dialogue is asking.

A little further on, the narrative describes Mr Clare:

  • 'Old Mr Clare was a clergyman...'. The voice is now clearly the narrator's, speaking informatively.

At times, value judgements are made:

  • 'less an argument than an intoxication' demonstrates Hardy's authorial voice coming through, not only to guide our responses to Mr Clare, but giving us some of Hardy's own attitude, which is typically ambivalent: admiring the man but disliking his beliefs.


In the example in which Hardy describes Mr Clare, the reader knows Hardy admires the man by his tone. If anything, he is poking gentle fun at the man, but does not patronise him or talk down to him. It is a measured tone. Compare the way in which he describes Alec at the beginning of Ch 10: 'the choice spirit' is clearly sarcastic of Alec, since it is followed by 'it drank hard'.

An ironic tone

The typical tone of the novel is ironic, but not in the sarcastic way exemplified above. It is often either gently humorous or sad. But at every turn, the narrative points out the gap between the desired and the actual.

Narrative sympathy

Overlaying the irony is sympathy. The narrative's closeness to Tess and its defensiveness towards her ensures this. The building-up of Tess as a pure woman is slow but systematic. This sympathy at times becomes pity, almost that of a protective male towards an unprotected female. (see Tess as a pure woman).

Imagery, diction and register all go to build up this tone, even such things as Tess's modified dialect forms of speech. There is respect for these; nowhere does the narrative mock them. Instead, they convey an attitude of simplicity in Tess, held in tension by the complexity of her emotions and conflicted inner life.

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