Philosophic analysis

  • Early attempts at interpretation of Tess frequently tried to reconstruct Hardy's philosophy and then interpret the novel in the light of the reconstruction
  • Later attempts continued to engage with Hardy's stated beliefs but also took on board literary theory connected with modernism or postmodernism
  • All such attempts have yielded valuable insights, though Hardy never saw himself as a philosopher, and to that extent, all reconstructions of Hardy's philosophy are somewhat hypothetical.


A coherent philosophy?

Attempts at this construct of the novel assume Hardy acts as the omniscient narrator. His comments are therefore not questioned but ascribed to some coherent and overarching system of authorial belief. Such interpretations emphasise Hardy's use of the terms 'Fate', 'Destiny', 'Time'. Phrases like 'the President of the Immortals' are given prominence, though Hardy denied he meant the phrase literally:

  • One such interpretation sees Hardy as believing in a Creator who is unseeing, less conscious and sensitive than his creations, especially human beings
  • Other reconstructions go back to Greek ideas of the three Fates, or blind Fate
  • Others investigate the German philosophers popular in the late nineteenth century, whom Hardy read. Most of their systems could be collected under the term 'determinism': that is, we have little control over our own destinies. The concept of choice is largely an illusion (see Determinism and free will). Even evolutionism can be seen as largely deterministic.

Deterministic factors in Tess

A deterministic analysis of Tess would focus on the following:

  • Her belonging to the fallen family of the d'Urbervilles is a sign of her continued descent, whatever choices she tries to make to the contrary. She may not be at fault for this fall, but, once started, it cannot be reversed
  • Instincts to find happiness are bound to be thwarted because Fate / Destiny / Providence has no interest in human aspirations. A moment of happiness will soon be annulled by disaster or calamity
  • Tess is thus a victim of her past and of Fate itself. Her glory is that she does not succumb fatalistically to her suffering.


It could be objected that Hardy's own life does not bear this philosophy out. He had a remarkably successful life, marred by very few tragedies. It has also been suggested the fatalism in the novel is merely a reflection of the fatalism of rural folk who have used it as a way of coping with natural disasters for centuries, and so no philosophical weight should be put on it.


Was Hardy a modernist?

Hardy's critique of modernity, especially in the characters of Alec and Angel, has led some commentators to see Hardy as a judge of his own era, critiquing it in a modern way. As a literary movement, Modernism began before Hardy had died. When Tess was written, 'proto-modernism' might be a better term to describe this avant-garde movement:

  • Such writers used either irony or satire to attack Victorianism
  • They tried to establish much freer structures by which to assess morality
  • They sought to liberate the roles of men and especially women in modern society
  • However, such writers also critiqued the attitudes and behaviour of those who reacted to Victorian convention.

Henrik Ibsen(The dramatists Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw would be good examples of contemporary proto-modernist writers.)

Modernist writers also experimented with time and time sequences. However, Hardy is a very traditional writer. His time sequence is in order, and causal connections are established firmly.

The novel as a reflection of its times

Tess does talk of the 'ache of modernity', and Hardy was obviously very aware that the loss of beliefs and values left a sense of alienation among modern people:

  • Alec's drifting around is one symptom of this
  • Angel's rebellion of faith is another. His modernity is not thought through but over-optimistic. He, too, is in danger of drifting
  • Tess is also alienated from her family, her village and ultimately from society as a whole. She becomes an outsider and her life is marked by loss and quest. She loses her simple faith, and becomes disillusioned by the men in her life. She becomes a wanderer and, in the end, modern life hounds her to death.

At times, Hardy suggests that, in the discernible future, enough progress will have been made to avoid all this. But his view of progress is somewhat pessimistic, (typical of modernist writers). Social conventions change slowly and human freedoms are slowly won.


In literary studies, post-modernism is most frequently seen in what is called 'Deconstruction'. Post-modern readings do not claim that Hardy himself is post-modern. In fact, post-modernism puts no great faith in the ‘narrator' and drives a wedge between narrator and creator of the text. 'The unreliable narrator' is a typical post-modern phrase.

So instead of trying to construct what the author is saying, the method is to deconstruct the surface text, and to see its ambiguities and contradictions. Rather than assume a coherent authorial philosophy, post-modern readings of the text attempt to see just how many perspectives and viewpoints are included in the text, whether any are 'privileged' and if so, why.

Hardy's ambiguities and silences

Hardy is ambiguous in that what he says is not always what he shows, and he should not always be taken at face-value. Tess herself can be seen as a fractured reference point rather than a coherent identity, whom readers have to construct from a series of fragments.

Post-modernism also explores silences and borders or margins, where one state of being crosses into another:

  • Tess is full of silences, of things that are not written out, such as Tess's confession. Why not? Why this evasion?
  • Tess also lives on the margins of her societies, crossing over all sorts of borders in her own development and in the class structures of the day.

See also: Characterisation: Angel; Tess as outsider; Modernity; Coincidence, destiny and fate


The three main subtexts used by Hardy in Tess are all Christian, so the novel lends itself to interpretation in this way. Hardy was particularly aware of Christianity, if only because he was once a believer and then became a critic of it. His thinking is still influenced by Christian concepts and his rejection of Christianity needs critiquing.

Secularised Christian themes – the pilgrim

One aspect to explore is how Hardy uses Christian themes, but in a secular way. The idea of the secular pilgrim is a good example, drawing on the subtext of The Pilgrim's Progress:

  • While the Christian searches for salvation, in Tess the protagonists instinctively seek happiness or even love
  • For a Christian, redemption is permanent, dependent on Christ, not on fallible humans
  • In Tess, although it is an ‘angel' who seeks to save Tess, he fails miserably, almost damning her to a hellish life with Alec
  • Rather than repentance being appropriate for the pilgrim / Tess, it is the ‘saviour' / Angel who needs to repent and go through a purgatorial experience
  • A salvation of happiness in a paradise of love is achieved, but it is transitory, not permanent
  • Angel can't even offer Tess the consolation that they will be together in heaven, a central tenet for Victorian Christians.

Secularised Christian themes – purity not righteousness

In Tess, the defining moral term appropriate to salvation is purity, not the righteousness of Christianity:

  • Hardy's point is that purity must be attributed to Tess because of her good intentions
  • However, ‘good intentions' are a subjective value judgement, compared to the objective terms of Christian salvation, where righteousness depends on the perfect life and death of Jesus. See Big ideas from the Bible: Redemption, salvation.

Secularised Christian themes – natural laws not Christian

Christians believe that God's word / law is perfect. Hardy ostensibly replaces biblical teaching with 'nature's law', yet is ambivalent about this:

  • Sometimes, natural laws stand in contrast to the work of time
  • Wordsworth's position was that nature was part of God's providence and therefore was basically good, revealing God's love
  • Hardy can see no such role for nature, but lacking a substitute belief, can only lament.

Representatives of religion

Hardy is obviously attacking the Christian church as an institution through the way in which he portrays its representatives:

  • The vicar of Marlott is embarrassed by Tess's baby
  • The Clares, both parents and sons, are restricted by their class conventions
  • Alec's conversion is suspect
  • Only Mr Clare emerges with any honour. But, even here, Hardy gives no reason why Mr Clare's Pauline theology is not valid, only that he does not like it
  • Perhaps the greatest criticism of the institutional church is that its impact on Tess and her community is limited. She is affected far more by Alec and Angel's faithlessness. The loss of her own faith (through Angel) only brings harm to her.

See also: Religious / philosophical context as a whole

Textual analysis: Tess as secular pilgrim; Subtexts

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