Chapter 3

Synopsis of chapter 3

The dancing continues late into the evening but Tess is concerned about her father and returns home early. The narrative describes the house and Tess's rather chaotic family, especially her mother, Joan. Mother and daughter share good looks, but are the opposite in terms of responsibility. Mother is happy-go-lucky; Tess, as the eldest child, feels the weight of the family. Including Tess, there are seven children, the youngest a baby of twelve months.

Meanwhile, Tess's father, Jack, has gone off to the local pub, having told her mother the ‘good news' about the family origins. Joan goes off to help him celebrate. Tess is mindful her father has to set off at 1 a.m. the next day to deliver some goods to the market. So she sends her younger brother, Abraham, to get their parents. When he does not return either, she sets out herself to find them.

Commentary on chapter 3

‘the soft torments....': an untraced quotation

‘The Spotted Cow': a folksong, wherein a man offers to help a girl find a cow, but ends up making love to her in a wood (significant in the light of future events in the novel). Hardy was part of a folk band and knew many of these songs by heart himself, just as Joan does.

therefore unknightly, unhistorical: as Tess has inherited her good looks from her mother, rather than her father, Hardy is ironically suggesting the ancestral inheritance of a name is nothing compared to good genes.

The sixth standard in the National School: The narrative is set before the Education Act of 1870, so schools were run by voluntary societies with state subsidies. The sixth standard would have been the exam taken by the highest year in most village schools. The National Schools were those run by the Church of England. This village school was run by a teacher trained at one of the London Training Colleges, and hence was reasonably well-taught. Hardy is trying to show Tess was both as educated as any village girl could expect to be, and apt to learn.

Oliver Grumble, Saint Charles: Hardy is making fun of the information Jack Durbeyfield received in Ch.1. The malapropism is a typical comic device, used by Shakespeare in many of his comedies.

The whole pedigree of the matter: in fact, Parson Trimble told Jack the family were extinct as such. Both Joan and Jack, tragically, forget this.

Consumption: T.B. or tuberculosis, a common nineteenth century disease. The comic treatment of disease again emphasises the Durbeyfields' carefree attitude to life.

Complete Fortune Teller: This, rather than the Bible, is obviously the family's holy book, residing in the outhouse (toilet). Such books were still popular in Victorian times.

The Revised Code: from 1862 the Government tried to establish a common curriculum for primary schools, similar to the national testing done today. Schools were paid subsidies according to how well their students fared in the annual examinations based on this national syllabus or code.

Jacobean and Victorian: The reigns of James I (1603-25) and Victoria (1837-1901): as Hardy says, a gap of 200 years.

‘Nature's holy plan': the poet is the Romantic poet, William Wordsworth. The line is taken from his poem ‘Lines Written in Early Spring' (1798).

one-handed clocks: These were still in use in country areas. Hardy suggests that time moves slowly and approximate times are all that is needed. In any case, parish churches typically had a clock that struck the quarter hours.


The first two chapters were outdoors. This chapter follows Tess indoors. The cottage is not the poorest, but is disorganised. Monday was the traditional washing day, but Monday's washing is still lying around at the end of the week.

The cottage has a stone floor and is lit by one candle only; the toilet is in an outhouse. This would be typical of a village dwelling.


Tess is contrasted with her parents, especially in terms of responsibility and organisation.

The theme of ‘prodigal parents' is typical of Victorian novels. Dickens makes use of it frequently, as in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. Hardy deliberately reverses Jesus' parable of The Prodigal Son in the Bible (Luke 15:11-32), as the parents are wasting the family's money, rather than the children.


Much of Joan's speech is dialect, as opposed to Tess's.

appurtenances: additions, accessories

concretions: something put into concrete form (opposite of abstractions)

diment: diamond

diurnal: daily

'ee: thee, the usual familiar term for you.

fess: proud

fetishistic: a fetish is some object that is feared because it is believed to have a sacred power

gallopade: a lively dance (rhythm)

larry: light-hearted celebration

limed: trapped (from bird-catching)

mampus: crowd

mid: might

mommet: scarecrow

occidental: western

plim: to swell

pocketing: to repeatedly put something into a pocket

scutcheons: or escutcheons: coat-of-arms

vlee: one-horse carriage

Investigating chapter 3

Hardy focuses on the social dimensions of Tess's family.

  • List some examples of the family responsibility and organisation Tess undertakes.
  • Hardy stresses the use of dialect and received pronunciation in Tess's family.
    • What points do you think he is making?
  • How does the modern sit with the traditional in the chapter?
  • Compare the folk-song at the beginning of the chapter and Hardy's reference to Wordsworth's poem at the end
    • With which does he seem more sympathetic, and why?
  • Think about the metaphor he uses of ‘the Durbeyfield ship'
    • What is the force of the image?
  • What further do we learn about Tess in this chapter?
    • How does it complement what we learned from the previous chapter?
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