Chapter 31

Synopsis of chapter 31

The courtship proceeds through October. Tess is ecstatic and passionately in love. Angel's love is more controlled but very honourable. Tess's mother has advised her not to tell Angel anything about her past, and she decides to accept the advice. However, when confronted by her three dairymaid friends, and when they selflessly give up all hope of Angel to her, she feels anew her own unworthiness and resolves again to tell Angel.

Commentary on chapter 31

The chapter contains one of Hardy's best descriptions of a woman in love. This is Tess at her happiest, yet still capable of depths of unhappiness. Hardy seems to be able to penetrate the female psyche, not only of Tess, but also the dairymaids, in their spontaneous gestures of affection to her. The landscape descriptions of late autumn reach a high poetic quality, and resonate symbolically in a powerful way.

wandering last century hand: Joan's handwriting was in the eighteenth century style, shown by the use of 'J' in stead of 'I' and the haphazard use of capital letters. Copperplate handwriting would have been the rule at Tess's school.

Lord Byronless Byronic than Shelleyan: Byron and Shelley were both Romantic poets, but whilst Byron portrayed himself as a passionate, sexually active male (appropriate to Alec), Shelley's love poetry was far more idealistic (reflecting Angel's character). Another Hardy male, Fitzpiers in The Woodlanders, is also seen in Shelleyan terms.

country custom: Hardy implicitly compares country and town here. Middle class courtships, even after engagement, did not allow much privacy between the couple in late Victorian times.

purling weir: a weir is a barrier in a stream or river which allows the flow to be controlled and for the current to lose height. The purling refers to the pleasing noise the water makes at this point of control.

She walked in brightness: there is an ironic biblical echo of 'walking in the light' (1 John 1:5-7), which implies total honesty.

who are true and honest....: quoting from Philippians 4:8 in the New Testament, a famous passage that would often have been read at school and church. Tess sees it as a condemnation, though Hardy uses it as one of the yardsticks for his concept of a 'pure woman'.

For whom she lived and breathed: Tess idolises Angel, and in some ways has made him her god – as hinted at by this echo of Paul's words, ‘…in him we live and move and have our being,' (Acts 17:28).


It is now October, late autumn, the opposite season usually associated with lovers, the spring. The year is declining, sending long shadows over the fields. Yet the sun is shown to be quite dazzling as it sets low in the sky. Such opposites are projections of Tess's own inner state of being. This is an excellent demonstration of Hardy's poetic skills in handling images and symbols to cross-reference outer and inner landscapes.

Hardy also mentions Tess's age: sixteen when she first saw Angel; not yet twenty-one now, so four years and five months have elapsed since the first chapter of the book.


baily: bailiff or farm manager

champaigns: a stretch of level open country

dogs: brass effigies of dogs used in fireplaces to hold the logs in place

phlegm: one of the four humours of the body; associated with calmness and lack of emotion

photosphere: a sphere or envelope of light

seer: wise man, prophet

settle: settee, couch, sofa - often wooden

Investigating chapter 31

  • In what ways does Joan's letter help Tess?
    • Is it good advice, suited to her character?
  • Look at the way Hardy portrays Tess and Angel in love. Examine the descriptions, images and the language he gives to the lovers.
    • What are the main differences between their two approaches?
  • Collect together images of light, shadow, and darkness.
    • What emerges from Hardy's use of them?
  • What other symbols do you see in Hardy's landscape descriptions?
  • What does Hardy mean to convey by his description of 'their thin white nightgowns'?
  • 'which seemed a wrong to these'
    • Why does Tess' silence seem a wrong to the dairymaids?
  • By the end of the chapter, what has the reader been led to anticipate?
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