Tess Of D`UrbervillesIf written today, Tess of the d’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy may have been calledJust Call Me Job or Tess: Victim of Fate. Throughout this often bleak novel, thereader is forced by Tess’s circumstance to sympathize with the heroine (for lackof a better term) as life deals her blow after horrifying blow. One of thereasons that the reader is able to do so may be the fatalistic approach Hardyhas taken with the life of the main character.
Hardy writes Tess as a victim ofFate. This allows the reader to not blame her for the things that happen aroundher. Much of the critical debate surrounding Tess centers around this verypoint: Is Tess a victim? Are the things that happen to Tess beyond her controlor could she have fought her way out of her circumstances? Better yet, couldHardy have written her out of her troubles or did his fatalistic approach to thenovel force him to ultimately sacrifice poor Tess? Further, Is Hardy’s approachto the novel and its main character truly fatalistic? In this essay, I willexplore these questions and the doctrine of Fatalism as it applies to Tess. Fatalism is defined in Websters Dictionary as “the doctrine that all thingstake place by inevitable necessity” (175).
Fatalism is the idea that allactions are controlled by Fate, a primitive force that exists independent ofhuman wills and outside of the controls of power of a supreme being such as Godbecause God ultimately has no power; he is a creation of man who granted Him Hispower. Since He doesn’t truly possess those powers, he is left without theability to alter circumstances. In short, if one subscribes to this doctrine,you believe that Fate controls how things happen and God can do nothing to saveyou, even Tess. Overall, Tess seems to go through life experiencing one negativeevent after another. Fateful incidents, overheard conversations and undeliveredletters work against her ability to control the path her life takes. Tess’sfuture seems locked up from the beginning of the novel.
As the story opens, wefirst meet her father and learn of Tess’s ancestry: “Durbeyfield. . . are thelineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles. .
. thatrenowned knight who came from Normandy. . .
if knighthood were hereditary, like abaronetcy. . . would be Sir John” (4).
Somehow the reader knows almostimmediately that this knowledge isn’t necessarily going to save the poor clan,especially once we learn of the Fate of Tess’s ancestors: “Where do wed’Urbervilles live?” asks “Sir” John to the parson who responds,”You don’t live anywhere. You are extinct” (5). If one believes in theconcept of natural selection, they probably realize rather quickly that thisisn’t the best family from which to descend. Tess seems to sense her doomedstate. This is evidenced in her identification with the d’Urberville clan.
Examples of this are her ability to see or hear the d’Urberville Coach and herrealization of her resemblance to the d’Urberville woman of the farmhouse atWellbridge: “ fine features were unquestionably traceable in theseexaggerated forms” (277). These eerie events suggest that the fatedd’Urberville blood undoubtedly flows through her veins. Another example ofTess’s awareness of being ill fated is when she meets Alec. Tess laments abouther fate: “Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked whyshe was doomed to be seen and converted that day by the wrong man, and not bysome other man, the right and desired one in all respects (75).
She may not haveknown what to call it, but she definitely applies the doctrine of Fatalism toherself which according to author Leonard Doob is a telltale sign of a personwho feels fated: “When the principal is judging himself and believes that fate is affecting him, his perception is usuallydirect: he introspects, thinks, or meditates. But he may respond indirectly whensomeone else, an observer,, gives him information about himself. . .
Fatalism by aprincipal, therefore, is a pessimistic inevitability doctrine applied by himabout himself to himself” (7). If Tess didn’t start life feeling as thoughFate was working against her, there are plenty of incidents which could easilyconvince her: the death of the family horse because of her negligence, theletter of confession that slipped beneath the carpet and caused her to enterinto marriage as a deception, the death of her father, and the return of Angeljust too late. Incident after incident seem to point to only one thing: Tess wasnot meant to have a happy existence. So does Tess believe that God can save her?Throughout the novel, we see Tess moving away from God. She is appalled by theevangelical sign-painter warning of damnation and tells him that his teachingsare “horrible. .
. cursing. . .
killing” refusing to “believe that Godsaid such things” (97). Later, realizing that God can’t help her, Tessprays to Angel confessing her new religion in a letter: “It has been somuch my religion ever since we were married to be faithful to you in everythought and look” (127). Even Angel seems aware that God won’t save Tess,thinking as he left, “But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel?Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god ofwhom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he wasin a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked” (93). Othercharacters seem to buy into the idea of Fate as well. At the dairy, Angelchooses Tess over the other dairymaids who love Angel as much as she does, butthe dairymaids can’t be mad at Tess because it is Fate which has made thechoice: “‘Are you sure you don’t dislike me for it?’ said Tess in a lowvoice.
. . ‘I don’t know–I don’t know,’ murmured Retty Priddle. ‘I want to hate ‘ee;but I cannot!’ “That’s how I feel,’ echoed Izz and Marian” (12). Nowwe turn to the question of whether or not Hardy could have saved Tess or if hebelieved that Fate had determined his choices.
There were chances throughout thenovel for Hardy to give Tess a break and throw her a bone. He chose not to doso. Critic Arnold Kettle see this decision as a necessity: “Tess’s death isartistically as inevitable as Juliet’s. . .
She is up against a social situationthat she can do nothing to resolve except tragically, with drastic humanloss” (23). It seems that if Hardy was to have been true to his art, he hadno choice but to kill poor Tess. It would be an error in criticism, however, toclaim without a doubt that Fate is the key player in Tess’s demise. In fact, Itis actually rather easy to argue the other side of the coin. Hardy’s fatalism isextremely flawed. When in a pinch, he often relies on coincidence to furtherbeat Tess down: Alec showing up to save Tess after the party; his reappearanceas preacher; the letter slipping under the carpet; Angel slugging a man thatturns up later as Tess’s boss.
One could argue that this is all a bit tooconvenient. Critic Dorothy Van Ghent seems to agree saying, “We have allread or heard criticism of Hardy for his excessive reliance upon coincidence inthe management of his narratives. . .
he appears to be too much the puppeteerworking wires or strings to make events conform to his ‘pessimistic’ and’fatalistic’ ideas” (56). Hardy ultimately plays God in a novel where Godis missing and throws negative circumstances in places where they may not havebeen without his manipulation. But you still have to admit, on the whole, ourpoor Tess still seems quite fated. So is Tess and ultimately Hardy responsiblefor the things that happen to our heroine or is there something larger workingagainst her? Critic Leon Waldoff writes that “It seems impossible to readthe novel with a complete disregard of the idea that Tess is somehow responsiblefor her fate.
. . The narration is everywhere buttressed by words such as ‘doomed’,’destined’, and ‘fated. ‘ But the critical linking is never made and one remainsuncertain about why Tess’s fate is inevitable” (135). That moment of doubtand the unresolved question is where the argument of Fatalism in Tess gains itsmomentum. One point that I feel must be made.
Some argue, including my fellowclassmates, that it was destiny that bring Alec and Tess together. I would arguethat it is not destiny but Fate. Often used as a synonym for destiny, Fatediffers slightly but significantly from the idea of destiny. Author Leonard Doobexplains in his book, Inevitability, the difference between the concepts:”fate is associated with doom, which usually has the same negativeconnotation. .
. there can be no hesitation that the principal with a ‘fatal’disease will gave a negative experience. . . Destiny, on the other hand,frequently–again by no means always–suggests good fortune and is herewithassigned an association with positive effect” (7).
I think we can all agreethat Tess suffers from a deficiency of good fortune so it must be Fate, notdestiny, that continues to deal her a losing hand. There will most likely neverbe agreement on Tess’s and Hardy’s ability to change the outcome of the novel. Not ever really burying his flaws very deeply, Hardy seems to challenge thenotion that the flaws were necessary and lend themselves to the booksreadability. Critic Dorothy Van Ghent supports this idea writing that”Hardy has, with great cunning, reinforced the necessity of . . .
the folkfatalism, and folk magic. . . Their philosophy and their skills in living. .
. areindestructible, their attitudes toward events authoritatively urge a similarfatalism upon the reader, impelling him to an imaginative acceptance of thedoomrwrought series of accidents in the foreground of action” (57). Itappears that Hardy intentionally left doubt as to Tess’s playing into Fate or ifshe is playing against it. But that is why the novel still grabs the reader likea good soap opera.
Hardy, through his Fatalistic approach, invokes sympathy andconcern for poor Tess that keeps the reader turning each page in breathlessanticipation for what’s next. Debate as we will, it can not be denied that Hardywrote a truly gripping novel. BibliographyDoob, Leonard. Inevitability: Determinism, Fatalism, and Destiny. New York:Greenwood Press, 1988. Hardy, Thomas.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York:MacMillan, 1991. Kettle, Arnold. Introduction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed.
AlbertLaValley, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, 1969. 14-29. Van Ghent,Dorothy.
On Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tessof the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Albert LaValley, Englewood Cliffs, N.
J. :Prentice-Hall, 1969. 48-61. Waldoff, Leon. Psychological Determinism in Tess ofthe d’Urbervilles. Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy.
Ed. DaleKramer, London: MacMillan Press, 1979. 135-154.