Tess of the D’urbervilles is concerned not with the modern city, but with life in the country. In what ways could the text be regarded as a ‘Modern Novel’, in spite of its rural setting?

tessThe 19th Century was rich in women writers and characters. They introduced a woman’s perspective in literary writing which had never seen before. They also showed the role of women struggling in the face of social conflict, an imbalance of class prejudices followed by some sort of redemption. However, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, written in 1891, Thomas Hardy does not open the prospect of this kind of balance. The novel was a new form of writing, a literary form between individuality and the real world. When Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the novel was the ideal form to cater for the tragic tale of real life and to show how the world is being perceived. DH Lawrence stated, ‘The novel is the perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships’ (Lawrence, 1979, p180-181). James Joyce blended myth and modern life in his novel Ulysses and Hardy also makes use of the idea of myth and mythology creating Tess as a tragic heroine. Robert Longbaum argues that ‘the characters’ total immersion in nature suggests pastoralism… with the obvious definition of pastoral as an idealising picture of country life implying its superiority to city life’ (Longbaum, 1995, p67). Hardy uses the countryside setting as a paradox for modern life. The industrial revolution took place between the 18th and 19th Centuries creating factories, mass production and new technologies in farming and other industries. Although the town and cities were experiencing the industrial revolution in full swing, the countryside had yet to experience these changes. Hardy argues that countryside is where you can standstill and contemplate the world and environment. He also rejects the city and modern life and argues that you can only ever gain a sense of what is happening in the world by being in the countryside. Hardy also questions religion, specifically Christian values and through the themes of nature and the psychology of the heroine, the text can be regarded as a ‘modern novel’.

Tess is a modern character in contrast to her setting in that she is in the middle of nature and modern life and both are coming at her from different angles. She is also naïve having had no guidance about the world from her parents. Yet when she is pushed into a corner, she stands her ground like a true heroine. When Alec questions her regarding why she came to Trantridge, as it wasn’t for her love of him, Tess replies, ‘My God! I could knock you out of the gig!’ (Hardy, 1998, p77). Hardy is showing that even though Tess is not worldly, she stands up for herself. It is Tess’s guilt though which propels her towards Alec after her family are without their means of support. She has a sense of duty to her family, to be the breadwinner and support them. This is a very modern view that she has taken on herself and Hardy shows Tess does not give this a second thought. She does not fit in with the society she lives in and has her own values. On the night in The Chase, Tess’s innocence and virginity are taken by Alec and Tess is ultimately damned by the society in which she lives as she is no longer seen as pure.  Indeed, ‘An immeasurable chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm’ (Hardy, 1998, p74). The result of Tess’s violation by Alec is a child she names Sorrow.  On her return home, she questions her mother, ‘How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger?’ (Hardy, 1998, p82). Tess then has to face the village and carries the shame that society bestows upon her. In true modern style though, Tess defies society and does not hide away once the baby is born. Ellen Rooney argues that Hardy aestheticizes Tess to make her ‘…intensely literary- symbolic, tragic, eloquent- in her flesh, her eyes, her voice, her face’ and that ‘…sexual experience is to a woman what literature (and looking at Tess) is to a man’ (Rooney, 1998, p476). This shows that Tess’s character is as complex as literature itself and Hardy’s modern approach to a female psyche is truly modernistic of the Victorian era.

Nature has a very important role to play in showing how modern Tess of the D’Urbervilles is. Hardy portrays nature as commenting actively on what is happening around Tess. When Tess’s mother suggests a local boy takes her father’s horse to market to deliver the beehives, Tess won’t hear of it, saying “‘Oh no- I wouldn’t have it for the world!’ declared Tess proudly. ‘And letting everybody know the reason- such a thing to be ashamed of.’” (Hardy, 1998, p29). Tess feels responsible for the family and takes on the role of the breadwinner. This showed Tess to be a modern character. Unfortunately, when she falls asleep in the cart the family’s horse is killed and she immediately blames herself. The order of nature is disrupted and all of nature mourns for it, ‘The atmosphere turned pale, the birds shook themselves in the hedges, arose, and twittered’ (Hardy,1998, p33). Tess has a real connection with nature; she represents it and in this particular passage, nature itself is connecting with Tess’s sorrow. This antagonism with the world of nature and social concerns stands out in that Tess is very close to nature. She is unspoilt and authentic as is nature and bears the burden of conflict with nature. Nature comes alive, it is a part of what is happening and is commenting actively. When Tess hears the dying pheasants:

Tess’s first thought was to put the still-living birds out of their torture… ‘Poor darlings – to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the presence of such misery as this!’ (Hardy, 1998, p279).

Tess is incredulous at the plight of the pheasants and puts their misery before her own. She is somebody who represents the voice of nature and her inner turmoil can be reflected in nature itself with this selfless act. This is a new approach to modern life. She is so close to nature and that is why she is such a modern character. Hardy has a new vision of the countryside. New technologies are coming into the farming industry which Tess is part of yet there is a battleground for modernity here as the old way is still seen as better than the new way. When Tess is working at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, she mans a thresher machine that the old men talked of ‘the past days when everything…was effected by hand labour, which, to their thinking, though slow, produced better results.’ (Hardy,1998, p326). Here Hardy is showing us that even though the industrialisation is on the horizon and marching its way towards the countryside, it was not necessarily the way forward for a modern way of life. These old men being living proof that this is the case.

When Tess realises her baby is dying, her first instinct is that the child needs to be baptized. Her father reacts vehemently to Tess’s request for the parson, saying ‘no parson shall come inside his door…prying into his affairs…when, by her shame, it had become more necessary than ever to hide them’ (Hardy,1998, p93). Tess then takes it upon herself to baptize the infant to ensure its holy passage to the Almighty exclaiming, ‘O merciful God…have pity on my poor child’. (Hardy,1998, p93).  When it becomes clear that the parson will not undertake a Christian burial, Tess defies the church and decides to bury the child anyway in a forgotten corner of the graveyard and makes a cross from wood and string. This empathy with death was another modern view and Tess’s defiance shows how she isn’t controlled by the Catholic church and the modern approach of burying the child herself shows that she did not fear God or any other human beings. Hardy also shows here the connection with the modern world when Tess puts some flowers in a jar of ‘Keelwell’s Marmalade’ (Hardy, 1998, p97). The jar is a leading motif for nature versus capitalism. We can see that industrialisation and the city are never too far away but Hardy’s use of that particular jar in an act of such purity is mocking the modern world. Tess’s thoughts are to keep the flowers alive yet it shows the imbalance between the modern world and nature. Hardy is also criticising the logic of religion, which in itself was a modern view point. He also shows that the church is man-made and does not give you any sort of solace. Hardy also portrays Alec and Angel as good and evil, not only in the symbolic use of Angel’s name and Alec’s evil behaviour but as representatives of Christian values. Indeed, when Tess tells Angel of her past after they marry, she says ‘Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel.’ (Hardy, 1998, p228). Angel has no Christian forgiveness in him for Tess and banishes her from him. Hardy is questioning religion and showing the reader through Christian ethics, neither man can save Tess. Tess is beyond good and evil, which are the central pillars of religion yet Hardy is suggesting that Tess’s denouncement of the church and leanings to paganism are the way forward. When Tess and Angel arrive at Stonehenge, it as though the balance of her disrupted life is restored as Tess lies on one of the slabs as if on an alter as a sacrificial lamb. She knows then that her time is ending soon and she has made peace with it. This denouement culminates with Hardy’s argument that going back to the beginning, to the point where everything began, is to be in control of modern life.

Written in 1891, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a thoroughly modern novel set in a true rural setting. At the time of realism, the novel was able to diversify new ideas and modern approaches. The simple setting of the countryside shows the reader where the truly modern life should be lived. Being at one with nature and the countryside, Hardy is portraying rural life as going back to a more simpler time; back to the beginning when life was easier. Hardy shows Tess to be a courageous woman under significant duress through society, nature and religion. She has a thoroughly modern approach in that she stands up for herself, defies the teachings of the Church and connects with nature in such way that she becomes one with it. The leanings towards Paganism also shows this disconnection with Christianity and how Hardy moved away from traditionalist views to a more modern outlook. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was an extremely radical novel because of these points compared to previous novels written around the same time and this radicalism coupled with the birth of realism show Tess of the D’Urbervilles to be a true modern novel.


Hardy, T. (1998). Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London, England: Penguin Group.

Langbaum, R. (1995). Thomas Hardy in Our Time. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd

Lawrence, D. H. (1979). ‘Morality and the Novel’. In: A Selection from Phoenix (pp175- 181) London: Penguin

Rooney, E. (1998). ‘Tess and the Subject of Sexual Violence: Reading, Rape, Seduction’. In: Riquelme, J.P. (ed). Tess of the D’Urbervilles- Thomas Hardy.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.


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