Tess of the d'Ubervilles


To what extent is Tess a true tragic heroine?

Tess of the d'Urbervilles follows Tess through the last stages of her life. The reader is witness to the starting point of her eventual downfall, Alec raping her and the ramifications of that on the rest of her life. As the novel progresses, the reader learns more about Tess' true nature and how her end comes about because of the imposition of conventional values on her by other people, Alec's misinterpreting her feelings, Angel's religious dogmatism and the views of the people Tess interacts with. The character of Tess does not change throughout the whole book, rather, the full understanding of her character is revealed to the reader as the story unfolds.

The classic notion of a tragic hero occurs throughout the history of literature, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Othello, and even Oedipus Rex. Essentially, a tragic hero is an inherently noble character of great standing who suffers from a fatal flaw, be it pride, ambition or lust. The combination of this fatal flaw and a healthy dose of supernatural intervention results in the downfall of the tragic hero, before which he realises his fault. Tess is of course a far cry from this description; she is but the daughter of "the commonest feller in the parish" although she does possess many noble characteristics, and an almost equal amount of faults. Though not as obvious as witches or fairies, Hardy suggests throughout the novel that there are greater powers at work, manipulating the Tess' situation, leading her to her doom.

As opposed to the classic tragedy Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a domestic tragedy and is filled with pathos. Pathos presents its heroine as isolated by a weakness that appeals to the reader's sympathy because it reflects personal experience. More often than not, a domestic tragedy will contain a pathetic female sacrifice, from Clarissa Harlowe to Jame's Diasy Miller. In contrast to classical tragedies where massacres occur to cleanse the whole system, as in Hamlet, domestic tragedy concentrates on a single character, Tess in this case, partly because of the society being more strongly individualised yet at the same time constrained by traditions and orders. Characteristic of pathos is also the inarticulateness of the tragic heroine, Tess does not realise what Alec wants to do to her in the Chase till it is too late and again she does not point out Angel's hypocrisy when he refuses to forgive her for her lies.

Tess is possessed of pleasant enough qualities to stand her in good stead with any man. She is "a fine and handsome girl" who is deceptively mature and grows to a young woman. Emphasis is placed on the attractiveness of her eyes, her "velvet" lips, her sensuous "cooing voice, plaintive in expostulation". That she is capable of pride and independence is also shown repeatedly throughout the book, clearly she is only "a peasant by position and not by nature" and this can be seen in her determination in leaving Alec, her unwillingness to reveal to her parents the truth of her marriage. It is "pride, false shame, whatever it may be called, on Clare's account, which had led her to hide from her parents the prolongation of the estrangement." It is this pride which also prevents from staging an emotional scene to win back Angel's love.

Besides her physical qualities, Hardy also creates sense of Tess' kinship with Nature and her frailty amidst her surroundings. She is "a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience" and nearer the end of the novel, despite the trials and tribulations she has gone through, she is still "a vessel of emotions rather than reasons". The reader senses in Tess a instinctive, emotional quality that is in sharp contrast to Angel's "concentration", "contemplation" and "thinking". Tess is continually compared to animal life, she "was as warm as a sunned cat" and is often related to birds like the sparrow. This sense of her being one with Nature is succinctly put across in Hardy's description of her as "a figure which is part of the landscape."

Ironically, Tess' good qualities indirectly lead to her downfall as they become more a curse than a blessing. Her beauty is what attracts Alec and leads to her rape. Her beauty then attracts Angel, who misinterprets her beauty and sees her as "a fresh and virginal daughter