Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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Injustice and Fate Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Injustice and Fate Theme Icon
Nature and Modernity Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Paganism and Christianity Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Injustice and Fate Theme Icon

The cruel hand of fate hangs over all the characters and actions of the novel, as Tess Durbeyfield's story is basically defined by the bad things that happen to her. Thomas Hardy himself, as the author of the novel, obviously causes the many unfair coincidences and plot twists that beset Tess, but as narrator he also manages to appear as her only advocate against an unjust world. Tess's hardships are described as mere sport for the “President of the Immortals,” which contrasts with the Christian idea of a God who has a benevolent plan for everyone, and connects with the notes of paganism throughout the novel. Hardy points out and emphasizes the multiple unhappy coincidences that take place, like Tess overhearing Angel's brothers instead of meeting his father. The novel basically keeps asking the age-old question “why do bad things happen to good people?” Hardy even muses over the possibility that Tess's sufferings are a punishment for her ancestors' crimes, or else that some murderous strain is in her blood, foreshadowed by the d'Urberville coach.

The “justice” meted out by the society around Tess is just as cruel as the “President of the Immortals.” Both her community and Angel condemn Tess for her rape, which was not her sin but Alec's. She is seen as someone to be criticized and cast aside because of a terrible thing done to her, rather than something she did herself. Her final execution emphasizes the feeling that society, circumstance, and some external force, whether Thomas Hardy or a god, have been working against her the whole time.

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Injustice and Fate Quotes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Below you will find the important quotes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles related to the theme of Injustice and Fate.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Don't you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d'Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d'Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?

Related Characters: Parson Tringham (speaker), John Durbeyfield
Page Number: 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first chapter of the novel, a religious figure, Parson Tringham, gives John Durbeyfield the information that sets the remainder of the novel in motion. Parson Tringham believes that John and his family are descendants of the famed d'Urberville family, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the area. The d'Urbervilles have something more important than money: they have history and cultural capital, the respect and elite status that come with having lived in England for hundreds of years.

It just so happens that the Parson's remarks will eventually mislead the Durbeyfields--Tess Durbeyfield will go to a nearby family of d'Urbervilles, unaware that they've just adopted the surname to seem prestigious. In a different kind of book, the Parson's speech would set in a motion a kind of Victorian "Cinderella story," in which John and his family rise to the top of society by reclaiming their family connection. But in this novel (as is common in Hardy's work), such a quest only leads to doom. John's family wants to rise in society, but they won't do so by the strength of their name.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Well, Tess ought to go to this other member of our family. She'd be sure to win the lady – Tess would; and likely enough ‘twould lead to some noble gentleman marrying her. In short, I know it.

Related Characters: Joan Durbeyfield (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs. d'Urberville
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Joan Durbeyfield, Tess's mother, suggests that the family send Tess to the d'Urbervilles in search of work, Joan is sure that Tess, with her charm and vitality, will be able to convince the d'Urberville family that she's one of them, and might even be able to succeed in marrying one of them, ensuring the survival and prosperity of her own family for years to come.

Joan's plan is implausible for a number of reasons--and yet it tells us a lot about her personality, and about English society. There's no indication that a marriage to one of the supposed d'Urbervilles would be profitable in any literal sense, since the real d'Urbervilles have no money, and indeed have all died off (as we later learn). The practical Joan also seems more concerned with the ascendance of her own family than with her daughter's personal happiness, though she has the best of intentions; in a way, she's to blame for Tess's misfortune in the coming years. Another layer of irony is that the supposedly old and prestigious d'Urbervilles that Tess will eventually meet aren't really d'Urbervilles at all--they've just adopted the surname to seem more impressive. And thus Tess slips into her tragic fate because of a case of mistaken identity.

The morning mail-cart, with its two noiseless wheels, speeding along these lanes like an arrow, as it always did, had driven into her slow and unlighted equipage. The pointed shaft of the cart had entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword, and from the wound his life's blood was spouting in a stream, and falling with a hiss into the road. In her despair Tess sprang forward and put her hand upon the hole, with the only result that she became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield
Related Symbols: Prince the Horse
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tess's family horse, Prince, is killed by the shaft of a mail-cart--a highly symbolic tableau. Prince is a symbol of the "old England"--the England of forests, May-Day, nature, etc. The mail-cart, on the other hand, represents industrialization in all its aspects: its insensitivity to people and animals, its cruel efficiency, etc. Thus, for the cart to kill Tess's horse symbolizes the rise of industrialization during the period when the novel is set. Furthermore, the highly sexualized language of the passage might be said to represent the terrors of sex and masculinity. Tess is a young, virginal girl, unaccustomed to interactions with men. Here, the mail-cart seems like a hyper-masculinized figure, piercing the horse with its phallic shaft. Tess sees the horse's death as a nightmarish spectacle, perhaps foreshadowing her later experience with sexuality as violence.

Chapter 5 Quotes

He watched her pretty and unconscious munching through the skeins of smoke that pervaded the tent, and Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down at the roses in her bosom, that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the “tragic mischief” of her drama – one who stood to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield, Alec d'Urberville
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tess is introduced to Alec d'Urberville, one of the main characters of the novel--and, perhaps more than anyone else, the architect of Tess's undoing. Tess sits in a tent with Alec, who's contemplating kissing her. Alec and Tess are equally ignorant of the events their meeting will set in motion: because of their encounter in the tent, Tess's life will be ruined forever.

The tableau described in the passage is notable for contrasting the virginal, natural innocence of Tess's appearance ("roses in her bosom") with Alec's more mature and "modern" tendencies, perhaps symbolized by the "narcotic" smoke in his tent. Alec is like poison for Tess, corrupting her innocence. The passage is also a great example of the narrator's sad, fated tone: he knows exactly what's going to happen to Tess, yet he's powerless to stop it.

Chapter 8 Quotes

He was inexorable, and she sat still, and d'Urberville gave her the kiss of mastery.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield, Alec d'Urberville
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alec "seduces" Tess. Alec is a confident, spoiled young man, used to getting what he wants. He thinks of Tess as a weak, poor, unsure girl--an easy conquest, particularly because both her gender and her class prevent her from achieving any kind of agency against the wealthy male Alec. Hardy conveys Alec's social power and intimidating persona with phrases like "inexorable" and "kiss of mastery."

The kiss of mastery that Alec delivers to Tess might as well be a death-blow, since it prefigures the act of rape to come. Alec will impregnate Tess, setting in motion the events of the novel and eventually leading to Tess's arrest and death. There's a sense of fated-ness to the entire scene: one moment of kissing between Tess and Alec will lead to a lifetime of tragedy.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“It was to be.” There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social 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.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic chapter, Alec rapes Tess. The narrator sadly tries to understand how such a horrible tragedy could have happened--where was it written that a young, innocent girl like Tess would have her life ruined by a man like Alec? The narrator tries to find an explanation, but eventually settles on a fatalistic non-explanation, epitomized by the country people's phrase, "It was to be."

The novel traffics in fate, never more overtly than in this scene: there's a strong sense that everything that happens to Tess has been planned, as if by some indifferent god. Like a Greek tragedy, the universe seems to be punishing Tess for trying to rise above her station by marrying a d'Urberville. And yet even here, Tess is punished unjustly, since it was her family who forced her to go to the d'Urbervilles. There seems to be no justice in the universe, just an indifferent, meaningless fate--and perhaps that's Hardy's point.

Chapter 19 Quotes

Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only – finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker)
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Tess is again talking with Angel Clare about her situation. Tess admits that she feels ignorant and stupid compared to the educated Angel, and Angel tries to comfort Tess by offering to teach her history. Tess demurs, however, and explains that she tries to avoid history altogether: there's no comfort for her in knowing that she comes from a "long line" of ancestors. To accept such an idea would be to accept that, some time in the past, there was a person just like her, whose destiny Tess is just replaying. Furthermore, learning more about the past just makes her feel like her own fate is predetermined and unchangeable.

The passage is counterintuitive because Tess, the embodiment of both the life-force of the English natural world and the lost history of ancient aristocracy, often seemed to symbolize England's nostalgic past. And yet Tess doesn't like to think of herself as a "symbol" of anything: she heroically struggles to be free of fate and destiny (even as it becomes increasingly clear to us that she's fated to have a short, tragic life). The passage also reminds us that Tess doesn't care at all about her ancestry or her relationship to the d'Urbervilles--which makes the fact that her family forced her to visit the d'Urbervilles and claim kinship all the more tragic.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at the season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fermentation, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hardy describes the yearly rituals of harvesting and fermenting. The people of the countryside are picking their crops and fermenting them to produce alcohol and other products. It is, in short, a season of growing and maturation. By the same token, Hardy argues, Tess and Angel's feelings for one another are growing stronger and more lively--it's inevitable, in such a time, that they'd ultimately give in to their desire for one another.

The passage uses extremely vivid, sexual language--"oozing," "warm," "hiss," etc.--to convey the extent of Tess and Angel's growing romance. The narrator again creates a sense of fatedness, suggesting that Tess and Angle have no choice but to fall in love. And yet here, the fatedness that the narrator conveys seems cheerier and more optimistic, rather than tragic. If Tess and Angel's relationship only existed within the world of the fertile Froom Vale (apart from the darkness of the Chase and the d'Urberville's world) all might have ended happily, but because of external forces and Tess's own past, the positive power of nature and love is tragically corrupted.

Chapter 32 Quotes

“I don't quite feel easy,” she said to herself. “All this good fortune may be scourged out of me afterwards by a lot of ill. That's how Heaven mostly does.”

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker)
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tess--preparing for a life with Angel Clare--expresses her reluctance to live with Angel. Tess loves Angel, but she senses that her past will come back to haunt her, and that she's not fated to be happy. As she explains here, she thinks that her happiness and good fortune now will eventually give way to even greater sadness and misery later on. In other words, what goes up must come down.

Tess's view of fate is harsh and pessimistic--she seems to think that "Heaven," or fate, generally tends to punish people more than it rewards them. She thinks in the terms of a Greek tragedy, with the protagonist's glory causing his downfall by the end of the play. And she's right, at least within the world of the novel (and much of Hardy's work). Tess seems to sense her fate--she seems to intuit that she isn't ever destined for lasting happiness.

Chapter 33 Quotes

“O my love, why do I love you so!” she whispered there alone; “for she you love is not my real self, but one in my image; the one I might have been!”

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

As Tess and Angel prepare to settle down together, Tess worries that her past will destroy her relationship with Angel. Tess loves Angel, but she's frightened that Angel doesn't really love her at all--instead, he loves an idealized version of her. Angel thinks of Tess as a beautiful, virginal girl, full of melancholy, lovely thoughts. Tess, however, knows that she's not as innocent or pure as Angel thinks her to be.

By modern standards, it's fair to say that Tess has been overcome with socially-imposed guilt and self-hatred. Alec is responsible for raping her and ruining her life, but Tess (and all of society around her) despises herself for having been raped by Alec. She assumes that she is "impure," and that if Angel knew the truth, he would reject her (as indeed he does). While Tess seems to be referring specifically to her past with Alec here, she is also more broadly accurate concerning Angel's tendencies to idealize and condescend towards her. He loves her, but also doesn't really know her--he loves her as a kind of "nature goddess" who embodies natural purity, innocence, and pagan wisdom.

Chapter 45 Quotes

This was once a Holy Cross. Relics are not in my creed; but I fear you at moments – far more than you need fear me at present; and to lessen my fear, put your hand upon that stone hand, and swear that you will never tempt me – by your charms or ways.

Related Characters: Alec d'Urberville (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 311
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Tess accidentally encounters Alec, years after their last encounter. After this initial encounter, Alec and Tess walk to a mysterious place that is at once both pagan and Christian. They arrive at "Cross-in-Hand," a stone which has been in the wilderness for ages, but which supposedly used to hold a Christian cross. Alec asks Tess to put her hand on the stone and swear that she'll never "tempt" him again.

The passage is important because it shows the depths of Alec's hypocrisy. Even though it was Alec who raped Tess, Alec clearly blames Tess for "tempting" him to rape her. (This echoes society's cruel, sexist stance on the incident as well.) The pagan/Christian symbolism of the scene reinforces Tess's mystic status in the novel (and in the minds of the two main male characters): she's both a Christ-figure and a pagan nature-goddess, an innocent martyr and victim of the sins of others.

Chapter 47 Quotes

What a grand revenge you have taken! I saw you innocent, and I deceived you. Four years after, you find me a Christian enthusiast; you then work upon me, perhaps to my complete perdition!

Related Characters: Alec d'Urberville (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Tess meets with Alec once again. Alec has briefly converted to Christianity and worked as a preacher, but when he reunites with Tess, he gives up religion altogether so he can pursue her again. Outrageously, Alec blames Tess for tempting him away from Christianity: he blames her for taking her "revenge" on him.

Alec, the most hypocritical character in the novel, is a weak, spoiled man, without the drive or principle to focus on any religion or ideology other than his own desires. And yet instead of blaming himself for his lust and laziness, he takes out his anger on Tess herself, again simultaneously idealizing and dehumanizing her. On an individual level, we easily see how cruel, unjust, and absurd Alec is being, and this allows Hardy to show how equally cruel, unjust, and absurd is society's condemnation of Tess.

Whip me, crush me; you need not mind those people under the rick! I shall not cry out. Once victim, always victim – that's the law!

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker), Alec d'Urberville
Page Number: 332
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Tess is both active and passive--rebelling against her victimization and accepting it. Tess has met with Alec, who accuses her of tempting him away from the clergy and seducing him. Furious with Alec's hypocrisy, Tess slaps him, and then--seeing the fury in Alec's face--dares Alec to beat her and treat her like a "victim." Her outburst shows that she's fully aware of both Alec's sinfulness and of his power to get away with being sinful: she recognizes that he treats other people like objects, to be enjoyed and then discarded--and no one condemns him for it, because he's wealthy and male.

In the past, Tess has shown signs of blaming herself for her own misfortune. (This is understandable, as it's how society as a whole views her condition.) And yet in her despair Tess seems to have reached greater clarity, as she bitterly and sarcastically suggests that Alec is responsible for her downfall, but because of her fate there's nothing she can do about it. In such a way, the passage foreshadows the end of the novel, in which Tess will truly take justice into her own hands.

Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man's wife you are mine!

Related Characters: Alec d'Urberville (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 332
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alec d'Urberville again asserts his dominance over Tess. Alec has raped Tess before, and here, he shouts to Tess that he'll "master" her again. As he did years before, Alec again tries to get Tess to love him voluntarily, and when she won't, he abuses his power over and tries to force her to become "his."

Alec is complex and human, yet also the most villainous character in the novel. On one level, he's the very embodiment of England's new social elite--heartless and entitled, insensitive to nature and innocent joy, and generally obsessed with power and "mastery." Alec speaks as if he has control over his own destiny and the destiny of other people, and his class and gender support him in this--but he's also deluded, as there is still one last way Tess can wrest his power away from him (even if it means her own death as well).

Chapter 52 Quotes

The old order changeth. The little finger of the sham d'Urbervilles can do more for you than the whole dynasty of the real underneath…

Related Characters: Alec d'Urberville (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 364
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tess discovers Alec d'Urberville among the tombs of her ancient d'Urberville ancestors. Alec points out that his own family isn't actually related to the d'Urbervilles at all: they've just taken the name to give themselves more social prestige. But although Alec is a "sham d'Urberville," he actually has more money and social control than the real d'Urbervilles, who long ago lost their fortune and died off.

The passage conveys the changing order of the world. The old noble families of England are dying out, Hardy suggests, to be replaced by "new money" families that merely pretend to be old and prestigious. The social changes that make such pretensions possible include industrialization: the Industrial Revolution created a new class of wealthy businessmen without any ancestral connection to Britain's past. Because they had no such connection, they simply made one up. Thus, Alec's observations symbolize the changing economic landscape of his country. Yet Hardy doesn't idealize the landed aristocracy of the past--he merely shows how money and power continue to corrupt even in this new, supposedly more democratic age. The fact the Alec has money (and is a man) is enough to ensure that he has almost total control over Tess.

Chapter 58 Quotes

“It is as it should be,” she murmured. “Angel, I am almost glad – yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!”

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker), Angel Clare
Page Number: 396
Explanation and Analysis:

Tess has murdered Alec and fled with Angel, but Angel hasn't yet been entirely sure that Tess really committed the crime she's confessed to. In this scene, Tess falls asleep at Stonehenge, as Alec watches the monument become surrounded by policemen. Tess wakes with the sun, and sadly tells Angel that she's glad that she'll be punished for her crime. As she explains, all happiness is fleeting. Even if she'd found a way to live with Angel again and start a normal life with him, her happiness would eventually have given way to tragedy, somehow--he surely would have come to "despise" her.

Tess's speech indicates that she's finally given in to the power of destiny. Previously, Tess tried to carve out freedom for herself, but in the end, she seems to accept that she has no real control over her own life. Tess's happiness--a happiness deeply rooted in the glory of nature and the outdoors--is doomed to die (just as England's natural beauty is doomed to be replaced with factories). One could say that Tess embodies the Romantic ideal, the principle that all glory and happiness is fleeting, even if the struggle to achieve such happiness is heroic. Tess has briefly and gloriously (if violently) asserted her will and humanity by killing her rapist and oppressor, but social and divine forces eventually catch up with her, and she cannot escape her tragic fate.

Chapter 59 Quotes

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d'Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 398
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to an end, Hardy it as his most ironic and scathing. Hardy describes how Tess is executed for the crime of murdering Alec d'Urberville--an act of asserting her agency and humanity over her rapist and oppressor. Instead of receiving sympathy, or society examining its own flaws (which drove her to such a fate), Tess is treated as a villain and a criminal. Hardy here gives us a sense for the cosmic scope of Tess's tragedy; a cruel god or meaningless fate (the vague "President of the Immortals") has been toying with her, and now she's finally gotten her punishment, a punishment we know she didn't really deserve.

The final sentence of the passage conveys the sublime indifference of the universe. The d'Urberville family has been shown to symbolize the glory of England's ancestral past. And yet here, Hardy suggests the impotence of all human tradition--what was once all-important seems utterly meaningless in the modern era, and is powerless to save Tess from destruction or affect the present at all. The dominance of modernity over the past is finally clear: the power of the d'Urbervilles, alongside England's pagan, natural beauty, is gone.