Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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Nature and Modernity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Injustice and Fate Theme Icon
Nature and Modernity Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Paganism and Christianity Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
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.
Nature and Modernity Theme Icon

Tess of the d'Urbervilles is set in both a time and place of societal transition from the agricultural to the industrial. The rural English towns and farm women often represent Hardy's idea of Nature, while machines and upper class men are associated with the modernizing forces of industrialization. Many of the descriptions and situations of the novel focus on the way that the characters and society are being separated from a more ancient lifestyle, “the ache of modernity” that Hardy felt as a loss of innocence.

The plot sets Tess, who is associated with purity, fertility, unfallen Eve (i.e. Eve as she was in the Garden of Eden), and innocent paganism against the judgmental world of contemporary society. The farming machines are described with ominous imagery that contrasts sharply with the Eden-like Froom Valley. Alec and Angel, who are both well-educated and ranked socially higher than Tess, act as despoiling and condemning influences upon her rural innocence. Prince the farm horse is gored to death by a modern mail cart, and the dairy workers have to water down the milk so the townspeople can drink it without getting sick. The feeling throughout is of nostalgia for an idealized past; a kind of innocence that has been lost along with the coming of the modern age.

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Nature and Modernity 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 Nature and Modernity.
Chapter 2 Quotes

The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain. Many, however, linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form. The May-Day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or “club-walking,” as it was there called.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hardy introduces us to an old English custom--the May-Day dance. Mayday is one of the oldest English holidays, dating back to pre-Christian times--it's often seen as a celebration of fertility and feminine life force. In Tess's world, the literal forests have been cut back, and the pagans were long since driven out or converted, but the people continue to celebrate May-Day, albeit in a much different form. This suggests that even in the modern era, people hold onto some of their cultural roots--and that nature and paganism can never totally be snuffed out.

The passage further suggests a connection between England's ancestral past and its present. England looks much different than it did centuries ago--factories instead of forests--but through its culture, certain aspects of the "merry old" ways survive. It's women like Tess, we'll see, who really preserve England's past in their very existence.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

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 18 Quotes

What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!

Related Characters: Angel Clare (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see how Angel Clare sees Tess. He's met Tess before, but it's only here that he really starts to notice her. Although Tess has already had her child and become a soberer, more mature young woman, Angel thinks of her as "fresh and virginal"--he's blind to Tess's past, and assumes that she's entirely innocent. Indeed, he sees her more as an idea or symbol than as a real person.

Angel's interest in Tess suggests a couple things: first, that instead of worshipping a Christian God, he's attracted to a more pagan, mysterious Nature-God, as embodied by Tess. Second, it's crucial to notice that Angel can't see Tess's inner tragedy: although she's already been raped and given birth to a child, Angel doesn't know about it. The reader's knowledge of Tess's past versus Angel's ignorance, creates an ironic tension that's central to the fated, inevitable tone of the novel: we just know that Angel's going to find out about Tess sooner or later.

Chapter 19 Quotes

He was surprised to find this young woman – who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates – shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases… feelings which might almost have been called those of the age – the ache of modernism.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

As Angel gets to know Tess better, he comes to realize that she isn't as simple as he'd assumed. Here, Tess tells Angel something about her experience: when she's outside, she has no fears, but indoors, she's frightened. Moreover, she often feels depressed and thinks that the future is fated to be tragic or meaningless. Angel is amazed that Tess can be so pensive and melancholy--he'd thought of her as the stereotypical, cheerful milkmaid.

The passage is very important insofar as it ties Tess's feeling to the overall trends in British society. Tess embraces wide open spaces--the natural vistas that industrialization is gradually destroying. By contrast, she's afraid when she's inside, because closed doors symbolize the claustrophobic "looming" of civilization. Note also that it's Angel, not Tess, who phrases her melancholy as the "ache of modernism." It's Tess who feels the ache, but Angel who articulates it, and ties it in with general social trends. Angel assumes that he is more intelligent and experienced than Tess, but she actually feelswhat he can only observe.

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 31 Quotes

Distinction does not consist in the facile use of a contemptible set of conventions, but in being numbered among those who are true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report – as you are, my Tess.

Related Characters: Angel Clare (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Angel and Tess are contemplating their possible future together. Angel is enamored with Tess, and yet Tess insists that she's no match for an educated, intelligent man like Angel. Angel tries to reassure Tess by saying that her natural beauty and instinct is far superior to any training or social convention. In other words, Tess might lack certain manners or knowledge of the rules, but manners and rules are overrated, anyway. (He also assumes that her claims of being less moral than he is are just the qualms of the truly innocent.)

Angel's comments illustrate his free-thinking tendencies, and also his rather condescending view of Tess and life in general. Although he was raised in a severe, religious household, Angel has come to doubt religion altogether. He doesn't have much respect for people who learn the rules; he's more attracted to those like Tess who embody a natural purity and "life force" within them (or at least Angel thinks they do). Angel's beliefs are, perhaps, typical of 19th century Romantics who distrusted order and convention and favored instinct--and thus Hardy acknowledges the power of this worldview while also critiquing it as naive and sometimes dehumanizing.

Chapter 35 Quotes

“I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.”
“But who?”
“Another woman in your shape.”

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield (speaker), Angel Clare (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tess has revealed to Angel that she had a child (we're not told what, exactly, she tells Angel about her experience with Alec, but we know that Angel knows a lot more about Tess's past than he did before). Angel is disturbed by what he's learned. He's shocked that Tess isn't a virgin (even though he himself has just confessed that he's not a virgin either), and he's surprised that Tess could have kept such a piece of information from him for so long. Angel sums up his feelings by exactly echoing what Tess feared in the previous two chapters: he claims that he doesn't really know Tess at all; he's been in love with an idealized, false version of her.

Angel's claims are harsh but perhaps well-founded. He has idealized Tess by imagining her to be pure and innocent--he hasn't really thought of her as a human being at all. Instead, he's thought of her as a Romantic ideal, to be worshipped but not respected as a person. Thus his rejection of her is cruel and sexist (as he assumes that she has no right or reason to reject him in turn for consensually sleeping with someone else out of wedlock), but it is also somewhat "just" in that it finally reveals the truth about their relationship--that Tess has truly loved Angel for who he is, but that Angel has only loved Tess for who he imagines her to be.

Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the belated seedling of an effete aristocracy!

Related Characters: Angel Clare (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 232
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage we see the limits of Angel's love for Tess, and his character in general. Angel has thought of Tess in the most idealistic terms imaginable: he's thought of her as a sweet, innocent "nature goddess," totally separate from both sexual experience and the corruption of England's aristocratic past. Now that he knows the truth about Tess, however, he sees that his "ideal" was a fiction all along (something we had already recognized, obviously). Furthermore, Angel reveals the extent of his hypocrisy and shallowness, as he allows his academic ideals to overcome basic compassion and humanity. He's not only mad that Tess isn't a virgin--he also doesn't like that Tess is tied to the d'Urbervilles, a wealthy, aristocratic family that represents everything Angel hates.

Once again, we see Angel punishing Tess for things beyond her control. She didn't ask to be born a d'Urberville or to be raped by Alec, but Angel nonetheless judges her for her connection to Alec and for her d'Urberville heritage. Just as before, Angel isn't really judging Tess as a human being at all; he just "analyzes" her in social terms. Angel struggles to see Tess for who she really is; he's so accustomed to thinking in terms of class and nature that his impressions of women are almost always distorted.