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.
Nature and Modernity ThemeTracker
Nature and Modernity Quotes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles
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.
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.
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.
What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!
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.
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.
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.
“I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.”
“Another woman in your shape.”
Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the belated seedling of an effete aristocracy!