Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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Paganism and Christianity Theme Analysis

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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.
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Thomas Hardy struggled with his own religious beliefs, and that struggle comes through in his work. He idealized the paganism of the past but was also attached to his family's Christianity, and generally he accepted some sort of supernatural being that controlled fate. Tess herself is usually portrayed as an embodiment of that pagan innocence, a sort of English Nature goddess. She first appears performing the fertility ritual of May-Day, then bedecked in flowers from Alec, whistling to Mrs. d'Urberville's birds, and mercifully killing the wounded pheasants. Angel describes her as a “new-sprung child of nature” and compares her to mythical women like Eve, Artemis, and Demeter. There is another side of Tess's “divinity” as well, however: the role of sacrificial victim, which is a figure associated with both paganism and Christianity. Like Jesus, Tess is punished for the sins of another, assuming the weight of guilt for Alec's crime. When the police finally come to arrest her for murder, she is lying asleep at Stonehenge like a sacrifice on an altar. Stonehenge was thought at Hardy's time to be a heathen temple.

The Christian end of the spectrum is particularly associated with the Clare family and Alec d'Urberville. Each character seems to have a different form and expression of faith, and Hardy critiques them all with empathy from his own religious wrestling. Most of his respect goes to the intense but charitable Mr. Clare, while Alec's conversion is depicted more as a product of his fickle thrill-seeking than any deep emotion, and the conformist Clare brothers are mocked for blindly following every fashionable doctrine. Angel's skepticism and Tess's vague beliefs take the most prominence, and neither moves much past Hardy's own state of doubt.

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Paganism and Christianity 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 Paganism and Christianity.
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 14 Quotes

She did not look like Sissy to them now, but as a being large, towering, and awful – a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common.

Related Characters: Tess Durbeyfield
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Months have now passed since Alec raped Tess. Tess has given birth to a child, and now the child is dying. She decides to baptize him, hoping to save him from Hell if he should die. In this scene Tess baptizes the child herself, having been refused by her father (who was supposed to summon a parson), and in the candlelight she seems to truly assume the role of a priestess or divine figure. Her younger siblings watch her, and Tess appears suddenly transfigured, as if becoming a kind of god, a being wholly different from themselves.

Hardy often portrays Tess as a kind of "pagan goddess," or a symbol of innocence and nature, and yet he also contrasts this idea with her individual humanity and personhood. What makes Tess such a fascinating character is that she is both very human and somehow otherworldly or symbolic.

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 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 havingbeen 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 40 Quotes

Because nobody could love ‘ee more than Tess did! …She would have laid down her life for ‘ee. I could do no more.

Related Characters: Izz Huett (speaker), Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

In his anger, disappointment, and despair Angel has spontaneously decided to travel to Brazil, and as he leaves he impulsively asks a local woman named Izz Huett (who was a friend of Tess's, and who also had strong feelings for Angel) to come with him. Angel asks Izz if she loves him more than Tess, but Izz--despite her love for Angel, and her crushing disappointment that he chose Tess--cannot affirm this falsehood. She confesses that Tess loved Angel purely and absolutely: Tess would gladly have sacrificed her life for Angel.

The passage shows Izz's loyalty to Tess, in spite of the fact that they're "competing" for Angel's affections. Furthermore, Izz's Biblical choice of phrasing ("laid down her life") suggests the religious, even Christian, quality of Tess's personality. Like Christ, Tess is willing to sacrifice herself for the good of other people--in other words, she's as generous and selfless as Angel is selfish.

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.

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.