Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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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.
Social Criticism Theme Icon

As in many of his other works, Thomas Hardy used Tess of the d'Urbervilles as a vessel for his criticisms of English Victorian society of the late 19th century. The novel's largest critique is aimed at the sexual double standard, with all the extremities and misfortunes of Tess's life highlighting the unfairness of her treatment. Society condemns her as an unclean woman because she was raped, while Angel's premarital affair is barely mentioned. Angel himself rejects Tess largely based on what his community and family would think if they discovered her past. Hardy saw many of the conventions of the Victorian age as oppressive to the individual, and to women in particular, and in Tess's case the arbitrary rules of society literally ruin her life.

Even the title of the novel challenges convention. Because it was traditional at the time to see Tess as an “impure woman,” the title's addendum “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” immediately reveals the author as his protagonist's defender against condemnation. By delving so deeply into Tess's sympathetic interior life and the intricate history of her misfortunes, Hardy makes society's disapproval of her seem that much more unjust.

There is also a satirical thread running through the novel's social commentary. The emphasis on ancient names is played to absurdity with John Durbeyfield's sudden pretensions upon learning of his ancestry, and the newly rich Stoke family adding “d'Urberville” to their name just to seem more magnificent.

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Social Criticism 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 Social Criticism.
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 reald'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.

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

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 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

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.

Chapter 47 Quotes

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 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.