Tess of the d'Urbervilles


Thomas Hardy

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Tess of the d'Urbervilles can help.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Allusions 13 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—William Wordsworth:

In Chapter 3, Hardy references a line from William Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Written in Early Spring":

Some people would like to know whence the poet whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his verse is pure and breezy, gets his authority for speaking of "Nature's holy plan."

Alluding to Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Hardy grounds his novel in an ardent appreciation of the natural world. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, nature is often a more profound religion than religion itself. Therefore, it is appropriate to reference a Wordsworth poem containing the line: "if such be Nature's holy plan / Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?" Wordsworth bemoans the strife and turmoil resulting from social encounters; these, he argues in this poem, are the core source of human degradation and sinfulness. Humans hurt one another. Nature, on the other hand, is divine, wholesome, and nourishing.

This passage exemplifies the conflict between nature and modernity present in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Pastoral scenes of the countryside evoke warmth and divinity. Cities, by contrast, are sites of moral horror, representing modernity and all of the pain and suffering humans inflict upon one another. Cities are terrible, monstrous, and other. Around the turn of the 20th century, though, many people (like those around Tess) doubt the "authority" of this plan, as well as Nature's wholesomeness.

Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Malthus and Population:

At the beginning of Chapter 5, the narrator reflects on the sheer number of children in the Durbeyfield family. Tess resents her mother for having so many children given their family's meager income, prompting the narrator to make an allusion to Thomas Malthus:

As Tess grew older, and began to see how matters stood, she felt Malthusian vexation with her mother for thoughtlessly giving her so many little sisters and brothers, when it was such a trouble to nurse those that had already come.

Malthus was an economist and demographer concerned with population growth. In his book entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus speculated that population growth eventually would lead to an increased demand for and eventual scarcity of key resources like food and water. Increasing output of these resources would temporarily solve the problem, but would eventually lead to further population growth—thus the cycle would continue. Malthus's work was an important influence on the later writings of Charles Darwin and Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, the "father" of the eugenics movement.

This allusion is important because it contextualizes Tess using the major scientific movements and revolutions of her time. Such ideas would eventually become so culturally ubiquitous as to be incorporated into the language of country folk; Tess's "Malthusian" sentiments anticipate this transition.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Alec Whistling:

In Chapter 9, Alec D'Urberville encounters Tess practicing her whistle. Ever predatory in his manner, Alec decides he will teach her to whistle. In doing so, he makes an allusion through his choice of tune:

He suited the action to the word, and whistled a line of "Take, O take those lips away." But the allusion was lost upon Tess.

Alec—and, in turn, Hardy—is referencing a line from a song that appears in Measure by Measure, a play by Shakespeare. The song is as follows: "Take, oh take those lips away, / That so sweetly were foresworn, / And those eyes: the breake of day, / Lights that do mislead the Morn; / But my kisses bring again, bring again, / Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain." Despite declaring innocent intentions in his efforts to teach Tess to whistle, the tune Alec chooses betrays his amorous intent, since the song itself is a love song (though it's worth noting that, like most of Shakespeare's work, the song is really about a rather tumultuous, complex kind of love affair). Still, Tess remains unaware of this predatory action for obvious reasons: she lacks worldly experience and a formal education. Alec's unrelenting sexual advances are a form of power he exerts over her, making it very difficult for her to ever free herself from his influence. It's clear, then, that Alec is more interested in this twisted kind of power he holds over Tess than his actual romantic feelings for her—otherwise, he wouldn't purposefully alienate her by making references he knows she won't understand.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Tess's Guardian Angel:

At the end of Chapter 11, Alec physically assaults Tess, taking her to an isolated glade in the forest and drugging her. In an interesting example of narrative voice, the narrator takes this moment to make an abstract observation about God and the nature of fate, making an allusion to the Bible in the process:

But where was Tess's guardian angel? where was Providence? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or peradventure he was sleeping and not to be awakened.

The "ironical Tishbite" the narrator references in this passage is Elijah, a prophet from both Christian and Jewish tradition. Elijah frequently condemned the Israelites' idolization of Ba'al, who may be the "other god" Hardy references. This allusion implies that Providence is as fickle as a false god, absent in the situations when it is most needed. Paralleling the "guardian angel" whose absence he condemns, the narrator chooses the moment of Tess's violation to essentially zoom out of the scene, focusing on a rather abstract discussion of the forces at play instead of what literally happens to her.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—The Fall of Babylon:

At the end of Chapter 15, the narrator makes an allusion to the downfall of Babylon—documented in the Bible—and compares it to the fall of the House of D'Urberville:

[Tess] would be able to look at [the former D'Urberville estates], and think not only that D'Urberville, like Babylon, had fallen, but that the individual innocence of a humble descendant could lapse as silently.

In biblical scripture, the people of Babylon fell to ruin because they wanted to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. God punished them for their arrogance with a curse: suddenly, a group of people who had all been able to speak the same language spoke different languages. Communication broke down and construction on the tower ceased. Equating the fall of the House of D'Urberville to the fall of Babylon implies that the D'Urbervilles went extinct as a result of their own arrogance.

Tess takes this simile one step further, extending it to her own predicament. If both Babylon and the D'Urberville line can lapse into obscurity and cease to impact modern society, perhaps her own tragic situation will "lapse as silently." The decrepit D'Urberville estates give her hope that these problems, which so plague her present existence, may someday no longer affect her.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 16
Explanation and Analysis—Tess's New Beginning:

In Chapter 16, the narrator describes the Vale of Little Dairies as full of wide open spaces. This spatial imagery mirrors Tess's current journey—both physical and emotional—which, in her mind, will provide her with new opportunities and freedom:

[The Vale of Little Dairies] lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival Vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal. The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Var waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist.

The imagery associated with Blackmoor Vale—turbid waters and a blue, melancholy atmosphere—mirrors Tess's tragic experiences there. By contrast, the imagery associated with the new Vale—clear, pure water and fresh air—establish this place as a land of new beginnings, where Tess can leave her old life and sorrows behind. This Vale is also the site of Tess's spiritual salvation, where she too may drink from the waters of the "River of Life," which is a biblical allusion that refers to salvation through Jesus Christ, preached and foretold by the "Evangelist" John the Baptist.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Tess as Eve:

As Tess heads to her new job as a milkmaid in Chapter 16, she remembers a song she used to sing as a child, before she had her tragic encounter with Alec D'Urberville. Using a biblical allusion, the narrator likens this pre-Alec time to the time before Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden:

She tried several ballads, but found them inadequate; till, recollecting the psalter that her eyes had so often wandered over of a Sunday morning before she had eaten of the tree of knowledge, she chanted: "O ye Sun and Moon … O ye Stars … ye Green Things upon the Earth … ye Fowls of the Air … Beasts and Cattle … Children of Men … bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever!"

In biblical scripture, Satan tempts Eve—the mother of mankind—into eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After consuming this fruit—against the wishes of God—both Eve and her husband, Adam, acquire forbidden knowledge and inflict sinfulness upon the human race. Similarly, before Tess met Alec, she had no knowledge of the various ways in which cruel and evil men exploit women. After Alec rapes her, then, it's as if Tess has "eaten of the tree of knowledge" and is aware of sin's presence in the world. Unlike Eve, though, Tess does not have agency: she did not choose to be raped, she was just forced to acquire this knowledge and did not seek it out on her own.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 18
Explanation and Analysis—Milton and Cromwell:

Hardy references John Milton and Oliver Cromwell by name in the following passage from Chapter 18, alluding to their respective writings and political theories: 

The typical and unvarying Hodge ceased to exist. He had been disintegrated into a number of varied fellow-creatures—beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference; some happy, many serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere; some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian.

John Milton, a famous 16th-century poet and essayist, was violently opposed to the tyrannic reign of King Charles I and supported the movement to depose and eventually execute him. Milton used biblical rationale to justify his extreme and controversial opinions, chief among which was his assertion that divorce could, under certain circumstances, be moral.

Oliver Cromwell, a contemporary of Milton, led the English people in a revolt against the tyrannical King Charles I in what became known as the English Civil War.

Both Milton and Cromwell are famous English radical revolutionaries. In the above passage, Hardy invokes Milton and Cromwell to establish that these farm workers are not all the same: some may be stupid, but still others could be geniuses, and some might even be budding revolutionaries if given the opportunity and resources to make a stand.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 20
Explanation and Analysis—Mary Magdelene:

In Chapter 20, when Tess and Angel are first dancing around each other, Angel likens Tess to Mary Magdalene (an allusion to biblical scripture):

"The mixed, singular, luminous gloom in which they walked along together to the spot where the cows lay, often made [Angel] think of the Resurrection hour. He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side."

Mary Magdalene travels with Jesus throughout the four Gospels and is present at the crucifixion and resurrection. Like the twelve disciples, she was a friend to and follower of Jesus. This allusion equating Tess to Mary Magdalene puts emphasis on her holy nature—in Angel's eyes, Tess walks with the Lord and is endowed with spiritual profundity.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, Mary Magdalene has also been portrayed by various Popes as a repentant sex worker—a woman who, like Tess, has been made to feel ashamed about not fitting into the church's narrow mold of "sexual purity." Women who have been raped, like Tess, are frequently subject to unfair blame and scrutiny by religious institutions. Mary Magdalene and Tess share this in common, given that sex workers and women who have consensual sex out of wedlock are also subject to disproportionate and unjust blame for their actions.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 23
Explanation and Analysis—Leah and Rachel:

In Chapter 23, as Angel carries Tess across the water, he makes an important biblical allusion:

"Three Leahs to get one Rachel," [Angel] whispered.

"They are better women than I," [Tess] replied, magnanimously sticking to her resolve.

"Not to me," said Angel."

In the book of Genesis, Jacob (son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham) agrees to work for a man named Laban for seven years in exchange for his daughter Rachel's hand in marriage. After the seven years have passed, Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah, the eldest daughter, instead. Determined to have Rachel as his wife, Jacob works for seven more years and ends up married to both Leah and Rachel.

By making this allusion, Angel demonstrates not only his esteem for Tess, but his willingness to work hard in order to win her over, despite Tess’s low self-esteem and shame. While this may seem like a bold, romantic gesture at the outset, Angel does not consider Tess's wishes. Tess has her own reasons for refusing Angel, which she initially chooses not to disclose. Instead of respecting Tess's autonomy and decision-making ability, Angel continues to pressure her, assuming that she is simply being modest and actually does want to eventually marry him. Alec D'Urberville makes a similar assumption, forcing himself upon Tess sexually with the assumption that she wants it. Just as Rachel and Leah's respective wishes are not considered in the biblical story, so are Tess's wishes disregarded.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Tess's Thorny Crown:

At the end of Chapter 23, the narrator elaborates on Tess's complicated romantic situation by alluding to the crucifixion of Jesus in the Bible:

The thorny crown of this sad conception was that she whom he really did prefer in a cursory way to the rest, she who knew herself to be more impassioned in nature, cleverer, more beautiful than they, was in the eyes of propriety far less worthy of him than the homelier ones whom he ignored.

When the Romans capture Jesus in the Bible, they give him a crown of thorns to wear to his crucifixion. The thorns cut into Jesus's head and make him bleed. Furthermore, the Romans intend this crown of thorns to make a mockery of the idea that Jesus is the son of God.

While Tess knows that Angel prefers her company to that of the other girls, this knowledge is a "thorny crown"—essentially, the universe making a mockery of her plight and exacerbating the pain of Alec's violation. While Angel does love Tess more than any other woman at the dairy (information that would ordinarily give Tess pleasure), she knows that she can never marry him. The past weighs heavily upon her, just as the sins of humankind weighed heavily upon Jesus. Furthermore, both Tess and Jesus are innocents, bearing their thorny crowns through no fault of their own.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 27
Explanation and Analysis—Tess and the Snake:

In the following passage from Chapter 27, Angel catches Tess off-guard. The narrator uses a simile to liken Tess to a snake:

[Tess] had not heard [Angel] enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn.

Given Hardy's tendency towards biblical allusion in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, it is generally safe to assume that snake references can be connected directly back to Satan, who appeared in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden to tempt Eve into sin. The red imagery of the snake's mouth further symbolizes desire in this passage, cementing Tess as an object of temptation from Angel's point of view.

The "coiled-up cable" of Tess's hair continues this snake imagery, evoking Medusa from Greek mythology. Originally a beautiful young woman, Medusa had sex with Poseidon in Athena's temple (in certain versions of the story, Medusa was raped). As punishment, Athena turned Medusa's hair into snakes and placed a curse upon her, making it so that no man could stare directly at her without turning to stone. Both the biblical tale and the myth evoked by this passage's snake imagery hint at Tess's secret about her rape.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 32
Explanation and Analysis—Queen Guinevere:

Upon first seeing herself dressed in wedding clothes at the end of Chapter 32, Tess's guilt weighs upon her. The narrative alludes in this moment to the infidelity of Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur:

Alone, [Tess] stood for a moment before the glass looking at the effect of her silk attire . . . . Suppose this robe should betray her by changing colour, as her robe had betrayed Queen Guénever.

Tess is worried that, by marrying Angel without informing him about her history with Alec, she will disgrace him and bring about his downfall. Queen Guinevere, by having an affair with Sir Lancelot, ultimately brings about the death of King Arthur, her husband. Though Tess is not having an affair—certainly, adultery and rape are not at all equivalent—the burden of her past is heavy, and at every opportunity Tess observes similarities between her position and that of other "sexually impure" women. This moment in the text provides key information about Tess's psyche and self-image. In equating her past sexual assault to Queen Guinevere's consensual adultery, Tess reveals to the reader that in her mind, rape and infidelity are synonymous. This idea, of course, was planted in her mind from a young age by insidious cultural forces that unfortunately work to destroy her sense of self-worth.

Unlock with LitCharts A+