Tess of the d'Urbervilles


Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Personification 4 key examples

Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Tantridge Villagers:

In the following passage from Chapter 10, the narrator uses personification and a simile to describe the behavior of the drunk Tantridge villagers, whom Tess walks with on her way back home at night:

They followed the road with a knowledge that they were soaring along in a supporting medium, possessed of original and profound thoughts, themselves and surrounding nature forming an organism of which all the parts harmoniously and joyously interpenetrated each other. They were as sublime as the moon and stars above them, and the moon and stars were as ardent as they.

Both simile and personification in this passage combine to imbue the villagers with greater human dignity than society typically affords them. Hardy dismantles class hierarchy by likening the villagers to "the moon and stars": though they may be lowly in the eyes of upper-class people, these villagers' souls far outstrip their earthly bodies as they ascend to the heavens. Similarly, the moon and stars are personified as ardent, not too haughty to share in the joy of the villagers. In a society stricken by socioeconomic inequality, these working class people share in a moment of happiness, unrestricted by the weight of oppression. That Hardy creates this moment for these characters in the narrative is deeply humanizing.

Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Pagan Sun Dieties:

At the beginning of Chapter 14, the narrator utilizes personification to present the sun as both a male figure and a deity:

The sun, on account of the mist, had a curious sentient, personal look, demanding the masculine pronoun for its adequate expression. His present aspect, coupled with the lack of all human forms in the scene, explained the time-old heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion had never prevailed under the sky. The luminary was a golden-haired, beaming-faced, mild-eyed, God-like creature, gazing down in the vigour and intentness of youth upon an earth that was brimming with interest for him.

Personification in this passage infuses the sun with distinctly masculine sexuality: the earth is "brimming with interest" for the sun as he gazes at her with "vigour." This sensuousness is not condemned, but rather described as rightfully inspiring religious fervor. In the narrator’s mind, it appears that the pagans may have been correct to deify the sun. This position aligns with Hardy’s general position on religion in the novel, wherein natural objects and a simpler, pastoral lifestyle are more moral and praiseworthy than dusty, out-of-touch religious convention. In other words, this masculine sun deity acts as a natural replacement for the masculine God of the Christian religion.

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Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—The Ache of Modernism:

In the following passage from Chapter 19, Angel is (condescendingly) surprised by the sophisticated ideas Tess communicates—ideas that are akin to those expressed by the literary masterminds of the time. Tess personifies "tomorrow," expressing  horror at the idea of the future:

 "You seem to see numbers of to-morrows just all in a line, the first of ’em the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, 'I’m coming! Beware o’ me! Beware o’ me!' … But you can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!" Angel was surprised to find that this young woman . . . [was expressing] feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism."

Personification of "tomorrow" in this passage exemplifies an early hyper-awareness of time and its passage, which would later characterize the Modern era and its obsession with the idea of advancement. Of course, Thomas Hardy published Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1891, before the true beginning of Modernism. And yet, the existential "ache" expressed by Tess in this passage is characteristic of the Modernist movement in art and literature. At the turn of the 20th century, advances in science and technology, as well as social and political upheaval, combined to create tension between the past, present, and future (or at least the idea of the future). Modernism responded to this "ache" by shattering literary and artistic convention, communicating the feeling of being torn in time as the world experienced drastic change.

It's important to keep in mind that Tess has not been exposed to early modernist writing or its precursors—she is expressing the "ache of modernism" as a natural extension of her inner self, calling into question the imposed class boundaries between "learned" people and the working class and the daunting prospect of time's relentless passage.

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Chapter 30
Explanation and Analysis—Modernity:

In this passage from Chapter 30, Hardy personifies "modern life," giving it the capacity to feel:

[Tess and Angel] crept along towards a point in the expanse of shade before them at which a feeble light was beginning to assert its presence, a spot where, by day, a fitful white streak of steam at intervals upon the dark green background denoted intermittent moments of contact between their secluded world and modern life. Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.

Throughout the novel, "modern life" (principally industrialization, represented here by a train) comes into conflict with the natural world, just as the rich and the middle class come into conflict with the working class. "Modern life" in this passage feels repulsed by "native existences"—by people who lead simpler lives, at one with nature. This instance of personification reflects a broader sentiment emerging at the time Hardy published Tess of the D’Urbervilles: anxiety about the drastic technological, cultural, and scientific changes taking place at the turn of the 20th century. In a subsequent passage, the personification of the train (and modernity) gives way to an examination of Tess's appearance:

No object could have looked more foreign to the gleaming cranks and wheels than this unsophisticated girl, with the round bare arms, the rainy face and hair, the suspended attitude of a friendly leopard at pause, the print gown of no date or fashion, and the cotton bonnet drooping on her brow.

Tess, it seems, is the antidote to “modern life”; with her unpretentious garments and simple manner of living, she is at odds with the cold, harsh machinery of modernity—an artifact of a simpler time.

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