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
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!