The following paper topics are based on the entire book. Following each topic is a thesis and sample outline. Use these as a starting point for your paper. Each major point in your essay should refer to at least one quote from the novel, properly introduced and explained.
Hardy defines tragedy as “the worthy encompassed by the inevitable” and adds that the tragedies of immoral and worthless people are not of the best. Interpret Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a tragedy, using these ideas.
I. Thesis Statement: Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a tragedy because it depicts the destruction of a morally worthy person by inevitable and unalterable forces outside human control.
II. Tess Durbeyfield is continually depicted as innocent, conscientious, and morally pure
A. The novelist repeatedly uses words such as innocent and pure to describe Tess
B. Her thoughts are always to help her family, not herself
C. She is a creature of Nature
D. Tess is a morally pure woman, despite her actions
1. Hardy’s subtitle shows his evaluation of her
2. Both Angel and Alec accept Tess as pure
3. Tess’s actions of submitting to Alec and later killing him are motivated only by need and desperation
4. Tess shows more moral understanding than anyone else in the novel
III. Tess is brought down by a variety of forces which neither she nor anyone else would have been able to stop
A. Tess is victimized by people more powerful than she
B. The world is malignantly organized to deny human happiness
C. Historical and social forces render Tess vulnerable to exploitation
IV. Tess’s downfall is partially caused by what she cannot help, her ancestry as a D’Urberville
A. She has inherited a slight incautiousness of character from her family
B. She is being paid back for all the ways the ancient D’Urbervilles victimized others when they were powerful
C. The decline of the D’Urberville family is irreversible
V. Hardy depicts Tess’s downfall as one in a series of tragedies representative of human history
A. As Tess says, her life is just like that of thousands before and after her
B. References to classical and Shakespearean tragedy show Tess as related to other tragic victims
(The entire section is 978 words.)
The fictionalized region of southwest England in which Hardy set all of his fiction. This region was somewhat backward in the late nineteenth century. Although industrialization had made the north of England and the region around London prosperous and modernized, southwest England was still rural, agricultural, and quite poor. Modern advancements in farming techniques were slow in coming to this region, and the transition to modernity was not easy. Hardy, who grew up and lived in the region, is particularly interested in showing the ways in which Wessex is caught between its old, traditional culture and modernization; little details showing this dilemma appear throughout Tess of the d’Urbervilles and his other works. In some ways Wessex is as much a character in Hardy’s work as any of the people he depicts-and indeed, Tess is very much identified, physically and emotionally, with her surroundings in Wessex.
Purity, both sexual and moral, is an important concept in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The word is used throughout the narrative with reference to Tess, and the subtitle of the book deems her “A Pure Woman.” (Even one of the inns where her father drinks is called “The Pure Drop.”) When applied to women in Victorian England, the concept of purity had specific reference to sexual chastity. By this definition, Tess very early on loses the right to be called “pure.” The word is nevertheless still applied to her. In this application, there is some degree of Hardy’s characteristic irony. But it also means something more. Hardy considers Tess “pure” because, despite her bodily state-that is, her loss of virginity-she is morally pure and innocent, uncorrupted by her hard life. When Hardy wrote this book, he knew that the characterization of a sexually fallen woman as “pure” would shock some readers, and indeed it did, but he thought it was important to show that the loss of virginity did not necessarily thoroughly corrupt a woman’s heart and mind.
A localized way of speaking a language, distinct from standard usage. The local Wessex dialect is spoken by Tess’s family and by the agricultural workers she knows, but Tess uses language closer to standard English. This is because she has been to school, where she has been taught a national standard version of the language. The change in speaking habits of people in Wessex and other areas of Britain was very much a hallmark of increasing modernization. As national schools and standards spread across the country, regional variations began to disappear. (This process is still ongoing, though it has been accelerated by radio and television.) Therefore, Tess’s speech patterns are one more indicator of the way in which she is caught between the traditional world in which she was raised and the modern culture she confronts outside her village and home.
Droit de seigneur
An old custom of feudal days, in which lords had the right to demand sexual favors from peasant women bound to their estates. Although Hardy does not discuss the concept directly, this ancient custom has obvious relevance to Tess’s plight with Alec d’Urberville, who is a false “lord” but claims Tess’s virginity nevertheless.
Middle-class Victorian ideas about women’s sexuality were quite rigid and condemned women who engaged in any sort of sexual activity outside of marriage. It was thought that women who lost their virginity before marriage “fell” from their exalted position of chastity. This is one manifestation of the dichotomous view of women as either “virgins” or “whores” that has characterized much Western thought about the nature of women. In Victorian times the specific concept of fallenness took on a great deal of significance. It was thought that a woman who was fallen changed in her very nature-she might become not only more sinful, but more vain, unwilling to work, greedy, or otherwise immoral. This idea that fallen women were intrinsically different from and in all ways morally inferior to their “pure” or chaste counterparts is demonstrated in Tess of the d’Urbervilles when Angel says to Tess that she is an entirely different person to him once he knows of her sexual past.
The Victorian era was a deeply religious age, and faith was very important to many people in the era. Because of the great cultural significance of religion, the idea of religious doubt became controversial and much-publicized. In the later portion of the century, there were a large number of people who began to doubt the faith they had been taught. To some degree, this widespread doubt-which was particularly common among educated young men-can be attributed to scientific advances, particularly to the publication and general acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theories. When Angel Clare decides that he cannot believe literally in the principles of Christianity and decides not to become a clergyman, then, the event is not merely a personal decision. For readers, this would symbolize that he is a modern young man, participating in the intellectual and cultural movements of the day, however troubling this participation might have been to older people, for whom faith was still an important part of their culture.
Hardy had a particular view of fate that plays itself out in most of his novels, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is no exception. Hardy believed that fate was a force that drove events, but that it was internal as well as external to people. In the case of Tess, her fate is largely driven by the discovery that she is a member of the old family of d’Urberville. That fact of her existence is intrinsic to her-and, in Hardy’s view, it gives her certain character traits that condition her life-but it is also discovered through an external force, namely Parson Tringham. Because of this combination of internal and external forces, Hardy presents Tess as doomed almost from the very beginning. The novel concentrates very heavily on the ways in which Tess finds it impossible to escape her ultimate fate, because of the historical and cultural context in which she lives. This attitude that fate is inescapable, which is very characteristic of Hardy, particularly in his tragic later novels, is called fatalism.
Banns were an old-fashioned way of getting legal permission to marry. In this custom, an engaged couple had their names read out at church three Sundays in a row before the wedding could take place. Parishioners were told that they must object if they knew of any obstacle to the marriage. It was free to get married “by banns,” so they often used by the poor in preference to a license. Obtaining a marriage license from the state was both a more modern way of getting married and slightly more prestigious. Although Tess prefers getting married by license instead of banns because she is afraid that someone will tell Angel about her past, the marriage by license also symbolizes her wish to leave behind her sexual past and her class background as well as old traditions.
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