Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Essay Q&A
1. At Talbothays Dairy, Tess and Angel Clare seem to be ideal for each other, but trouble lies ahead. Discuss the demise of their relationship in terms of each character’s maturity.
From the beginning, Angel and Tess seem like an unlikely couple. He is the educated son of a well-known gentleman pastor and she is the daughter of a drunken cottager. However, they fall deeply in love and it seems that they will be happy. The rationalization that Angel should marry a farming woman to help him in his endeavors seems justified, and she will move up socially: “he [was] quite the gentleman born” (133). However, the marriage is doomed after Tess confesses an earlier encounter with another man.
No one can doubt Tess’s sense of responsibility and maturity. She takes it upon herself to transport the hives to market and feels compelled to replace the family’s horse after the disastrous accident. After the death of her son, she leaves Marlott out of a sense of duty to her family, continues to work at neighboring farms after Angel leaves her, returns home to nurse her mother and finally shoulders the entire responsibility for her family after her father’s death. Her only “crime” was failing to confess to Angel before their marriage. Perhaps, it was immature not to tell him, but she couldn’t take the chance on his not loving her.
Despite his goodness and his progressive philosophy, Angel experienced a very different upbringing and chooses to forgo a university education in favor of a career as a farmer so he can see more of the world. He is also free to fall in love with whomever he wishes. As his name suggests, he is angelic—all the milkmaids love him—he even plays a harp; however, his harsh, immature, rejection of Tess puts him on a par with the devilish Alec ‘d’Urberville. It is only through extreme physical and mental suffering that Angel Clare truly develops into a mature, loving man.
2. Thomas Hardy remains highly regarded for his compelling settings. How does Talbothays Dairy contribute to the novel?
Talbothays Dairy is the setting for the happiest time in Tess’s young life. Set among the green pastoral Wessex hills, from the beginning Tess is warmly welcomed into life at the farm and begins to feel alive again after the death of Sorrow, her baby son: “she little divined the strength of her own vitality” (145).The fertile farm teems with life. Milk, the fluid of life, is ubiquitous. It is here that Tess meets her future husband Angel Clare who strums on a harp high up in the rafters. The good-natured farmer, his wife and the workers, seem like farm fixtures, part of the setting. Life in this idyllic locale is without social hierarchies. Talbothays seems like Eden.
Here Angel and Tess, a virtual Adam and Eve, meet and reside in happiness. As long as they are in this golden Edenic Valley, nothing untoward happens to them. They are protected, safe and apart from the world. It is only when they venture into the “real world” town that Tess is accosted by the mean-spirited Farmer Groby who crudely remarks on her virtue. And when they leave the farm for their honeymoon, it is as if they are ejected from paradise into the cold, cruel world where they must “earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.”
3. At Talbothays Dairy, Tess encounters three other milkmaids who are also in love with Angel Clare. How do these others contribute to the novel?
At Talbothays Dairy, Tess makes friends with three milkmaids, Marian, Retty and Izz Huett. The four girls work together closely, attend church together, share the same dormitory room and above all, they all love Angel Clare. Tess insists they are every bit as good as she; indeed, she repeatedly maintains they are better. At first, she rejects Angel’s advances: “Mr. Clare--I cannot be your wife” (194). But Angel is completely indifferent to Marian, Retty and Liz, and Tess wins his heart.
The three other milkmaids act as foils for Tess and set off her beauty and her character. The good-natured Marian is plump while Tess is as slim as a reed. Marian takes to strong drink in desperation after Angel weds Tess, while Tess drinks pure white milk. Retty is friendly and fun but weak-willed. She attempts to commit suicide after Angel’s wedding to Tess. On the other hand, Tess experiences extreme poverty and hardship after Angel abandons her, and despite voicing her desire to die, she never thinks of taking her own life. Lively Izz jumps at the chance to accompany Angel to Brazil despite her knowledge that he is married. Thus, while all are hard-working friendly girls, they tend to highlight Tess’s beauty and virtue.
4. Throughout the novel, Tess is torn between the fiendish Alec d’Urberville and the angelic Angel Clare. Compare both men.
At first Angel and Alec, both of whose names begin with A, seem to be very different. The fair-haired heavenly Angel is contrasted with the dark-haired, devilish Alec d’Urberville. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that they are alike. Indeed, they seem to easily switch roles from villain to savior as the action requires. While it might be difficult to equate Angel with Alec, consider that while Tess is physically brutalized by Alec, Angel psychologically abuses her when he realizes that she is not the perfect pure goddess he imagined. Hr condemns her to abject poverty for years by abandoning her. This precipitates her return to Alec for the well-being of her family. Angel and Alec also switch roles when Angel takes on the role of “bad guy” in Brazil, and Alec emerges as a “good guy” preacher bent on saving Tess’s soul. As Angel remains away longer and longer and subjects Tess to a nightmarish existence, the reader begins to see him as mean-spirited and cruel. It begins to appear that perhaps Alec has become kind and understanding and might perhaps have no ulterior motive but to make amends to Tess for his past behavior. However, it soon becomes clear that he only wants to possess her physically: “he’s left off his black coat… …but he’s the same man for all that” (369).
5. Discuss how Tess represents the changing ideas of social class in Victorian England.
As a literary character, Tess represents the social instability of nineteenth-century Britain, or “the ache of modernism,” as Hardy suggests. Whereas in centuries past, Britain was primarily an agricultural society—the people that were born on the land tended to remain on the land—by the end of the nineteenth century, farm workers lived very unstable lives and caused great consternation among the middle classes. For instance, Tess moves numerous times within a few years, and the other milkmaids move every year in search of a better farm to work. In addition, far from their families, farm workers were at the mercy of land owners who treated them well, or poorly, according to his preference. Contrast Tess’s treatment at Talbothays Dairy and at Flintcomb-Ash.
The increase in technology, as witnessed by the thrashing machine which makes the rounds of the Wessex farms, bears witness to this instability, as do the railroad tracks which Hardy mentions crisscrossing the land. In this era also, many agricultural workers left the land permanently for the cities in numbers large enough to propel the Industrial Revolution. In addition, the rise in education contributed to feelings of instability among the populace. Tess has received more education than her parents. As a result, she realizes that the lower-class in England speak a different dialect. She is thus able to make a choice about how she should speak in different company and, while this makes her more attractive to Angel, she is not equipped to be a lady: “would not a farmer want a wife, and should a farmer’s wife be a drawing-room wax figure, or a woman who understood farming?” (178). This in-between social position leads Angel’s mother to fear her new daughter-in-law as an upstart infringing upon the upper levels of society. Thus, Tess represents the changing ideas of social class in Victorian England.