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Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Theme Analysis

Theme Analysis

One of Thomas Hardy’s overall arching themes is the idea that no matter how individuals struggle, their life is predestined by fate. People are victims of fate and regardless of how they fight it, they are doomed. Powerless, Tess is fated to die young; her fate was divined before she was born. Early on, the teenage Tess struggles to provide for her family by replacing the lost horse, Prince. Fate steps in, however, and against her wishes, she is “ruined” one dark night when her friends turn against her. Alec just happens to be passing by on his horse. When she ends up destitute and pregnant, the local villagers chalk her troubles up to fate: “as Tess’s own people down in their retreats never tire of saying ‘It was to be.”’

When Tess writes Angel a letter detailing her past in an effort to save future troubles with him, fate steps in again when she inadvertently slips the note under the carpet as well as the door, ensuring that he does not find it. After Angel leaves, and she is forced to work digging turnips at Flintcomb-Ash, in desperation she seeks out Angel’s parents for relief. During this fateful trip, she meets Angel’s brothers and overhears them mocking her husband for marrying beneath him: "Ah! poor Angel, poor Angel!... throwing himself away upon a dairymaid” (238). She feels forced to leave without seeing his parents who could have helped her avoid the fate that lay just ahead. Indeed, it is at this juncture when she once more meets the “converted” Alec in the barn preaching. Had fate not intervened, she would have been able to wait patiently for Angel’s return, and avoided murdering Alec and her subsequent early death.

Shortly after Tess becomes a mother she leaves her home to labor in the fields as part of the villager community that must bring in the communal grain for the winter. In the middle of this golden bucolic scene, Hardy places a bright red reaping-machine that is noisy and wearisome and thus disturbs the otherwise tranquil scene: “But of all ruddy things that morning the brightest were two broad arms of painted wood, which rose from the margin of yellow cornfield hard by Marlott village. They, with two others below, formed the revolving Maltese cross of the reaping-machine…the paint with which they were smeared, intensified in hue by the sunlight, imparted to them a look of having been dipped in liquid fire (97).” This bright red machine is like a thing from hell spewing fire.

Later at Flintcomb-ash, Tess is assigned to work feeding sheaves of grain directly upon the threshing-machine: “close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve—a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining—the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.” This machine also evokes a smoking vision of hell and causes Tess unbearable physical pain.

These mechanic intruders enable the field workers to get much more work done in a shorter period of time, but it interferes with the traditional rhythmic agricultural patterns that bring a deep sense of harmony to a community. Because the work is done quickly, the workers must travel about from farm to farm trying to eke out a living, and onward then in time to cities like London and Manchester to work in factories as cogs in the machines of the Industrial Revolution. Hardy called this the “ache of modernism,” which separated man from Nature.


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