Sample Questions

1) Discuss the structure of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Consider the significance of the novel being structured around seven ‘phases’. The depiction of time relies on season, but it varies in each phase. There are a variety of temporal scales operating in the novel: the distant past, the recent past, insect, animal and human time. Hardy also uses very subtle shifts back and forward in time. An example of this is when we catch up with Joan and John at Rolliver’s in Chapter 4. The narrative moves back in time before moving on to the point where Tess decides to go and get them at the end of Chapter 3. Yet on other occasions the narrative speeds on over several years, as seen at the end of Phase the Second. It would be too easy for the novel to split in two because of the way Alec and Angel fight over Tess. Hardy’s extensive use of links, reminders and cross-references within each phase adds to the overall sense of pattern in Tess’s life.

Look at Tess’s journeys in the novel. She leaves home four times and returns three times. Each time Tess leaves home she is changed from the experience. Important events, including Angel’s proposal, take place on the move. These journeys allow Hardy to incorporate ancient histories and recent agricultural revolutions into the novel and also remind us of the key incidents in Tess’s life.

The structure of the book is also built on coincidences, omens and foreshadowings. Each is reliant on the other for support and overall we are encouraged to think of Tess as doomed. However these links between past and present also provide the reader with a sense of unity, creating subtle ironies and helping to construct a narrative that traps the reader within it.

2) Is Tess "a pure woman"?

Tess is a figure in whom oppositions like virgin and whore collapse. She cannot be read simply one way or the other - she is a mixture of the two. Duality is the feature of Tess. Her family is a part of the labouring class but she is also an educated woman. She speaks two languages, the dialect of home and an educated Sixth Standard English. She follows the whims of her nature but is still aware of social convention. She is passive and innocent, but could also be held partly to blame for what happens to her. And while she may be a victim of others, she is also capable of murder. All that we can be sure of is that it is all too easy to misread her, and the novel is structured around Alec and Angel’s mistaken assumptions.

Tess marries above her station and so in this respect could be taken as a representation of the social mobility evident in the modern condition. Because she is a modern character rather than atypical Victorian figure modern readers find it easy to identify with her. We find the novel painful because of her "ache of modernism", her feelings of impotence in the face of a seemingly malevolent and all-powerful fate. However Hardy does not always elevate her. He also aligns her with the animal kingdom; showing her communing with creatures makes her seem more animal than human. She is sympathetic to the wounded pheasants in Chapter 41, she is likened to "a bled-calf" in Chapter 48 and as she is chased towards Stonehenge Hardy tells us that "her breathing now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman". These references highlight not only her vulnerability but also her sexuality. Once more the duality at the essence of her characterization is emphasized.

Hardy never condemns Tess, either for her baser animal instincts or having had an illegitimate child. His view of her is the one expressed in the subtitle to the novel. However, the problem for contemporary critics was that purity was associated with virginity. Hardy exposes in Tess’s story how women are wronged by the standards of his day. She is essentially a heterogeneous figure and her society was unable to understand a woman neither virgin or whore, but a mixture of both.

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