Tess of the D'Urbervilles: Love, Abandonment and Murder in Hardy's Wessex

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his next-to-last novel, Thomas Hardy assails the Victorian middle-class obsession with female purity. His subtitle, A Pure Woman, declares that the heroine, a farm worker, retains her moral purity despite having an illegitimate child and eventually killing her seducer. A shocking bestseller in the 1890s, this novel has since been recognized as one of the most powerful love-and-death narratives in literature. Despite the dark ending, Tess’s endurance and vitality throughout provide the basis for Hardy’s protest against Victorian attitudes toward the “fallen woman.”

We will explore Hardy’s combining of realism and symbolism, and see how he turns a traditional romance plot into a complex critique of sexual stereotypes. We’ll also take some time to look at Hardy’s remarkable achievement as a poet.

Note: This course involves required reading.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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What will I learn?

Week 1: Introduction—the end-of-century mood and the “fallen woman”

Thomas Hardy is a leading novelist of the late 19th century, a period in which authors and intellectuals increasingly tended to rebel against Victorian morality, religious belief, and conventional middle-class values in general. As an agnostic, Hardy, in his later fiction, confronts the problems presented by no longer believing in God or divine providence. He also develops a searching criticism of Victorian sexual morality and class attitudes, especially as these invaded the traditional—but never very Victorian—world of rural “Wessex,” a real place in which he grew up but also a land of the imagination. We will consider the inhibiting effect, especially on women, of the emphasis on female purity in the Victorian period and the fascination of Victorian readers with the figure of the “fallen woman,” with whom they could sympathize as long as she ended in abject repentance or, even better, death.

Week 2: Tess’s early life and an ambiguous seduction [Chapters 1-12]

What is the effect on the story of Tess’s aristocratic descent? Is she Tess Durbeyfield, the last of the ancient d’Urbervilles, or both? And is her strong sense of responsibility, as the oldest daughter of a large family with somewhat alcoholic parents, a basis for her feelings of guilt and self-reproach? In the bloody death of the family horse, for which Tess feels responsible, we find an example of Hardy’s skill in creating a realism with symbolic heightening. To compensate for the loss of the horse, Tess seeks work at the estate of the nouveau riche family who call themselves “D’Urberville”. Her seducer Alec (a fake D’Urberville) exemplifies the way a Victorian “man of pleasure” can feel free to exploit working-class women. On the other hand, does he show some signs of caring about Tess? What is the nature of Tess’s response to him during their affair? Does he evoke a sensuality she never acknowledges?

Week 3: Tess’s “rally” and devastating rejection. Angel Clare as an inadequate late-Victorian intellectual [Chapters 13-37]

Tess’s shame at being an unwed mother is not characteristic of the rural working class to which she belongs. Her fellow field workers do not disapprove. When she recovers from her remorse, her return to enthusiasm for life contradicts the Victorian stereotype of the “fallen woman.” On the other hand, her longing to regain her virginal innocence does not correspond to the narrator’s view that sexual experience should provide a “liberal education.” Rather, Tess wants to “escape the past” to reverse her fall from innocence. Hence her difficulty in telling Angel Clare about her past; she wants her high-minded lover to see her as pure. Angel fails in his love for Tess because, though he has rejected Christian theology, he has not questioned conventional Victorian morality and thus is unthinkingly bound by it when he totally rejects Tess on their wedding night after she tells him of her experience with Alec.

Week 4: Hard times for the field workers. Alec as demon lover  [Chapters 38-49]

After the pastoral mood of Talbothays Dairy, the abandoned Tess is launched into a winter of harsh and abusive conditions as a field worker. In a remarkable departure from literary convention, Hardy takes field workers just as seriously as his middle-class characters. Is Tess’s continued devotion to Angel a return to her feeling of shame? Does she seek his forgiveness as a restoration of her innocence? Alec D’Urberville’s reappearance, his brief conversion to evangelical religion, and his subsequent pursuit of Tess present interesting problems of interpretation. He seems to play the role of demonic tempter, yet it could be argued that he has a more genuine interest in Tess than does Angel, her absent husband. If Angel is obsessed with female purity, is Alec unable to free his love for Tess from the sexual stereotypes implicit in role of the Victorian man of pleasure?  

Week 5: The end: murder, fulfilment and sacrifice [Chapter 50 to end]

There is a deeper mystery in the motivation of Tess’s catastrophic response to Angel’s return. What was the nature of her second relationship with Alec? In killing Alec is she repudiating an unacknowledged sexual response to him so that she can be pure for Angel? She and the enlightened Angel have a brief period of “fulfilment.” Could her fate, culminating at Stonehenge and the “stone of sacrifice,” be seen as a deliberate sacrifice of herself as well? Is Tess, like Angel, also divided against herself in her longing for purity? A story that starts as an apparently traditional romance-plot gradually develops three very complex and ambiguous characters. While given to philosophical reflection, the narrator does not really tell us how to interpret them. In a very modern way, Hardy leaves final interpretation to the reader.   

Week 6: Hardy as novelist and poet. The power of elegy

We will consider the role of the problems presented by Tess in Hardy’s development throughout his career as a novelist. With distributed copies of some characteristic poems by Hardy, we can consider the possibility that expressions of grief and loss may also be a way of recovering the vitality of the past. Can we define the positive forces both in Hardy’s fiction and his poetry?

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

There is required reading for this course.
Any version of

  • Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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