Tess's Tragedy: "It Was to Be"

Deterministic Forces in Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Inevitability of Fate – A Word on Determinism

3 Tess as a Victim of Deterministic Forces
3.1 The Inevitable Way to the Fallen Woman
3.2 Determinism after the Rape
3.3 The Deterministic Force of Angel Clare

4 Tess’s Attempts to Act – The Interference of a Transcendental Power

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited
6.1 Primary Literature
6.2 Secondary Literature

1 Introduction

Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891, a time coined by change in technique and sciences. The English naturalist Darwin established his theory about evolution and natural selection, and physicists discovered that there are fixed elemental laws which inanimate objects follow. These discoveries also spread in the domains of humanities. In his essay “The Experimental Novel”, published in 1880, the French writer Émile Zola claims that the scientific method, which is observation and experimentation, can and should be applied to literature as well. He argues that writers can experiment with their characters like scientists do with their objects of study by placing them into certain surroundings and changing some conditions in the fictional world. These different surroundings and conditions then will determine the novel’s course. Thus, Zola concludes that if the inanimate world is fixed by certain laws, “[a] like determinism will govern . . . the brain of a man” (17) and the character’s fate is already fixed by the novel’s setting.

The subtitle of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – “A Pure Woman” – has aroused a need for discussion in the Victorian Age as well as today. There are “[t]hose who thought the ‘little harlot’ deserved hanging . . . [and] those who pitied her as a ‘poor wronged innocent’” (Hardy 2003, xix). The question of guilt is a central theme in Hardy’s novel. Is Tess “more sinned against than sinning” (232)? Having Zola’s theory in mind, it is rather the first that applies for Tess’s story. According to it, Tess is more the “poor wronged innocent” (xix) who is the victim of powers beyond her control than the calculating and immoral woman some might call her. Therefore, this paper examines to what extent Hardy’s heroine “is caught and transfixed by the competing and accumulating vectors of force that exert their action upon her life and being” (Gossin 215). Many scholars have only held Fate responsible for Tess’s decline but there are other external as well as internal factors which add to the preordained life of Hardy’s female protagonist. “[D]isaster [is] brought upon [Tess] . . . by blood, passion, circumstance, and something far more darkly interfused” (Waldoff 136). The analysis will show that Tess d’Urberville is a victim of heredity and crushing social attitudes and thus, has no hope for a happy life because of certain predispositions and forces she cannot influence. Nevertheless, one comes across moments while reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles which offer Tess the possibility to become active and shape her life at least to a certain extent by her own. This possibility of chance will also be discussed in course of the analysis of determinism to see whether Tess really is a victim of forces beyond her control.

2 The Inevitability of Fate – A Word on Determinism

Tess’s fate is doubtlessly a tragedy but it is not the same as in Schiller’s Don Carlos or Shakespeare’s Hamlet . Don Carlos and Hamlet cause their tragedies themselves: They construct their lives actively and can be called to account for their tragic ends. Tess, in contrast, is no active protagonist who shapes her own life. She is more a passive victim of unswayable forces. However, before analysing Tess’s doom as being determined, it has to be clarified what is meant by the term. Determinism and the closely connected Fatalism are complex philosophical doctrines but they both basically deal with the idea that human beings are not as free as they believe to be. In his work Fatalism in the Works of Thomas Hardy Elliot states that “[i]t is not character which is the controlling factor in Hardy’s tragic works, but it is a power beyond man and deliberately opposed to his will” (33). This power can be interpreted in different ways. In the case of Fatalism, it is “a great impersonal, primitive force, existing from all eternity, absolutely independent from human wills” (31) which brings about an individual’s destiny, but this power also can be earthly forces like biological or social laws. The latter is Determinism rather than Fatalism and “assumes pre-existing . . . conditions which fix the course of some process or event” (Williams 89). This means that men are constrained by other forces which are beyond their control than only fate. These forces, or factors, “[include] everything that . . . [makes] a man what he [is]” (Larkin 175) – but what makes a man what he is? The answer is simple: An individual is shaped by internal and external forces. The former consists of biological and genetic predispositions which are inner drives, passions and heredity. In Larkin’s words a man is an “outcome of inherited traits” (3) and defined by them. It is often said that one has it in one’s blood, meaning that one has inherited a talent, characteristic etc. from one’s ancestors. Thus, heredity and biological laws determine an individual. In the case of Tess, it will become obvious that one is also determined by one’s own mind and psyche which also are among the internal factors.

An individual is not only determined by biological heredity, though. It is rather a “product[s] of the combined action of [his] . . . genes and [his] . . . environments” (Lerner and Libby 187, italic in orig.). Consequently, a human being is also “a product of society” (Larkin 4), and the French writer Stendhal “recognised that different times made different men” (13), indicating that people are shaped by the social and natural environment they live in. This idea is a very old one as already Greek philosophers believed that the human character derives from the experience one gains in the environment one lives in. They speak about a tabula rasa which represents the human mind, which and has to be filled by interaction with the environment. The French philosopher C.A. Helvetius was convinced that “the inequality of minds [was] . . . the effect of . . . the difference of education” (Lerner and Libby 188). The most influencing aspect of education is the value system of a society. It is due to this value system that society has expectations that are based on a “code of morality” (Hardy 2003, 63). According to society’s code of morality certain behaviour is appreciated or seen as bad. Thus it exerts a certain power on the members of society and limits the possibilities to create one’s own life (Schmid 149f). The measuring up to moral expectations of society defines one’s life then: If one behaves according to the norms of society, one will have a pleasant life; if one contravenes the moral system, one will be punished and lead a doomed life. Thus, an individual does not only depend “upon his bodily strength and his mental energy or cunning . . . [but also upon] causes extrinsic to himself” (Mill 98), including the moral convictions. Human beings internalize society’s values, and they behave according to them. Furthermore, they also exert the conventions on others and judge them according to moral standards. Therefore, men are unconsciously determined by such social and moral conventions. The Victorian society, which was a class society, exerted a very strict value system on its members. The most influencing – and determining – social factor was the Victorian conception of sexuality and gender. This conception was affected by prudery and sexual restraint. Sexuality was seen as necessary for breeding but it was usually not associated with passion or enjoyment. It was tabooed, and people pretended to be free from sexual drives. Especially women were seen as sexually passive, and they were often idealized as pure and chaste creatures. This idea about women seriously determined their fate: If a woman did not meet the expectations but indulged her drives, she was a fallen woman, condemned and doomed (Lee). Hence, the impact of society on an individual’s life in a deterministic way is immense.

Overall, an individual is exposed to many different factors and forces which preordain his life. Although it might happen unconsciously, it cannot be denied that society with its moral and social code, biology with heredity and inner predispositions, and a superior force “beyond man and deliberately opposed to his will . . . which . . . shall [be called] . . . Fate” (Elliot 33) have an impact on one’s life and determine one’s destiny.

3 Tess as a Victim of Deterministic Forces

A central theme which has given reason to discussion to many scholars is the sexual encounter between Tess and Ales Stroke-D’Urberville. It can be seen as seduction, meaning that Tess agrees actively and voluntarily to have sex with Alec, as well as it can be seen as rape. The latter implies Tess’s passivity and her not being responsible for it. The sexual encounter, then, is more the effect of several factors Tess cannot influence but is a victim of. Throughout his novel, Hardy hints at these factors and presents Tess as the victim of forces beyond her control. The first fateful main event in Tess’s life is the night in the Chase. A field woman working with Tess after she has given birth to her spurious child remarks that “[a] little more than persuading had to do wi’ the coming o’t” (Hardy 2005, 57). This becomes obvious, indeed, when having a closer look on Tess’s history with regard to the extent to which Hardy’s heroine is preordained to a doomed life.

3.1 The Inevitable Way to the Fallen Woman

Assuming that the sexual encounter in the Chase is not the result of mere persuasion, there must be other causes which determine Tess to be raped. The most obvious one is Tess’s visit to the Stroke-D’Urbervilles to claim kinship. One might think this being a coincidence but her going to her assumed relatives is determined by certain factors. It is her father’s irresponsibility which sets the ball rolling and brings about Tess’s going to Trantridge. As Mr Durbeyfield is drunk and thus cannot drive the bee hives to the retailers, it is Tess who has to take over the task. After a long day of dancing and childcare and a short night, it is natural, indeed, that Tess falls asleep, but it is also preordained by the mentioned factors. Due to her falling asleep, she blames herself alone for the horse Prince’s death. The “self-reproach which she continue[s] to heap upon herself for her negligence in falling asleep” (Hardy 2003, 34) combined with her conscientiousness toward her family determine Tess psychologically. Both cause Tess to be willing to do everything to remake her mistake. Her bad consciousness and “[t]he oppressive sense of the harm she [has] . . . done [lead] . . . Tess to be more deferential than she might otherwise have been to the maternal whish” (36) to go to the supposed relatives to claim kinship. However, it is not only Tess’s psyche which determines her to go but also the economic situation she has brought about. As a haggler, Mr Durbeyfield is dependent on the horse to transport his goods. Due to the loss of the horse, the family has nothing to “live on now” (33). Since Tess knows “how the matters [stand]” (37) and she is aware of the fatal and desperate situation, she recognises the necessity of going to the “rich Mrs D’Urberville . . . who [is her family’s assumed] . . . relation[,] . . . to . . . claim kin, and ask for some assistance” (35). This knowing and her bad consciousness make her being “the representative of the Durbeyfields at the D’Urberville mansion . . . a thing of course” (37f) and thus determine Tess.

All this brings about the meeting of Tess and Alec, indeed, but there is another essential deterministic factor which is biology or rather “tainted cards from heredity” (Elliot 33). When describing Tess, the narrator especially emphasises her sensual appearance which she has inherited from Mrs Durbeyfield (Hardy 2003, 20). Tess is a “fine and handsome girl” (14), and “[b]eing graceful and interesting, . . . her appearance [draws] . . . down up on her some sly regards from” (64) young men. It is especially her “pouted-up deep red mouth” (15) which attracts men, and which becomes the symbol for her sensuality causing her doom. However, Tess’s face which her mother considers “her trump card” (53) is in fact “her undoing” (94) as it determines her to be men’s sexual object. Alec, too, is attracted by her physical charms, and he becomes almost obsessed with Tess’s sensual mouth. He feeds her with strawberries, “[holing them] by the stem to her mouth” so that she cannot help but “part[ed] her lips and [take] . . . it in” (42). This certainly is a sexual reference and indicates Alec’s intentions. In his presence, her beauty becomes “an attribute which amount[s] to a disadvantage . . .; and it [is] . . . this that [causes] . . . Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her” (42). Thus, Tess is determined by her appearance to become the object of Alec’s sexual desire and finally, his victim. Furthermore, Tess has unfortunately “inherited the [attractive] feature from her mother without the quality it [denotes]” (42f). When Tess meets Alec she is “untinctured by experience” (15) and does not know about men’s intentions. As her mother does not explain these to her, Tess meets Alec appearing like “a woman when she [is] . . . not much more than a child” (49). Her mother determines Tess’s fate by dressing her up and by not “tell[ing her that] . . . there [is] . . . danger [in men]” (82). As sexuality is a sensitive issue in the Victorian Age and usually tabooed, “Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of [men’s] . . . tricks” (82). Tess is the child of a poor couple, though, and she has no access to such novels. Hence, she does not have “the chance of discovering in that way” (82), but she is dependent on her mother’s advice. It is Joan Durbeyfield who does her bit to cause Tess’s tragedy because she “bring[s] up [her daughter] . . . in such dangerous ignorance of the gins and nets that the wicked [men] may set for [her]” (315).


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Tess's Tragedy: "It Was to Be"
Deterministic Forces in Tess of the D'Urbervilles
University of Mannheim
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
456 KB
tess, tragedy, deterministic, forces, urbervilles
Quote paper
Jana Cramer (Author), 2013, Tess's Tragedy: "It Was to Be", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/266171


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Tess's Tragedy: "It Was to Be"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free