DETERMINISTC VIEW - Hardy’s works contains considerations about life, death, man and universe. He expresses a deterministic view, deprived of a Divine order. Even if influenced by Oxford movement (a spiritual movement involving extremely devout thinking and actions) he abandoned his faith in God. From Greek tragedies derives his notions of cruel gods, indifferent nature and hostile Fate. After reading Darwin in 1860, he perceived intellectual consequences of that theory and denied the existence of God. He thought there was no intelligent direction of the universe, because an insensible chance controls everything. Human life is a tragic process, and man has no power; anyway, he believed in the need for altruism (from Comte and Mill), cooperation and kindness, and the application of scientific knowledge.
WESSEX - Environment is an important feature in Hardy’s novels, and we can note the progressive mapping of a semi-fictional region, the South-West corner of England, called “Wessex” by Hardy in the preface of Far from the Maddling Crowd. Wessex transcends topographical limits combining the imaginative experience of an individual with a sense of man’s place in the universe. In addition, the rustic group in Hardy plays the role of a chorus, it comments and interprets actions of the characters.
• The DIFFICULTY OF BEING ALIVE - Being alive involves being “an existence, an experience, a structure of sensations” and also being in a place, in an environment (this planet, Europe, Wessex) surrounded by circumstances that modify and in part determine the human existence.
• NATURE - Co-protagonist with the characters, Nature is indifferent to man’s destiny, it sets a model of growth and decay, followed by humans; it also implies regeneration, expressed by the cycle of seasons.
• ASPECTS of VICTORIAN SOCIETY - Hardy exposes conventional, moralistic and hypocritical aspects; his attitude to religion is polemical: Christianity is no longer capable of fulfilling the needs of modern man.
• DIFFICULTY/FAILURE of COMMUNICATION - Another central theme, it leads to tragedy.
LANGUAGE - Hardy’s language is detailed and controlled, rich in symbolism and his characters speaks naturally and effectively, they even use dialects. Hardy’s love of nature is reflected in the use of metaphors, similes and personifications. Also sense impressions play an important role: things are often presented in their shape and touch, sound, smell and sight; this last one is particularly strong, characters watch and are watched by the rest of nature. Colors are linked to emotions and natural landscapes.
STYLE - Hardy has a strict, rigorous form, stressing symmetry and blending dialogues, narration and descriptions. He employs the omniscient narrator, who is always present: he comments and gives his opinions. Moreover, events are presented by a hypothetical observer, with whom the reader is invited to identify himself. Hardy anticipates the cinema for narrative techniques like “camera eye” and “zoom”.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES
ISSUE of MORALITY - The subtitle A pure woman introduces the theme of Victorian distorted morality: the issues of morality vary according to time and place and laws made by man are in opposition with Nature. Themes are exposed through the experiences of Tess and her troubles. She is trapped and her freedom is limited by a series of events (death of the horse, discovery of her origins). Moral issues come into play during Tess’s pregnancy by Alec: she feels guilty but Hardy says that her feelings are not necessary. People of her village do not censure her, they accept her as a member of their community, as a individual. Tess is a victim, embodies the sufferings but she has the energy to survive and go on living.
• Difficult conditions of people of the countryside; • Difficulty of being alive; • Hostile Fate;
• Control of the individual (freedom limited by family or society); • Religions useless.
PLOT - John Durbeyfield, a paddler in the village of Marlott, finds out he descends from an aristocratic family, the D’Urbervilles, fallen in hard times when their horse died. His eldest daughter Tess is persuaded to start working as a poultry maid on D’Urbervilles’ estate. She resists Alec, her master, but he finally takes advantage of her. She returns to her village and give birth to a baby who died soon after. When she leaves her father’s house, she works as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy. She meets Angel Clare, a clergyman interested in new farming methods. They fall in love but Tess feels she should tell him about her past, so she write a confession and slips it under Angel’s door, but it slides under the carpet and Angel never sees it. They get married, but on their wedding night, Tess tells Angel about her past and he leaves her and go to Brazil. She suffers a lot and she is forced to accept a job at a farm. She hears a preacher speak and she discovers he is Alec D’Urbervilles, converted to Christianity by Angel’s father. Tess agrees to become Alec’s mistress. Angel comes back from Brazil, finds and forgives her; then Tess kills Alec and flees with Angel; arrested for sleeping on a stone at Stonehenge, she is executed.
CONTEXT - The debt to the oral tradition is important (stories about milkmaids, tales of superstition, stories of love, betrayal and revenge). Also the world of ballads gives elements to the novel, like fatal coincidences (the letter slipping under the carpet). Attention is given also to rural society - old customs are told by the May Day Festival, and the country was home for middle-class families and retired people. There are also references to the modern mechanical methods in agriculture. In addition, there are contrasts between paganism and the residual influence of Christianity; paganism reaches the culmination with the sacrifice of Tess at Stonehenge, which is related to the Sophoclean dimension of tragedies. Capitalism is symbolized by Alec, the nouveau riche, usurper of an ancient name.