Tess Durbeyfield is a victim of external and uncomprehended forces. Passive and yielding, unsuspicious and fundamentally pure, she suffers a weakness of will and reason, struggling against a fate that is too strong for her.
Tess is the easiest victim of circumstance, society and male idealism, who fights the hardest fight yet is destroyed by her ravaging self-destructive sense of guilt, life denial and the cruelty of two men. It is primarily the death of the horse, Prince, the Durbeyfield’s main source of livelihood, that commences the web of circumstance that envelops Tess. Tess views herself as the cause of her families economic downfall, however she also believes that she is parallel to a murderess. The imagery at this point in the novel shows how distraught and guilt ridden Tess is as she places her hand upon Prince’s wound in a futile attempt to prevent the blood loss that cannot be prevented. This imagery is equivalent to a photographic proof – a lead-up to the events that will shape Tess’s life and the inevitable “evil” that also, like the crimson blood that spouts from Prince’s wound, cannot be stopped.
The symbolic fact that Tess perceives herself to be comparable to a murderess is an insight into the murder that she will eventually commit and is also a reference to the level of guilt that now consumes her. “Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself… she regarded herself in the light of a murderess.” Her parents, aware of her beauty,view Tess as an opportunity for future wealth and coupled with the unfortunate circumstance of Prince’s death urge Tess to venture from the engirdled and secluded region’ of Marlott to seek financial assistance from the D’urberville’s in nearby Trantridge . It is here that she first encounters the sexually dominating and somewhat demonic Alec D’urberville, whom she is later to fall victim to. Alec’s first words to Tess , “Well, my Beauty, what can I do for you?” indicate that his first impression of Tess is only one of sexual magnetism. Alec then proceeds to charm Tess by pushing strawberries into her mouth and pressing roses into her bosom.
These fruits of love are an indication of Alec’s lust and sexual desire for Tess as he preys upon her purity and rural innocence. Tess unwillingly becomes a victim to Alec’s inhumane,violent and aggressive sexual advances as Alec, always the master of opportunities, takes advantage of her whilst alone in the woods and rapes her. Tess has fallen subject to the crueller side of human nature as Alec seizes upon her vulnerability. After this sexual violation and corruption of innocence, Tess flees home and although she has escaped the trap of the sexually rapacious Alec for the time being,her circumstance is similar to that of a wounded animal – her blood of innocence has been released.
At this time Hardy gives reference to Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece’ -‘where the serpent hisses the sweet birds sing’ suggesting that Alec was equivalent to Satan tempting Eve. Tess is undoubtedly a victim and her lack of understanding over such matters only increases the guilt that already embodies her. To add further to her shame she chances upon a holy man who paints exerts from the bible around the countryside. In red accusatory letters she reads “THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT” and is horrified to think how relevant it is to her recent misfortunes.
Tess at this stage is a victim to her own self – conscience and she becomes a recluse trapped within her home – away from the society that has unjustfully condemned her whilst in reality she has broken no law of nature. Returning to work in the field, Tess witnesses the rabbits forced further to shelter as the corn rows in which they dwell are reaped and the harvesters kill every one of them with sticks and stones. This is symbolic of Tess’s own situation as she is being separated little by little from family and friends and from her childhood innocence ,it is suggestive of the loneliness she now feels. The baby she has baptised as Sorrow dies, his name being an indication of the anguish that has taken place within Tess due to the circumstances of his conceival and it also epitomises what is to follow through the events of her own sorrowful life. In an attempt to start her life anew, Tess decides to move away from the seclusion of Marlott to Talbothays – where no one will know of her past.
Although filled with natural optimism, Tess’s past has already begun to weave the fatalistic web that will trap her like a fly and from which the ravenous spider of chaotic doom will draw all of her life’s animation out. Talbothay’s Dairy is the phase of Tess’s life in which she experiences her only period of sheer happiness, although at times this is tinctured by mental hesitations as to her purity and righteousness. Here we can see in an abstracted form the way society has entrapped Tess by its assertions of what is supposedly morally correct. Like a fascinated bird’ Tess is drawn into the wild and overgrown garden by the sound of Angel Clare’s harp – playing.
We gain here, a sense of Tess’s affinity within the natural environment as she proceeds as stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth. Hardy has likened Tess to an animal and this is symbolic also of the eminent disaster to follow. Tess is trapped once again – although on this occasion she is bound to Angel by ideological fetters . Tess is transformed in Angel’s sight …
a visionary essence of woman – a whole sex condensed into one typical form’. Tess’s material, physical relationship with Alec has been replaced by a spiritual, idealised one with Angel. She has now become a victim of Angel’s idealisation as her individuality is becoming further suppressed by his imaginative and ethereal reasonings. As the spring season progresses so does Angel and Tess’s romance and eventually she succumbs to Angel’s charms. After failing to tell Angel of her past, she writes him a letter which is placed beneath his door. In a cruel twist of fate , the letter slides beneath the mat and there it remains – unread.
Tess and Angel’s marriage is marred by ill – omen. Hardy gives reference to the gnats that know nothing of their brief glorification – as Tess herself cannot fathom the potent fatalism that will cause her such sorrow. Hardy’s continual use of ill -omen gives the impression of the extent of Tess’s victimisation to fate; the D’urberville coach and the crow of the cock symbolising the death of their relationship. On their honeymoon, traditionally a joyous occasion, Tess confides in Angel the nature of her past.
Prior to this confession, Tess is horrified by the portraits she sees hanging on the walls. Angel beholds a similar quality within Tess – an arrogance and ferocity which is the truth linked to her past. On hearing of Tess’s unfortunate past, Angel withdraws from reality by refusing to admit that she is the woman that he loved. You were one person; now you are another’ Angel’s departure to Brazil leaves Tess almost as a widow .
Angel s physical rejection of Tess has subjected her to the cruelty of love, a victim once again – she is broken both spiritually and emotionally. It is at this point in the novel that she begins to understand that her beauty is part of the cause of her destruction. In answer to this she dons her oldest field gown, covers half her face with a handkerchief, and snips off her eyebrows to “keep off these casual lovers”. Tess has realised that part of the victimisation she has undergone is because of her beauty, although this realisation has come too late to save her from Alec’s lustful actions and Angel’s idealised ones.
Tess seeks shelter one night beneath some bushes to hide from a lustful man and awakens to find pheasants left half – dead by a shooting party. All of these birds are writhing in agony apart from those which have been unable to bear any more and have died through the night. Tess reprimands herself for feeling self-pity; I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding’ – and although she is not physically marred by the events that have so irrevocably altered her life , emotionally and spiritually she is exhausted. The potent tragedy of Tess’s life is that her decisions have always been made with good and pure intentions but have resulted in damaging consequences.Tess is undoubtedly a victim as misery punctuates her life. She is a victim of circumstance in that her individuality makes little difference to her fate, she is a victim of society in the sense that she is a scapegoat of narrow – mindedness and she is a victim of male ideology on the grounds that her powers of will and reason are undermined by her sensuality.
Tess herself sums up her own blighted life best; Once a victim, always a victim – that’s the law!’