If written today, Tess of the d’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy may have been called Just Call Me Job or Tess: Victim of Fate. Throughout this often bleak novel, the reader is forced by Tess’s circumstance to sympathize with the heroine (for lack of a better term) as life deals her blow after horrifying blow. One of the reasons that the reader is able to do so may be the fatalistic approach Hardy has taken with the life of the main character. Hardy writes Tess as a victim of Fate. This allows the reader to not blame her for the things that happen around her. Much of the critical debate surrounding Tess centers around this very point: Is Tess a victim? Are the things that happen to Tess beyond her control or could she have fought her way out of her circumstances? Better yet, could Hardy have written her out of her troubles or did his fatalistic approach to the novel force him to ultimately sacrifice poor Tess? Further, Is Hardy’s approach to the novel and its main character truly fatalistic? In this essay, I will explore these questions and the doctrine of Fatalism as it applies to Tess. Fatalism is defined in Websters Dictionary as “the doctrine that all things take place by inevitable necessity” (175). Fatalism is the idea that all actions are controlled by Fate, a primitive force that exists independent of human wills and outside of the controls of power of a supreme being such as God because God ultimately has no power; he is a creation of man who granted Him His power. Since He doesn’t truly possess those powers, he is left without the ability to alter circumstances. In short, if one subscribes to this doctrine, you believe that Fate controls how things happen and God can do nothing to save you, even Tess. Overall, Tess seems to go through life experiencing one negative event after another. Fateful incidents, overheard conversations and undelivered letters work against her ability to control the path her life takes. Tess’s future seems locked up from the beginning of the novel. As the story opens, we first meet her father and learn of Tess’s ancestry: “Durbeyfield…are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles…that renowned knight who came from Normandy…if knighthood were hereditary, like a baronetcy…[John] would be Sir John” (4). Somehow the reader knows almost immediately that this knowledge isn’t necessarily going to save the poor clan, especially once we learn of the Fate of Tess’s ancestors: “Where do we d’Urbervilles live?” asks “Sir” John to the parson who responds, “You don’t live anywhere. You are extinct” (5). If one believes in the concept of natural selection, they probably realize rather quickly that this isn’t the best family from which to descend. Tess seems to sense her doomed state. This is evidenced in her identification with the d’Urberville clan. Examples of this are her ability to see or hear the d’Urberville Coach and her realization of her resemblance to the d’Urberville woman of the farmhouse at Wellbridge: “[Tess's] fine features were unquestionably traceable in these exaggerated forms” (277). These eerie events suggest that the fated d’Urberville blood undoubtedly flows through her veins. Another example of Tess’s awareness of being ill fated is when she meets Alec. Tess laments about her fate: “Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and converted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all respects (75). She may not have known what to call it, but she definitely applies the doctrine of Fatalism to herself which according to author Leonard Doob is a telltale sign of a person who feels fated: “When the principal is judging himself [in this case, herself] and believes that fate is affecting him, his perception is usually direct: he introspects, thinks, or meditates. But he may respond indirectly when someone else, an observer,, gives him information about himself…Fatalism by a principal, therefore, is a pessimistic inevitability doctrine applied by him about himself to himself” (7). If Tess didn’t start life feeling as though Fate was working against her, there are plenty of incidents which could easily convince her: the death of the family horse because of her negligence, the letter of confession that slipped beneath the carpet and caused her to enter into marriage as a deception, the death of her father, and the return of Angel just too late. Incident after incident seem to point to only one thing: Tess was not meant to have a happy existence. So does Tess believe that God can save her? Throughout the novel, we see Tess moving away from God. She is appalled by the evangelical sign-painter warning of damnation and tells him that his teachings are “horrible…cursing…killing” refusing to “believe that God said such things” (97). Later, realizing that God can’t help her, Tess prays to Angel confessing her new religion in a letter: “It has been so much my religion ever since we were married to be faithful to you in every thought and look” (127). Even Angel seems aware that God won’t save Tess, thinking as he left, “But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked” (93). Other characters seem to buy into the idea of Fate as well. At the dairy, Angel chooses Tess over the other dairymaids who love Angel as much as she does, but the dairymaids can’t be mad at Tess because it is Fate which has made the choice: “‘Are you sure you don’t dislike me for it?’ said Tess in a low voice…’I don’t know–I don’t know,’ murmured Retty Priddle. ‘I want to hate ‘ee; but I cannot!’ “That’s how I feel,’ echoed Izz and Marian” (12). Now we turn to the question of whether or not Hardy could have saved Tess or if he believed that Fate had determined his choices. There were chances throughout the novel for Hardy to give Tess a break and throw her a bone. He chose not to do so. Critic Arnold Kettle see this decision as a necessity: “Tess’s death is artistically as inevitable as Juliet’s…She is up against a social situation that she can do nothing to resolve except tragically, with drastic human loss” (23). It seems that if Hardy was to have been true to his art, he had no choice but to kill poor Tess. It would be an error in criticism, however, to claim without a doubt that Fate is the key player in Tess’s demise. In fact, It is actually rather easy to argue the other side of the coin. Hardy’s fatalism is extremely flawed. When in a pinch, he often relies on coincidence to further beat Tess down: Alec showing up to save Tess after the party; his reappearance as preacher; the letter slipping under the carpet; Angel slugging a man that turns up later as Tess’s boss. One could argue that this is all a bit too convenient. Critic Dorothy Van Ghent seems to agree saying, “We have all read or heard criticism of Hardy for his excessive reliance upon coincidence in the management of his narratives…he appears to be too much the puppeteer working wires or strings to make events conform to his ‘pessimistic’ and ‘fatalistic’ ideas” (56). Hardy ultimately plays God in a novel where God is missing and throws negative circumstances in places where they may not have been without his manipulation. But you still have to admit, on the whole, our poor Tess still seems quite fated. So is Tess and ultimately Hardy responsible for the things that happen to our heroine or is there something larger working against her? Critic Leon Waldoff writes that “It seems impossible to read the novel with a complete disregard of the idea that Tess is somehow responsible for her fate…The narration is everywhere buttressed by words such as ‘doomed’, ‘destined’, and ‘fated.’ But the critical linking is never made and one remains uncertain about why Tess’s fate is inevitable” (135). That moment of doubt and the unresolved question is where the argument of Fatalism in Tess gains its momentum. One point that I feel must be made. Some argue, including my fellow classmates, that it was destiny that bring Alec and Tess together. I would argue that it is not destiny but Fate. Often used as a synonym for destiny, Fate differs slightly but significantly from the idea of destiny. Author Leonard Doob explains in his book, Inevitability, the difference between the concepts: “fate is associated with doom, which usually has the same negative connotation…there can be no hesitation that the principal with a ‘fatal’ disease will gave a negative experience…Destiny, on the other hand, frequently–again by no means always–suggests good fortune and is herewith assigned an association with positive effect” (7). I think we can all agree that Tess suffers from a deficiency of good fortune so it must be Fate, not destiny, that continues to deal her a losing hand. There will most likely never be agreement on Tess’s and Hardy’s ability to change the outcome of the novel. Not ever really burying his flaws very deeply, Hardy seems to challenge the notion that the flaws were necessary and lend themselves to the books readability. Critic Dorothy Van Ghent supports this idea writing that “Hardy has, with great cunning, reinforced the necessity of …the folk fatalism, and folk magic…Their philosophy and their skills in living…are indestructible, their attitudes toward events authoritatively urge a similar fatalism upon the reader, impelling him to an imaginative acceptance of the doomrwrought series of accidents in the foreground of action” (57). It appears that Hardy intentionally left doubt as to Tess’s playing into Fate or if she is playing against it. But that is why the novel still grabs the reader like a good soap opera. Hardy, through his Fatalistic approach, invokes sympathy and concern for poor Tess that keeps the reader turning each page in breathless anticipation for what’s next. Debate as we will, it can not be denied that Hardy wrote a truly gripping novel.
Doob, Leonard. Inevitability: Determinism, Fatalism, and Destiny. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: MacMillan, 1991. Kettle, Arnold. Introduction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Albert LaValley, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 14-29. Van Ghent, Dorothy. On Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Albert LaValley, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 48-61. Waldoff, Leon. Psychological Determinism in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Dale Kramer, London: MacMillan Press, 1979. 135-154.