In Tess of the D’Ubervilles Thomas Hardy creates a sense that fate is guiding each of the characters, often for the worst, to an inevitable end. From the beginning of the novel Tess shows a thorough understanding of her shortcomings and an acceptance that she is destined to lead a difficult life. Hardy uses societal circumstance and fate to create the powerfully tragic story of Tess, her family and her relationships, and how she chooses to play to the hand that she is dealt.
From the beginning of the story we understand that Tess is fully aware of her shortcomings in life and that she is destined to walk a path of hardship. When speaking with her brother in the fourth chapter of the book she speaks of this awareness, “Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree.
Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.” “Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one” (33).
Tess’s early understanding of the tragic life she is meant to lead foreshadows the situations waiting for her. For the remainder of the novel, almost every single time something good happens to Tess it is snatched away from her on the next page. In more than one way it seems that fate is conspiring against Tess throughout the novel. Hardy almost completely takes away the characters’ abilities to change their circumstances, imprisoning them by the harsh Victorian societal structure. From the beginning Hardy uses recurring themes to illustrate that Tess’s death has been pre-determined, giving us the notion that whatever path she chooses she will end up where Hardy wants her to. While it could be argued that her choices are the only influence in her life, I feel that from the moment her character was developed her end was virtually decided. Or, at least, this is what Hardy wants us to feel. While she could be considered responsible for her actions, she manages to come out with the worst in nearly every situation.
Her character is destined to drag her down even though she constantly endeavors to be the best she can be, a few examples include: going to the market when her father is too drunk to do so, consequently killing their horse; telling the truth to Angel Clare, despite her mother’s warning not to do so; and many further situations. This is undeniably the reason why, despite the indignation of people who held more conventional views at the time, Hardy called it the story of “a pure woman.” Tess’s highly developed sense of responsibility, strong conscience, and duty to her family further promotes the idea of a malevolent fate: someone this conscientious should surely have someone or something working against her to come into so much ill fortune. In fact, her conscience and honesty seem to add on to the tragedy of her life.
But over and over again Tess is fated to almost supernaturally tragic coincidences. A pivotal example of fate getting in the way of Tess’s happiness occurs when she tries to explain her past to Angel, in particular the incident that happened with Alec before they met at the dairy. She is very sincere and quite adamant in her attempt to tell Alec of the devastating event during which her virginity was taken away from her. But as fate decides, the letter detailing Tess’s past when slipped under the door of Angel’s room also slipped under the rug on his floor. Angel never gets to read the letter and therefore does not know about Tess’s past. Angel and Tess go ahead with their marriage with both of them unaware each other’s pasts, eventually ruining their marriage and leading to Tess’s death.
Hardy is very good at dropping hints throughout the novel, which helps to link preceding events with the final outcome. This, in particular, adds to the sense that the character’s fate is predetermined, teasing the reader along the way with often-exaggerated images, symbols or phrases from unsuspecting characters, including Tess herself when she states, “all this good fortune may be scourged out of me afterwards by a lot of ill. That’s how heaven mostly does” (252). Here Hardy uses Tess to convey a sense of fate with her being painfully aware that good and bad usually go together in some form.
She is still blissful, though, and can hardly believe that things could turn as bad as they do in the end, but it is an example of Hardy creating the theme of pre-determined fate in this story. Overall, I feel that Tess’s actions and those of the characters surrounding her constantly affect her, but that Hardy wants us to feel that they are all part of an imminent fate. It is undeniable that this story hinges on many unfortunate coincidences. Throughout the novel there is an overriding presence that imprisons Tess and takes away every opportunity she gets to be truly happy and that disregards the pure nature of her being. Despite constantly striving to do the right thing she never seems to get “what she deserves but a great deal worse” (211).