Deception in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

How do I explain Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy and number 12 on the BBC book list? It is one of those awful (in a lovely way) novels that I see myself in. I think any woman can relate. And unfortunately, the #YesAllWomen campaign on Twitter a few weeks ago attests to that. Tess is pursued relentlessly by the womanizer Alec.

tess cover

Alec D’Urberville is deceitful and responsible for others’ unhappiness. Alec’s first major contrivance occurs when Tess is compelled to work for his mother because of an accident in which the Durbeyfield family horse was killed. Tess goes to live at Tantridge, Alec’s home, and eventually falls into his clutches at the tender age of sixteen. The episode is mildly described as a seduction, but it is implied in the text as rape. Tess loses her innocence at the hands of Alec. After this trauma, she learned “that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson” (80). This is only one of several instances in which Hardy refers to Alec as a serpent, that familiar symbol for the devil in the Garden of Eden.

Alec’s actions reminds me of a sermon I heard from a local member of my church a few years ago. He spoke of the snakes that are just waiting to attack and eat girls during their teenage years. These snakes have no respect for the female sex, and many teenage girls become close to these snakes, because they hiss the words the girls want to hear, the words they may not hear at home. These snakes bite without regret or hesitation. I was a teenage girl once, and I, like Tess, thought that certain boyfriends actually cared. Luckily, I never got myself into serious trouble, but I was certainly hurt and I certainly have regrets. (And not all men are snakes.)

The result of Alec’s deception leads Tess into a pattern of deception. She recovers from two tragedies, her rape and the death of her baby, and finds work at a dairy farm, where she meets her true love, Angel Clare. All of the dairymaids have crushes on Angel, but he only loves Tess. He eventually proposes to her, only to have her refuse. Tess realizes that she is not what she seems, a deception in her very persona, and therefore cannot marry Angel and break his heart. She struggles with this decision, as she loves Angel and wants to marry him. After months of persuasion, Tess finally agrees to marry him. She also abides by her mother’s advice and does not tell him about her past involving Alec and the deceased baby. She knows that Angel will not accept her if he knows the truth and she knows that she is not worthy of him. However, her heart wins over her head and she marries him anyway, a deception that may not lead to happiness. A foreshadow of this comes immediately following the wedding, when a cock crows three times in a row. This is an allusion to Peter in the Bible, who denies Christ three times. This denial is a type of deception, just as Tess has been in denial of the weight of her past and in deceiving her new husband.

On the wedding night, Angel confesses his own sin with another woman, making Tess feel as though she can be free with her past as well. She forgives Angel readily and believes that he will do so for her as well. But, “he looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (246). Her deception causes Angel the utmost anguish, and he cannot believe in her goodness. Although Tess is actually a good character with pure intentions and did not deliberately contrive to deceive Angel, the result is that he cannot trust her any longer. He believes that she is purposefully deceitful, even wicked at heart. At one point, Tess had even tried writing Angel a letter and confessing her sins before the marriage, but it was accidentally pushed under the carpet and Angel never received it. Such a turn of events, despite good intentions, show that the consequences for innocent characters are sometimes as drastic as they are for Hardy’s truly evil characters, making this novel’s comments on deception more believable and relatable. Although one may not be purely evil in small deceptions, the results can be that one’s reputation becomes such despite the falseness of it. Tess suffers this lowering of esteem in her husband’s eyes, the worst punishment possible for her.

Although Tess and Alec have completely different motives and purity of heart, they both suffer in the end because of deception. Tess returns to Alec and is again deceived by him. He tells her that Angel will never come back to claim her, a story she begins to believe when circumstances become dire. She lets herself believe Alec’s lie because it is easy and worth it in the short term. Her mother and siblings will be cared for and she will also live in luxury. Although Alec is not the most desirable companion to her in this luxury, she accepts it because she feels she must. In more Biblical allusion, Alec is the deceiver who tells us all that we cannot change or repent.  I often beat myself up over mistakes, instead of having hope in the atonement and in being able to do better next time.

Alec, in this final deceit, seems to believe that he has finally achieved it all. However, it backfires on him when Angel returns to make things right with Tess. He’s too late, however, as Tess breaks at this moment, stabbing Alec through the heart in revenge and to regain her freedom, something lost at the beginning of the novel. She flees with Angel in a blissful second honeymoon, but is eventually caught and hanged for her crime.

The grisly end for these characters, Tess and Alec, both deceitful but with different intentions, follows Hardy’s pattern of showing a downfall of those who are not pure in their intentions. According to Bernard J. Paris, a professor of English at Michigan State University, “Tess is pure because she never meant to do wrong, and, Hardy argues, we should judge a person by his intentions rather than by his acts. . . .Tess’s intentions are good and . . . she is a victim rather than a villain” (60).

Although Tess suffered because of things she did and did not do, she was a victim. In the most symbolic moment, Tess lies on a rock at Stonehenge, and Angel comments: “I think you are lying on an altar” (427). She is a lamb who is sacrificed, an unfair fate but a necessary one. Richard C. Carpenter, of Bowling Green State University, said: “We hear no more references to Tess as a goddess, but she becomes ever more clearly the victim of the world’s inexorable vengeance, the archetypal scapegoat. . . . She is made to suffer for the mistakes and misdeeds of her world” (135). Deceits do not always lead to the downfall of only those responsible, but also for their victims. Tess has the strongest message against deceit and contrivance because of the way we see the consequences stretch to the innocent.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Richard C. Thomas Hardy. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. New York: Washington Square Press, 1973.

Paris, Bernard J. “‘A Confusion of Many Standards’: Conflicting Value Systems in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24 (June 1969) 57-79.



44 thoughts on “Deception in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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  1. Great post! A lot of things to think about here. I read the novel when I was in high school, and my English teacher did not pull such a powerful message from the text (or maybe she did and I was just to young to understand). You write beautifully.

    1. Thank you! I think what is great about a book like this is that we might all get something different and that the text contains many themes. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  2. Great post as usual, Emily!

    This book has sentimental value to me. It sat on our family bookshelf when I was growing up, and every time I looked at the spine, I thought about the name “Tess,” which I loved. My first born daughter is named Tessa, after this book. The ironic thing is that I started to read the book and couldn’t get through it because of poor Tess’s fate…I could see what was coming and just had to put the book down. I loved reading this review though, which makes me think I should give this Hardy classic a second chance.

    I always enjoy your intelligent and accessible book reviews! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Libby. How neat that you named your daughter after this book. Of course, I would say give it a second try, but yes, it tackles some difficult subjects.

  3. I love this novel, but do you really think that the problem with Angel is he believes Tess is purposefully deceitful? He has seen her not for herself but as a symbol for his ideals. He has this idea that people raised in a simple life and “newer families,” that is families without a long history (which is, like, who?), are more pure and that the older families are corrupt. He sees her as representative of his philosophical beliefs and not as an actual person. And in fact, his attitude toward her is deeply hypocritical. She has nothing worse to confess to him than he has to her. And he did not think to confess to her before they were married, whereas she at least tried. What Angel can’t face is not her deceit but her failure to fit in with his (frankly silly) ideas about corruption in society. After all, why do her sins make her worse than his do him? I don’t think this is a sexual double standard with Angel (well, it probably is partially that) so much as his reaction to the destruction of his ideals.

    1. My interpretation of the novel is similar to yours. I think that Angel rejects Tess not because of her deceit in not telling him before they were married, but because her past means that she is no longer pure in his eyes. She is flawed, no longer the innocent maiden he believed her to be. To me, this is indicative of the inequality between men and women in the Victorian era: there was definitely a sexual double standard.

      1. That’s definitely part of it, but pay attention to the whole discussion about old families. He has a pet theory and thinks she is the embodiment of it.

  4. wow, i’m thrilled to get a double scoop of senorita tess’s story… how did i manage to miss reading this book when i was young?

    last week a friend too me to a ‘lending library’ and she said that most of the books were in english… i was curious, but way too far away to check out books and return them .. a 7-hour bus ride was between that library and my home on the river.

    we stopped through the entrance, and in precision choreography, i inhaled deeply and smiled! ah!, there’s nothing like the smell of old books to a lover of the written word!

    most of his paperbacks were for sale – i will definitely ask for dear tess whenever i return to quito!

    thanks for this great summary.. i’m gong to save it to desktop to read (more thoroughly_offline


  5. I read Tess at University, and loved it so much that my other courses suffered a bit until it was finished. Luckily, I was able to read it quickly. I own several other Thomas Hardy books, because I have always meant to read another. Do you recommend one over the others?

    1. I can totally see that happening with Tess! I would say all of Hardy’s work is great, but The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure come to mind.

    2. I agree with Emily’s recommendations but I would also add Far From the Madding Crowd. Enjoy! I went on a Hardy binge a few years ago and read many of his novels in quick succession. His work is excellent, though often unbearably tragic.

  6. Thanks for your presentation of this thought-provoking book. It’s interesting to note how each reader interprets the story. There are so many moral dilemmas presented in this work that go beyond the ordinary. What would you have done as Tess? Even before I learned that Hardy had a subtitle for this work – A Pure Woman – I felt that the reader was supposed to sympathize with Tess’s situation at every turn. She was raped and left to deal with the consequences in a society that can’t forgive a woman’s lost purity. Even later, I felt she was prostituting her self by living with Alex for her family’s sake. She never wanted Alec to violate her – never wanted his company.
    I thought it was particularly interesting that Hardy set up Angel Clare as an independent thinker in many respects and yet when it came down to the double standard, he could not wrest himself from the deeply engrained expectations of the day. I think his perception of her purity was ruined by discovering her past. And he couldn’t get past it, even though there were very logical reasons to forgive her: it wasn’t her fault and he had himself been impure. He eventually does come around, but it’s way too late. Both Tess and Angel are victims of the grossly unfair moral customs of the day.

    1. Yes! You describe it all very well. It seems that the point Hardy made wasn’t just about individual characters, but instead he was writing about social customs. I like what you say about Angel Clare. It would be hard to be an angelic man like him but not be affected by society and the things you learned growing up. It would be hard to change your stance or soften your views, even if you loved somebody. I see this playing out right now in my own cultural community. I do love that he comes around, but it is so tragic that the timing is off. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I know this story only from the mini-series with Gemma Arterton. I hated the portrayal of Tess as a victim. I understand that women in that era had difficult choices to make but it seems to me that Tess made some bad ones and the consequences were awful. I’m certainly not talking about the rape, that was not her choice. But most of her choices after that only served to doom her and her family further. I know I was supposed to see her as a victim and pity her but I was just angered at her lack of personal accountability. I wonder if the book gives her any more depth and likability or if this is truly a story of a helpless, hapless person who is hard to care for.

    I certainly sound cranky this morning. 🙂

    1. I can see this reaction. I can’t remember the book well enough to say if the details would soften your stance. I read it for a class in my master’s degree and most of what I’ve written for today’s post is part of a larger paper I wrote on deception in a few of Hardy’s novels. I wish I could be of more help, but perhaps you should just try it and let us know if the book gets the point across or helps you to commiserate with Tess better than the miniseries. I’m a stickler for personal accountability as well, so maybe I’d better avoid the miniseries on this one. And it’s Monday; be cranky!

    2. I hope you’ll take the time to read the book. I haven’t seen the mini-series, so I don’t know how well it portrayed the original. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Tess at every step. The choices before her were rather staggeringly limited for a poor, largely innocent and well-meaning pretty girl who was now ruined. What should she have done? Should she have sought help? Was there anyone who could have helped? I’ve noticed that sometimes in discussing Victorian literature, modern mindsets can seem fairly impatient with females in distress. Maybe it’s because today we value the outspoken, assertive, determined female model. I actually admired Tess a great deal because she carefully considered the needs and feelings of others, not just herself. I’m not sure self-sacrifice is valued as much in today’s culture.
      Sorry to go on… Hardy and Gaskell are my favorite authors. They really make me think about how society and individuals shape each other.

      1. Yes, I think you’re right that a modern mindset can seep into our reading of characters from the past. I’ll definitely add this book to my list because perhaps Hardy writes well enough to transport me back to those times, which the miniseries wasn’t able to do.

  8. Your literary blog is something I’ve been needing to follow, without even knowing it! I love how you’ve brought one of my favorite grade school reads to life and added a richness of meaning to it that was definitely not present in my middle school English class. Thank you, I’m excited for your future posts! (Also, who designed your blog?! It’s so clean and polished. I’d love to clean mine up a little.)

    1. Thanks! I actually just use the WordPress Theme “chateau” and added my own header and changed the text color to match. Nothing to it! I’m looking forward to more of your blog, as this controversy over women in our church is really upsetting and confusing and I need to read what other wise people are saying to make sense of it all!

  9. Wow! I did not realize that this was what Tess of the D’Urbervilles was about! I read The Mayor of Casterbridge several years ago, but even now I’ve forgotten how dark it is. Thomas Hardy did not shy away from exploring profound moral dilemmas!

  10. Wow, I had to read this in high school, and do not recall anything in it but the rape scene, which at the time, I did not even recognize as a rape scene until the teacher pointed it out (teenage brain=not too smart). Thanks for this post; I’m going to reread ol’ Tess now that I have a grownup brain (a little bit smarter).

    1. I think that’s an excellent idea. You’d probably really enjoy it now. I love it when I reread books and discover how great they are and laugh at how much I missed as a younger person.

  11. Thanks for writing about this. I read two of Hardy’s other novels and have not gotten around to reading Tess despite really wanting to. I have to push this higher on my to-read list!

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