It cannot be denied that “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is a social document showing the final tragic stage of the disintegration of the English peasant world but to over-emphasize this aspect and to reduce the importance of the novel as a personal tragedy does not seem to be the correct approach.
It is true that Tess is a peasant girl and that her struggles and misfortunes, to some extent, do represent the sufferings of the peasantry. The accident in which the family horse is killed symbolizes the struggles of the peasantry. Tess’ sense of guilt over this accident forces her to seek the help of the prosperous D’Urbervilles of Trantridge. Her sacrifice to Alec D’Urberville is symbolic of the historical process at work. Tess, as a worker, is handed over by her mother under economic stresses, to the life and the mercies of the ruling class.
Tess’ seduction by Alec, makes her story a hopeless struggle, against strong odds, to maintain her self-respect. After the death of her child she becomes a milk-maid at Talbothays. Here she falls in love with Angel, marries him, and is soon discarded by him. Angel personifies social convention even though he pretends not to believe in it. At the time of his desertion of Tess, Angel symbolizes the rigid, orthodox code of morality with a double standard – one for men and another for women.
Hardy was intensely aware of the changes in the countryside and the effects of economic change on society. Tess is an example of the social mobility of industrialism. But social mobility went two ways. Because of enclosures and industrialism, the traditional shape of the English farm village was changing. Workers were forced off their land and turned into proletarians, either industrial or agricultural.
One of the memorable scenes in the novel is the threshing at Flintcomb-Ash farm, where Tess with other women serves that “red tyrant”. The machine is importunate, inhuman, insatiable. The old workmen sadly recall the threshing work they used to do with their hands. The engineer operating the machine is described as being “in the agricultural world, not of it”. He and his machine are like Alec who is equally importunate, inhuman, and insatiable. The machine is as repetitious and as powerful as Alec.
The threshing scene symbolizes the dehumanized relationships of the new capitalist farms.
The final blow to Tess’ self-respect comes with the death of her father and the consequent expulsion of the family from their cottage. Cottagers who were not directly employed on the land were looked upon with disfavour. It is the need to support her family that finally forces Tess back to Alec.
Certainly Tess of the D’Urbervilles depicts the disintegration of the English peasantry and is certainly a social and industrial tragedy. However, a balance should be maintained between this approach to the novel and the personal tragedy. Hardy’s main emphasis is on Tess, not as a typical peasant girl but as an individual. Hardy deals with the theme of the decline and destruction of the English peasantry by Tess; but it is not the dominant theme. The English peasantry does arouse our sympathy but we think of Tess not as an agent of the peasantry but as an individual girl, for if Tess is typical, she is also unique.
In several ways Tess stands above her peasantry class. In the first place, she has a delicate conscience which disturbs her peace of mind after her seduction. She suffers from a constant sense of guilt because of her past when she has fallen in love with Angel. Secondly, she is a hypersensitive girl. Not every peasant girl thinks that mankind lives on a “blighted” planet and suffers from the “ache of modernism”. This sensitivity makes her, after Angel’s desertion, suffer a mental torture. The difference between Tess as an individual and as a peasant becomes clear when she thinks of her mother’s reactions towards her. Her mother accepts the seduction stoically and urges her not to reveal her past to her husband. The mother is quite thick-skinned.
The true representative of the peasantry is the mother, not Tess. Tess has surely sprung from the peasantry but her thoughts and her feelings lift her far above the peasantry. We think of Tess betrayed by her seducer, betrayed by her husband, betrayed by circumstances; we think of an innocent victim of the dishonesty and traditionalism respectively of two men, and an innocent victim of the hostility of fate. The theme of the disintegration of the peasantry is secondary to the tragedy of an individual woman.