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The Death of Fate: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Updated on October 2, 2011

Life is mysterious and we as a species have searched for answers to many questions. Every culture and religion tries to explain why things happen the way they do. For some the answers provided are enough but for others they keep searching. One of the big mysteries is that of fate. How much of our lives resides in a higher power or is predetermined is a hot topic of debate. We explore these ideas in the forms of novels, music, art and film. Through these avenues we are able to at times find an answer that satisfies our hunger for answers. One such example resides in Ian Sharp’s film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which brings into question just how much of a person’s life is predetermined, socially determined and morally ambiguous.

Condensing a novel that spans many years into a film is a hard feat. The lives of people in Victorian England were hard and trying. The people’s lives were governed by their beliefs and status. The main character Tess was born to a family that were farmers but later found out that their heritage was linked to one of the oldest noble families. They were poor and hoped to use their new found status to help Tess to marry well. If Tess were to marry well it would help elevate the family as well as bring wealth to the family. The status of the family typically becomes the status of the children and so on which would mean that Tess would have a life that is in part already determined. Being born a woman in those times added to the predetermined lifestyle. A woman born then had little freedom and was destined to be married off or harsh work. This aspect of life wasn’t really about destiny but rather a lack of options. The lack of options can be seen as a predestined life. Marriage was a staple of the culture as well as the belief system. Women were seen as inferior to men and thus had limited freedoms so for women of the era their life was in some essence predetermined. Men on the other hand had many options even if born to a lower class and status. A predetermined life was gender biased.

(Socially determined) Society plays a major role in any culture and affects the lives of all those within it. Tess and her family existed in a society that had specific expectations of each person, gender and class. Women were expected to be pure and submissive. Men were the dominating authority and controlled the home as well as what their children were to do. When Tess ended up being violated and ran back home to her family they feared what the rest of the town would think. The family reputation was more important than that of the well being of their daughter who ended up getting pregnant from the ordeal. The family hid the pregnancy from the town as well forcing Tess to stay is hiding. Then her mother convinced Tess to keep her past hidden when she had fallen in love with a gentleman. After their marriage she told her husband about her past and he rejected her. Based on the rules of the society he was not able to divorce her and instead left her with her family. In these circumstances rather than being understanding of the pain and suffering that Tess had endured she was outcast and rejected for circumstances out of her control. This only occurred due to the rules society had in place for their time. In this aspect society plays a role in the determination of how a life is to be governed and what kinds of practices are acceptable.

The morals of a people are governed by their spiritual beliefs as well as their culture and society. Tess had to keep her pregnancy hidden from the town due to the possible repercussions of having a child out of wedlock and with a distant cousin. The shame that the family may endure outweighed that of the well being of Tess and her child. After giving birth the child became ill and was dying. Tess’s mother would not allow her to fetch the priest to baptize the child which was a cherished belief that had to occur in order for the child’s soul to be allowed into heaven. The shame of the family once again took precedence over that of the soul of the child. Tess took it upon herself to baptize the child with her brothers and sisters as witnesses. After the child had passed she went to the priest and pleaded with him to bury him but he refused. He did tell her that the baptism as well as the burial by her would be the same as if he had done it. This was at a time when a woman was not allowed to perform these tasks. For Tess it was a moral obligation to ensure that the soul of her child reached heaven. Yet even though the priest refused to publicly acknowledge the child and what Tess was doing he still allowed for her to believe that her child’s soul would be safe. The morals that are instilled within a person guide their behaviors and play a role in the life they will lead and the acts they will commit.

The era in which we are born has an established culture, society, and then we later learn morals. All of these play a role in the life we lead, the decisions we make and the way we behave. In a way all of these factors shape our fate. They provide the structure and foundation of the world we live in and adhere to. Looking at Tess’s life we can see just how close our own life resembles hers in essence. We all have rules to abide by which also control how far in life a person can rise against the norm. How we function within the boundaries that society has laid for us may be predetermined but the purpose of our lives will always remain a mystery. Death on the other hand is not and is a fate that we share with Tess.


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      stessily 6 years ago

      jadeddragon: "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" is one of the most compelling and poignant novels I have ever read. I have never been able to reconcile completely with her death sentence of hanging. The tragedy of her life really is underscored --- as Thomas Hardy intended --- specifically by the social rigidity, etc., of her time but also generally, as you so presciently pointed out, by an overall resonance with now, more than a century later. The weaving of fate throughout is tantalizing yet overwhelming.

      I have not seen this film version by Ian Sharp yet. The still which you included from the film befits my image of Tess.

      Thank you for sharing your interesting observations about this unnecessarily tragic heroine --- unnecessary from a humanitarian viewpoint for the harsh daily judgments which besiege those who, for whatever reasons, do not have much, if any, ease in life.

      Kind regards, Stessily