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Animality in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy


Molly is currently an undergrad student majoring in Earth Science and English and minoring in Studio Art.

This article will looks at how comparisons to animals function in Thomas Hardy's novel "Tess of D'Urbervilles."

This article will looks at how comparisons to animals function in Thomas Hardy's novel "Tess of D'Urbervilles."

Throughout his life, Thomas Hardy was a steadfast and passion activist for animal welfare. In a biography of Hardy, Paul Turner writes of him:

“…there was another notable feature of his emotional make-up which was far more individual: a special feeling for animals. This has often been dismissed as an amiable weakness, a neurotic symptom, or, in the case of his dogs and cats, a displacement-reaction to childlessness. It was actually a key element in his personality, instinctive in childhood, but soon justified intellectually by Darwinism…He was still more ahead of his time as a champion of animal rights.” (Turner 3-4).

Hardy’s feeling for animals is showcased in many of his works, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Throughout Tess, animals are given much attention and detail. Tess herself is often compared to animals, both by her own doing and by the narrator’s. While avian comparisons are the most common, Tess is compared to a snake, a leopard, and even a fly, amongst other animals. The term “creature” is also frequently applied to both animals and humans alike, serving to bridge the gap between the two. This article explores how Tess’s animal comparisons function throughout the novel, especially in terms of how these comparisons aid Hardy’s commentary on societal and religious laws versus the laws of nature.

Many of Tess’s animal likenesses are not just animals, but wild animals, trapped animals, and hunted animals. Early on in the novel, in the passage in which Alec D’Urberville demands Tess allows him to kiss her, the narrator describes: “‘Will nothing else do?’ [Tess] cried at length, in desperation, her large eyes staring at him like those of a wild animal,” (Hardy 57). Tess is not just a wild animal but a desperate and frantic one as she attempts to work her way out of Alec’s trap. She is caught; Alec declares he’ll “break both [their] necks!” – imagery that strongly recalls that of killing poultry chickens or hunted fowl – if she does not comply with his will (57). Alec thus attempts to tame Tess to his wishes, for that is what men do to wild animals.

As Tess begins to work in the poultry-farm for the Stoke-d’Urbervilles, she is given the job of being the birds’ “supervisor, purveyor, nurse, surgeon, and friend,” (59). This duty – to be a friend of the birds – begins to imply that Tess is joining their ranks. She is to spend her entire day with them and is thus put on their level, a level of animality. Tess is soon further tasked with whistling to the bullfinches, who are “songsters” that mimic the whistle back (64). Initially Tess struggles: she is not a bird herself. Alec watches Tess struggle and in order to help her he physically moves her within a cage, saying, “‘I’ll stand on this side of the wire-netting, and you can keep on the other; so you may feel quite safe,’” (63). Under the lure of safety, Alec puts Tess in the physical position of the birds themselves and only then does Tess learn how to properly whistle. Not only is she whistling the same tunes as the birds, but she is caged like a bird too.

Alec is taming Tess just as one tames an animal. He begins to succeed; she soon becomes familiar with his presence: “…most of her original shyness of him” has been removed and she is “more pliable under his hands than a mere companionship would have made her, owing to…her comparative helplessness,” (64). Just like a tamed animal, Tess no longer feels great fear towards him. Thus, when Alec rescues Tess from the cruelty of her companions while walking home at night, he is able to ultimately tame her. Just like the bird he views her as, he makes a “sort of couch or nest for her in the deep mass of dead leaves,” (73), believing “a little rest for the jaded animal being desirable,” (74). Alec has now trapped his bird completely and does with his prey what he desires, for as a man, he believes himself master of nature.

Thereafter, Tess’s existence is one of great suffering. She is not alone, the animals described in the novel—especially the ones described after Tess’s rape—suffer with her. Also like Tess, they suffer at the hands of man. The narrator describes the field rodents at Tess’s workplace: “Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated inwards as into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when…the last yards of upright wheat fell under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters,” (88). Rather than being free, independent beings, as wild animals should be in nature, these small creatures are fated to have a horrible ending by an unnatural force: that of the reaper. The parallel is clear: just as man rapes nature, Tess is raped by Alec and suffers greatly for it.

One of the most visceral scenes in the novel is not the scene of Tess’s rape or Angel’s rejection, but rather a scene in which Tess wakes up surrounded by badly injured pheasants. Tess, in an effort to escape a man who confronts her in the night, flees into a forested area where she creates a nest for herself: “She scraped together the dead leaves till she had formed them into a large heap, making a sort of nest in the middle. Into this Tess crept,” (269). Tess again falls asleep in a nest like an animal in hiding. Rather than being made a bird by Alec, Tess makes herself a bird. In doing so, she begins to embrace her animality, and she soon accepts being trapped again by Alec.

When Tess awakes and is surrounded “several pheasants…their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly moving their wings, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating feebly, some contorted, some stretched out – all of the writhing in agony,” (269-270), she sees herself injured too. The birds, like Tess, had been driven into this corner of the forest by men. They were chased by “some shooting-party,” – men who “were, in fact, quite civil persons save during certain weeks of autumn and winter, when…they made it their purpose to destroy life,” (270). The birds that were sleeping during the rape scene at the beginning of the novel are now wretched and damaged, reflecting Tess’s transition from oblivious innocence to great suffering as she awaits Angel’s return. Tess proceeds to kill the birds, putting them out of their misery. In a sense, Tess is symbolically (and wishfully) killing herself. The misery that the pheasants suffer at the hands of man is so great that their only option is death, perhaps foreshadowing Tess’s only option as well.

Tess sees her suffering reflected in the birds but ultimately decides her misery is incomparable: “‘I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding’… She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature,” (270). The narrator recognizes that Tess’s suffering is imposed by humans; religious and societal laws that are truly arbitrary. Yet Tess is unable to let go of her misery: she continues to suffer, only with the added feeling that her suffering is not even worthwhile compared to that of the pheasants.

The question comes forth, why is Tess’s guilt and suffering so extreme? Time and time again we see Tess as a trapped animal, but what is she truly trapped by? In many ways, Tess is trapped by herself and her own beliefs; beliefs imposed on her by society. Earlier in the novel we see the narrator recognize Tess’s unnecessary suffering: “She has been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment…” (86). Tess herself, however, is largely unable to recognize the hypocrisy of the laws of man. Although Alec and Angel both cause Tess great pain and suffering, Tess is ultimately the harshest on her own self. Because of the religious and societal laws that are so deeply ingrained in her, she is unable to move on from her rape as her mother suggests. She takes a great deal of responsibility for all that goes wrong in the novel. Much like an animal, she is often naive and unable to see the bigger picture and context of the events in her life.

Tess is soon entrapped by Alec again, “like a bird caught in a clap-net” (282). However, for the first time, we see Tess trying to regain her freedom as a wild animal. She initially attempts to escape Alec, hitting him across the face, then saying: “‘Now punish me!’…turning up her eyes to him with the hopeless defiance of the sparrow’s gaze before its captor twists its neck,” (321). Although she becomes ensnared by Alec again, she begins to show resistance and attempts to break free. Tess eventually yields to his will and becomes his mistress, but upon Angel’s return, she is determined to escape.

Indeed, Tess does ultimately break free. The only way for Tess to do so and to truly be with Angel under society’s laws is for Alec to die. The scene of Alec’s murder is strongly reminiscent of an animal trying to escape its cage. Tess cries, and the housekeeper is initially only able to “distinguish…one syllable, continually repeated in a low note of moaning…” (368) rather than actual words. Tess causes herself to bleed from “the clench of her teeth” and proclaims to Alec, “O, you have torn my life all to pieces…made me a victim, a caged bird!...O God – I can’t bear this! I cannot!” (368-369). The housekeeper hears “a sudden rustle,” a description that brings to mind a bird moving its wings, or perhaps leaving its nest (369). Tess soon leaves the house “fully dressed…over her hat and black feathers a veil was drawn,” (369).

Tess is fully breaking free from her entrapment by Alec, and in doing so she attempts to break from society. She cannot so this fully; her choice to kill Alec is deemed immoral by society and she is ultimately hanged for it. Indeed, Tess is still playing by society’s rules in some ways: she feels no guilt being with Angel because her first ‘husband’ is now dead. Her marriage to Angel is now acceptable by human law and thus to herself as well, she no longer feels guilt surrounding Angel. Furthermore, Tess does not see herself as “a murderess” this time as she did when she accidentally played a part in the death of her family’s horse (38). Although she is still in many ways constricted by societal rules, she has begun to reject many of them.

The pheasants who escaped the entrapment of the hunters were ultimately fated to die. Tess, as she breaks free from Alec’s trap, has only one fate as well. A wild animal that is unable to be tamed is ultimately useless to human society. Yet Tess has claimed this fate for herself: just as she chose to kill the suffering pheasants to put them out of their misery, Tess puts herself out of her own misery, a choice that kills her. As Tess spends her final hours with Angel, the narrator describes how Tess’s breathing “now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman,” (382). Even after Tess has broken free, she is still not human, but perhaps not bird or animal either. The word creature, used liberally throughout the text, is applied to both humans and animals; it connects them. Although Tess has attempted to reject and even run away from society with Angel, she can never truly escape it; her only escape is death.

Societal and religious rules are ultimately what send Tess down her path of suffering and finally kill her. Animals throughout the novel are similarly subjugated by humans and made powerless. Tess’s identification with these animals serves to further increase her powerlessness and tragedy. Hardy ultimately argues that it is not nature that is cruel to Tess or the animals, but rather societal laws. Men are seen as attempting to control and shape nature to their own desires; Alec’s treatment of Tess as animal reflects this. Ultimately, Tess fulfills her “wild animal” nature and kills Alec, but as a free and wild animal who has broken from her cage, she must die.

Works Cited

  • Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Sweet Water Press, 1892.
  • Turner, Paul, The Life of Thomas Hardy (1998), Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.