Alec’s heritage is central to a key misunderstanding in the novel. D’Uurberville’s original family name was Stoke, and his father simply bought the name to give his family an aristocratic history. However, this was unknown to Tess or her father, so Tess effectively seeks a family connection with the wrong family. Her father, drunk, proclaims that his family has “skellingtons” in a tomb at Kingsbere. (this location later features as Tess wishes she were one of the dead d’Urbervilles – “Why am I on the wrong side of this gate?”) The heritage of Alec may not be his own, but it carries a dark significance. Hardy talks of how the original d’Urbervilles would have raped peasant girls in Wessex, and that the peasantry would have accepted this treatment (“As Tess’s own people down in those retreats were wont to say in their fatalistic way, “It was to be”.”).This strongly foreshadows Alec’s own treatment of Tess.
Pathetic fallacy/ Hardy
A key technique used by Hardy to create sympathy for Tess is pathetic fallacy. The murkiness of the Chase reflects the mysterious and dark event that takes place there. When Tess sexually matures, we are shown the rampant and fecund nature of Talbothay’s dairy farm. Finally, when Tess is at the zenith of her suffering, at Flintcombe Ash, her desolate emotions are reflected in the barren wastes where she must work simply to stay alive. In each of these instances, the environment around the protagonist helps to amplify her emotional state. When Tess is raped, hardy describes “a pale nebulousness” at Alec’s feet. The word “nebulous” means hard to see or make out, and this is appropriate. The forest’s darkness conceals Alec’s brutal actions, and the only clear evidence of what has occurred are Tess’s eye-lashes “where tears lingered”. The bleak pathetic fallacy of the Chase contrasts with the explicit and verdant description of the overgrown garden which is described as “polychrome” with “red” and “white” aspects – it is a riot of colour and vivid description, to reinforce the sense of Tess’s own sexual vibrancy.
The single most significant theme of the novel is fate, and Hardy’s meditation on self-determinism. Tess may seem to be able to choose her own path through life, but a combination of factors prevent this. Considered altogether, it seems that Tess is unable to determine her own life at all, and it seems plausible to a reader that, in her own words, she lives on a “blighted” star. The chain of events which present her (almost gift-wrapped) to Alec d’Urbervilles are a combination of social and economic factors. Her father, persuaded that he is actually from an aristocratic family, gets drunk, which means he is unable to take the family’s hives to market; Tess must go instead and, exhausted, she falls asleep and the family horse is killed; to make amends for this, she agrees to “claim kin” with the d’Urbervilles, and from this point the whole tragedy unfolds. Had Tess not taken responsibility for her father’s fecklessness, she may have determined her own fate, but by trying to do the right thing she puts herself in harm’s way. The theme plays throughout the text until the finale when “the president of the immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess”. Hardy present the idea clearly that Tess is nothing more than a play-thing for a higher power, and her sense of choice in her life is completely illusory.