Throughout Tess of the D’Uberville’s, Tess Durbeyfield is a victim. From the very beginning of the novel, when we meet Tess and her drunkard parents, Tess is presented at fate’s punching bag. However, despite her perpetual victimhood, Tess presents a significant amount of agency at different times in her life. At first, Tess is a capable farm girl. Even after Alec takes advantage of her, Tess still shows that she can take care of herself. It isn’t until Tess falls in love with Angel that she becomes an (almost) totally passive protagonist. In these scenes, we can track how Tess has changed in a way that illuminates themes femininity and power.
Soon after meeting Tess Durbyfield, the audience learns that the young lady serves often as her sibling’s primary caretaker. Tess’ parents go off to drink and dream, and Tess is the one who must stay at home and finish the work. After her drunk father sleeps in, Tess takes it on herself to take the bees to market. Even after she accidentally kills the family horse, Tess is responsible for earning the extra income to supplant the loss. Throughout the first phase of the novel, Tess shows that she is capable of acting decisively and independently. Even when faced with Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows agency. The narrator describes Tess’ “eye lit in defiant triumph” after she escapes Alec’s speeding trap wagon (84). In these scenes with Alec, the narrator shows us that Tess has confidence in her decisions and is ready to make decisions on her own terms.
Perhaps the best indicator of Tess’ early agency is the christening of Sorrow. Tess, in great anxiety and fear for her baby’s soul, chooses to christen the baby herself, rather than waiting for an ordained minister to perform the holy act. (123). In this, Tess shows herself to be capable and confident enough to perform one of the Church’s most holy sacraments.
This capable and decisive Tess all but disappears when she falls in love with Angel Claire. Suddenly, Tess begins to listen to and obey everything she is told. Tess totally accepts Angel’s theology, his likes and dislikes, and even his mannerisms (222). In Chapter 35, Tess is absolutely passive as she allows Angel to wrap her like the dead, carry her (in the snow) across a river, and place her in a coffin. Tess appears to have lost all agency. While she’s in love with Angel, Tess seems to have lost the capable farm girl attitude that so defined her in the early chapters.
Near the end of the novel, Tess takes charge once again. After seeing Angel in Sandbourne, Tess takes the carving knife from a breakfast tray, and kills her rapist-turned-husband (383). Let’s talk about power moves. In killing Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows that she is once again in control of her fate, and she has accepted herself as a capable and decisive woman. It’s interesting to note that in almost all scenes where Tess acts out her will, she does so in a taboo or criminal way. Christening a child without the help of the ordained, marrying a man without telling him that you had a baby who died, and most obviously, murdering a wealthy man in a hotel, are all acts that society views as abhorrent. In showing Tess’ agency, Hardy also shows the difficulties working class woman face when attempting to take control over their own lives.