Tess’s Consistency as a Sign of Growth

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s growth does not conform to the moral development characteristic of a bildungsroman. Hardy, through Tess, argues that bildungsroman is an inadequate understanding of personal growth. Tess’s growth is her ability to consistently retain her agency in the face of several different circumstances which temporarily rob her of it. For example, after Alec kisses her on the carriage, she chooses to get off: she “could not be induced to remount” and walks the rest of the way (86). She could not resist the first kiss, signaling her lost agency but recaptures it by getting off. After raping her, he offers to provide for her: “‘You need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best’” (107). Yet she retakes her agency by rejecting his offer and moving to the dairy.

Then her circumstances change. Instead of a villain taking her agency, it is a loved one. Angel Claire compels her to marry him, in spite of her multiple rejections: “‘I told you I thought I was not respectable enough long ago…I didn’t want to marry you, only—only you urged me’” (254). His refusal to accept her rejection removes her agency, giving her only one option: marry him. However, within that single option, she exerts her agency by making marriage as acceptable to herself as possible. She satisfies her conviction to be honest with him and tells him everything about her past. In the face of a circumstance which removes her ability to choose, she makes a choice anyway.

When Angel leaves her, she is left to either give up or wait for him and face several months of isolation. Instead of choosing what would be easier, she not only chooses to wait for him, she refuses to blame him for it. When speaking to Marian, she presents Angel in the best light possible, saying that “Wives are unhappy sometimes; from no fault of their husbands’” (292). In a situation in which she is being pushed to give up on him, she exercises her agency by waiting for him and defending him in front of others.

Yet one might note that Tess did eventually give up on him by moving in with Alec. However, she blames Alec for her decision, stating that he emotionally manipulated her; “‘you had used your cruel persuasion upon me…you did not stop using it’” (381). So when Angel returns from Brazil, she retakes her agency by killing Alec and running away with Angel. Even after her death, she retains her agency because she insisted that Angel marry her sister for “‘it would almost seem as if death had not divided us’” (393). Thus her agency remains active, through her sister, after she dies. While Tess stagnates morally, she consistently recaptures her agency in the face of various attempts to take it from her. This consistency is a form of growth which the bildungsroman does not account for, suggesting it is a limited understanding of personal growth.

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