In considering whether or not Hardy’s novel is a tragedy, we must recognize that the most common trait of a tragedy is the steady decline of a main character over the course of an agonizing and unfortunate journey. This is most popularly represented in Shakespeare’s stage tragedies: the steady decay of the mad King Lear, or the horrible deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Hardy incorporates this sorrowful journey for his main character Tess, as well as her fateful demise at the novel’s end. But he captures this tragic story while still maintaining a sense of realism that had existed throughout the 19th century. He does so by creating a character that is totally misunderstood by society, and it is this element of misunderstanding from society that seems to have grown over the course of realism in the 19th century that reaches its full tragic potential in Tess.
To be frank, Tess’ entire story is the epitome of depressing. When your main character is brutally raped at the end of Phase One, it is a pretty clear indicator that they will be leading a tragic life. Hardy even prefaces this scene by asking “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” (104). This simple question is a notion that there is a devoid of “angelic protection” from Tess’s life. She has no positive force watching out for her, meaning that her life is going to be full of suffering all the way up to her inevitable death at the novel’s end. Even more tragic regarding her death, is that it is the price she must pay for the sake of her “angelic covering.” Her situation is impossible; in Hardy’s world, Tess is not allowed to be happy. Before she is taken away from Angel, she states, “I am almost glad… This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough” (395). Angel symbolizes Tess’s happiness, and the only way she can ultimately be with him is once she has essentially sacrificed away her own life.
With regards to Tess and society, Hardy uses the tragic elements to increase a misunderstanding amongst herself and those around her. There is nothing more agonizing than watching Tess have to put on an act to everyone because her husband has abandoned her. “Who would think I was Mrs. Angel Clare… I don’t wish people to think who I am by marriage, or that I am married at all; it would be so awkward while I lead my present life” (291-92). She must try to fake it in front of society, and even in front of her family. This is evident in the scene when Tess returns home after Angel has left her. “‘D’ye think he really have married her? – or is it like the first-‘ Poor Tess, who had heard as far as this, could not bear no more” (270). Here, Hardy uses the tragic element of Tess’s situation to show that even her family doubts her innocent nature. She is secluded from all of society and Hardy’s tragic truth about Tess is that her purity is misunderstood. She cannot be what love intends her to be (Mrs. Clare) because society says that her purity already belongs to d’Urberville.
Novelists we read earlier in the century seemed to have an evolving tragic element that grew over the course of their realism. For instance, Jane Austen’s novel early in the 19th century had Emma dealing with serious relational flaws in her society. However, the novel’s ending has a comedic tone in that she eventually makes peace with those she clashes with, and everyone ends up happily ever after. Moving deeper into the century, George Eliot took Maggie’s relational circumstances with Philip Waken and Stephen Guest and used society’s misunderstanding to isolate Maggie, and while she did die tragically at the end, there was a redeeming grace for her in that she died trying to save her brother. Hardy brings the hammer home by bringing this tragic realism to its total fruition. There is no saving grace for Tess. She is killed by society because she killed her rapist; there is no greater misunderstanding left unjustified.