Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Poverty, class and identity

By John Attridge


The very title Tess of the D’Urbervilles explicitly foregrounds Thomas Hardy’s concern with both class and identity. Before we even open the novel and begin to read, Tess’s name and background are shown to be of prominent interest – the title asks us to consider both Tess, herself, and where she comes from (i.e., who or what she is descended from). The original title for the novel was ‘A Daughter of the D’Urbervilles,[1] but the final chosen title better reflects Hardy’s interest in the specific character of Tess as well as the specific conditions of her working-class, rural life and upbringing in late-Victorian England.

First published in 1891, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is set at a time of rapid social change. The Industrial Revolution and the developments in technology during the Victorian period were accompanied by multiple parliamentary reforms, which sought to grant more individuals the vote, improve working conditions across the country and increase access to education for children and young people – all of which were designed to prevent the kind of violent, national revolutions that were being witnessed elsewhere on the European Continent. Yet, it is also important to note that the shift toward urbanisation (of people moving from the countryside to towns and cities) was a slow and protracted process and that the agricultural industry remained at the centre of the British economy until at least 1901.[2]

This might explain Hardy’s focus and fascination with rural life in the novel, which is central to Tess and her upbringing. She is reared, for instance, within a ‘fertile and sheltered tract of country’ that is ‘for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape painter’ (12).[3] Such imagery reflects the ‘essence’ of the eponymous protagonist and foreshadows her emotional and spiritual journey; like Hardy’s ‘sheltered’ heroine at the start of the text, the land is recognisable for being pure and unspoiled, at least for the time being. In these early scenes, Hardy also describes Tess as ‘a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience’ (15) – a somewhat reductive metaphor which, nevertheless, aligns her with the untainted fields of England that have not yet been disturbed or destroyed by the machinery of industrialisation. 

As Tess ventures out to the D’Urberville estate to reclaim the family name, Hardy also touches upon the importance of class in shaping his characters’ outlook on life: ‘Pedigree, ancestral skeletons, monumental record, the D’Urberville lineaments, did not help Tess in her life’s battle as yet, even to the extent of attracting to her a dancing-partner over the head of the commonest peasantry’ (17). Standing unchosen among a field of other women like herself, Tess finds that the ‘ancestral’ family name of D’Urberville does little to improve her even modest prospect – despite its apparently ‘monumental’ weight in the local neighbourhood. When Tess also presses her mother on whether or not an acquaintance with the D’Urbervilles and an association with their ‘vaults’ and ‘crests’ will ‘do us any good’ (21), she is also alluding to their need for material improvement. In both of these early scenes, Hardy thus stresses how the Durbeyfields are in dire need of social and financial gain – and that even a character as ‘pure’ as Tess is acutely aware of how much good fortune this association with richer relatives might bring to herself and her family. 

Tess’s own acknowledgement of the ‘commonest peasantry’ around her nevertheless suggests that she sees herself as situated somewhere socially above the extremely poor and financially destitute. The twentieth-century critic Raymond Williams suggests that such a perspective shows how Tess (and many more of Hardy’s characters) is not quite a peasant but a member of the educated rural working class. As Williams explains, ‘where Hardy lived and worked [in the nineteenth century], as in most other parts of England, there were virtually no peasants [...] actual country people were landowners, tenant farmers, dealers, craftsmen and labourers’.[4] 

Yet, this doesn’t mean that Hardy did not want to suggest that class would have an impact on Tess’s life and her decision-making skills in later portions of the novel. Although he refutes the suggestion that Tess is a peasant, Williams clearly outlines how ‘a slow gradation of classes’ was nevertheless typical of ‘rural capitalism’ at this time,[5] and class does come to play an important role in how Tess views herself. For instance, after being assaulted by Alec, she rails at her mother over her lack of informative education: ‘Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? [...] Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!’ (82). Later, when she is falling for Angel Clare, Tess is also described as thinking about their love and their potential future in the context of a master-servant relationship: ‘her one desire, so long resisted, [was] to make herself his, to call him her lord, her own’ (211). In both of these moments, Tess’s outlook is informed by her class background: in the first, she becomes angry at her own lack of schooling or understanding of how the world works, and in the second, she envisions herself as Angel’s wife and lover through the language of property and servitude, seeing marriage as a sort of serfdom. 

Tess’s life is therefore shaped by an identity that is underpinned by Victorian class structures. Although the 1890s were a time of rapid social change, rural working-class life and the forces of capitalism that kept it going continued to have an effect on those who remained in the countryside. Whilst Hardy reflects near the end of the novel on how the Durbeyfields may have once belonged to a more ‘interesting and better-informed class’ who lived alongside agricultural labourers, he also stresses that such families ‘who had formed the backbone of the village life in the past’ must now ‘seek refuge’ elsewhere (352). Whilst he might be referring directly to urbanisation, we might also read this line as explaining why Tess ends up looking first for love (with Angel), and then security (with Alec) – two different kinds of ‘refuge’, but two of the only ones that were available to (even mildly educated) working-class women at this specific point in time, and in this specific part of England. 




  1.  The British Library, ‘Manuscript of the First and Last Chapter of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy’. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manuscript-of-the-first-and-last-chapter-of-tess-of-the-durbervilles-by-thomas-hardy
  2. Key Historical Events’ and Society, Politics and Class: Introduction’ in Victorian Literature: A Sourcebook ed. John Plunkett et al. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 41-42, 46-48.
  3. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (London: Penguin, 2003). All further quotations are cited from this edition with page numbers listed in-text.
  4. Raymond Williams, ‘Thomas Hardy’ in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (London: The Hogarth Press, 1987), p. 100.
  5.  Ibid, p. 101.




John Attridge is a PhD researcher in English Literature at the University of Surrey. His thesis is focused on the representation of the lower-classes in the works of E. M. Forster, and his wider research interests include Marxism, cultural studies and the Edwardian era.