Saturday, 22 February 2014

Is 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' a Gothic novel?

The Gothic novel (also often referred to as Gothic horror) typically consists of a number of themes: entrapment, passionate love, sublime scenery, menacing descriptive writing, and danger. The term is often used to refer to the novels of Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolfo), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and many more. The term Gothic refers to the medieval buildings that these novels take place in, but it is clear that the Gothic novel has come to represent and involve a lot more than castles and abbeys.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, written by Thomas Hardy, was first published in The Graphic newspaper in 1891. The novel relates the trials and tribulations of a young girl struggling to help her family, find a husband and escape her past. The first edition was highly censored because at the time sex was considered to be something that ought not be talked about. Despite this censorship, the novel still received mixed reviews due to it’s handling and challenging of Victorian sexual mores.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles takes place in the rural English countryside, and its pages are very often filled with bucolic descriptions of pastoral scenes – peculiar for a Gothic novel. Moreover, Hardy was a writer of the Victorian period, a period that is very distinct from the Romantic period of the Gothic novel. So can Tess really be described as Gothic?

Hardy is known as a Victorian realist, and Tess is a pastoral tragedy. However, the novel’s themes are very often synonymous with those of a Gothic novel. The first and most obvious theme that is consistent with the Gothic novel is the idea of entrapment. Tess Durbeyfield is, throughout the novel, trapped by her past. She cannot forget the dreadful memories she harbours, nor can she escape what she describes as “the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her—doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame.” In the same chapter, Tess’s ominous and omnipresent memories are compared to hungry wolves: “She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.” It’s true that she is able to ignore her past, but she can never truly escape it. The events have such an effect on her life that they cause Angel Clare to desert his newly wedded wife, and indeed her family are looked down on by other families in their village. Not only is Tess unable to distance herself from her memories, she is also unable to distance herself from the very man that has caused her all her distress: Alec d’Urberville. He is extremely persistent about making Tess his wife, and in the end she succumbs to his urgings. This persistence in itself is yet another disaster in her life: Angel Clare returns soon after to find his beloved Tess with another man. Unlike the heroine of a typical Gothic novel, Tess is not physically trapped. However, it is impossible to deny that she is imprisoned by the blemish that Alec has imposed upon her purity. Hardy describes Tess’s so called blemish as “a course pattern” on her “beautiful feminine tissue.” The events of her past have had such an impact on Tess that she is doomed to remember and be affected by them forever.

Another Gothic theme that is undoubtedly present in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the particularly menacing descriptive writing. For instance, Hardy’s description of The Chase on the night that Tess is raped by Alec: “Darkness and silence rules everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase…” The silence and darkness of the forest is typical of the Gothic novel; Hardy’s description is extremely sinister and almost supernatural, foretelling the events to come. The name of the forest, The Chase, could very well serve to emphasise Tess’s entrapment: she is chased by the events of her past. This ominous description is also seen in Hardy’s description of Flintcomb-Ash, described as “the remains of a village”. Moreover, Hardy uses pathetic fallacy to emphasise the gloomy nature of the farm and its contrast with the jovial Talbothays. The d’Urberville manor near Trantridge also has a hint of the Gothic: its vast size and empty rooms suggest an element of menace.

The heroine of a Gothic novel is very typically overwrought with distress, and the same could certainly be said about Tess.  Tess, speaking to Alec, describes her life as “bitter and black with sorrow”, and the reader sympathises with her (as they do with the heroines of typically Gothic novels) because she has not done anything to deserve her plight. For example, the reader empathises with the troubles of so and so in Stoker’s Dracula because she suffers for no obvious reason. This is, therefore, another theme that Tess of the d’Urbervilles shares with the Gothic tradition.

Passionate love, and the danger of that love, is also a very common Gothic theme (most notably seen in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) that also features in Hardy’s novel. For instance, Tess is so in love with Angel Clare that she will do anything she says and has absolute trust in him: “I agree to the conditions, Angel; because you know best what my punishment ought to be…” The dangers of that love are obvious: she becomes lost without him, and at one point in the novel, almost attempts to drown them both. Furthermore, at the end of the novel she is so impassioned that she murders Alec d’Urberville so that she can return to Angel.

Finally, the men in Hardy’s tale are very similar to those seen in Gothic novels: both Alec and Angel attempt to control Tess in different ways. Alec endeavours to control Tess physically, and this is demonstrated by his raping her, and also by his constant presence around her while she is at Frintcomb-Ash. Angel, on the other hand, attempts to control her in a very different way. He tries to educate her in such a way that she has no mind of her own, and simply repeats what he has told her. This idea becomes very prominent when Tess is talking to Alec about religion and is almost ignorant of what she herself is saying. Moreover, both men judge her and treat her harshly, turning her into something she is not. Alec views her as an evil temptress, something she has no intention of being, and Angel sees her as an impure, scheming adulterer. In this way, both men could be compared to Byronic heroes like Heathcliff or Edward Rochester.

Although Tess is certainly not a Gothic novel, it has a huge number of Gothic themes. Tess is trapped by her mind, and indeed the protagonists of the novel are very similar to those typical of a Gothic. Hardy’s writing is menacing and ominous, and this in itself suggests the novel’s Gothic nature.


  1. Really helpful for as level revision on Tess, wondering why you think hardy deploys elements of the gothic in the novel?

    1. At a young age, Hardy was visited by some young authors who later became famous and well-respected. Perhaps this may have influenced him. What makes even more sense is that when he was young, he was one with nature and became an architects apprentice, and consequently traveled a lot. Combined with his mother's encouragement of his imagination, Hardy developed into a writer with a certain mindset that caused him to include Gothic elements.