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Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy

Theme: Morality Then and Now
Grades: Grades 11-12


Summary:
Sixteen-year-old Tess Durbeyfield is the oldest child of a poor family living in the village of Marlott, England. One day her father learns he has noble ancestry, and Tess's life changes dramatically. She journeys to Trantridge to seek financial support from Mrs. d'Urberville, supposedly a distant relation, and accepts work on the d'Urberville estate, tending poultry. One night Tess is seduced by Mrs. d'Urberville's son, Alec. Guilt-ridden, Tess leaves Trantridge and returns home, where she subsequently bears a child. The baby soon dies, and Tess leaves home again, this time finding work at Talbothays Dairy. There she meets the love of her life, Angel Clare. Regarding herself as a fallen woman, Tess at first rejects Angel's proposal of marriage, but finally she agrees to it. On their wedding night, Tess tells Angel about her former relationship with Alec. Unable to accept a less-than-ideal wife, Angel abandons Tess and travels to South America. For a while, Tess ekes out a miserable living as a farm laborer. Then, unexpectedly, her father dies, and to save her destitute family, Tess agrees to live with Alec as his mistress. When Angel returns, seeking forgiveness, Tess murders Alec and runs off with Angel. They are overtaken at Stonehenge. Later, Tess is executed for the crime of murder.


THEME OPENERS
  1. The Way It Is / The Way It Was.
    Have students share what they know about the condition of women in the 19th century and about some of the jobs that were available to them—for example, the jobs of milkmaid, factory worker, and farm laborer. Students might pool their knowledge and then do research to gather more information, ultimately creating a poster or chart to display their findings.
  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Quickwrite.
    Ask students to write about the term double standard, defining it in their own words and then providing examples of incidents—from their own lives or from their reading—in which a double standard was enforced. Invite volunteers to share their responses. Then suggest that as students read the novel, they compare their experiences with Tess's.
CROSSCURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
  1. Trials and Tribulations.
    Have students assume the roles of judge, jury members, prosecutor, defense attorney, defendant, and witnesses and hold a mock trial of Tess for the murder of Alec d'Urberville. Encourage students to investigate courtroom practices in order to make their trial seem as authentic as possible. Afterward you might hold a discussion about the degree to which legal and moral justice coincide.

  1. Higher Standards.
    Have two teams of students hold a debate in response to the following question: Who do you think shows higher moral standards, Angel or Tess? Remind students to offer details from the novel, examples from their own experience, and logical reasons to support their positions. After observing the debate, the other students might express their views as to which team presented the stronger arguments.
RESEARCH ASSIGNMENTS
  1. Connecting to Today: Moral Issues.
    Have students research a current social or moral issue that is related to issues in the novel. Research topics might include date rape, stalking laws, single-parent families, sexual harassment, the double standard, or communication between men and women. Ask students to share their findings in an oral report.
  1. Pessimist or Meliorist?
    Instruct students to research the life and works of Thomas Hardy from the following standpoint: Some readers have called Hardy a pessimist, or someone who believes that humans are doomed to lives of misery. Hardy, however, called himself a meliorist, or someone who believes that conditions can be improved and who therefore writes about social problems in order to expose them for correction. Ask students to consider which of the two labels they would apply to Hardy, based on their reading of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and on their research. Instruct them to explain their choice in a research paper and to cite details to support their opinion.