|Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Theme: Morality Then and Now
Grades: Grades 11-12
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.
- 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
themfor 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.
- Tapping Prior Knowledge: Quickwrite.
Ask students to write about the term double standard, defining
it in their own words and then providing examples of incidentsfrom
their own lives or from their readingin 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.