Choose a novel or short story which has a particularly effective or arresting opening. <br />Referring in detail to the op...
Tess of the d'urbervilles   opening section - sample essay
Tess of the d'urbervilles   opening section - sample essay
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Tess of the d'urbervilles opening section - sample essay

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Tess of the d'urbervilles opening section - sample essay

  1. 1. Choose a novel or short story which has a particularly effective or arresting opening. <br />Referring in detail to the opening, discuss to what extent it provides a successful introduction to the text as a whole.<br />Savaged by critics upon release in 1891 for its attack on Victorian social codes, Tess of the d’Urbervilles establishes in its opening section many of the areas Hardy’s novel later goes on to dissect.<br />The novel opens on a May evening as Jack Durbeyfield (Tess’s father) totters home drunk. We are told that his legs “were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which inclined him somewhat to the left of a straight line”. This line serves the two purposes: first, it characterises Jack as a drunk, unable to keep a straight line in his stride; second, it foreshadows the way his own drunkenness and irresponsibility leads to Tess having to take the hives to market, and begin her slow process toward death. Jack’s fecklessness is also made explicit when we are told that an “empty egg-basket was slung upon his arm” – his working day has achieved nothing, and he is going home drunk. From this early point we are given clear indicators that Jack’s irresponsibility will have a detrimental effect on his family.<br />In Hardy’s description of Durbeyfield we are also presented with a window into the setting of the novel. He speaks with colloquial language which places him clearly in the south-west of England, and this rural language is continued later through most of the farm labourers. He exclaims to the parson that, “I be plain Jack Durbeyfield”. The irregular use of the verb sets Jack firmly within his setting, geographically and economically. It is interesting to note that Tess herself slips between this manner of speaking and a more refined style, showing that she does not really belong to either group. Indeed, when Angel rejects Tess, it is on grounds that she does not understand, “Different societies, different manners.” (This is a far cry from his platitudes of classlessness at Talbothay’s.) It could be argued that the way in which Tess speaks symbolises her separateness from the society she lives in, and this idea is again made explicit later when she protests to Angel, “I am a peasant by position, not by nature.” Jack’s expression contrasts starkly with the precise, clipped manner of the parson he is talking to, and the theme of class conflict is set.<br />Jack Durbeyfield’s hat reveals much of his position in Wessex society. We are told that, “the nap of his hat was ruffled, a patch being quite worn away at its brim where his thumb came in taking it off.” Clearly, Jack has spent so much time doffing his hat to his social superiors that this patch has been worn away. Through this detail we can see that Jack must be from the lower class, which is required to tip their hat regularly. It is perhaps belonging to the working class (combined with looking so aristocratic) which makes Tess’s life so difficult. She sticks out from the others and, consequently, is more easily noticed, such as she was by both Alec and Angel. When she is first introduced, she is noted as “not handsomer than the others”, but she sticks out due to “her mobile peony mouth” and her “large innocent eyes”. Ominously, at this introduction, when she is dressed in white, emphasising her purity, she is shown to be wearing a “red ribbon in her hair”. The symbolic foreshadowing here scarcely needs elaborated upon. Here she is separated from the others by her beauty, but the manner in which she speaks separates her by class.<br />Tess’s lower class origins, of course, are what motivate her mother to send her to “claim kin” with the d’Urbervilles. Joan Durbeyfield sees the d’Urberville connection as an opportunity to take the family out of their poverty, so she manipulates Tess into visiting Trantridge. (When considering the powers operating against Tess, it is worth noting that her mother hatched the scheme to visit Alec, explaining that Tess was unwilling but “she’s tractable at bottom”. Tess’s impoverished origins are also part of Angel’s absurd over-romanticising of her. He does not see her as a milkmaid but as a “genuine daughter of Nature” and a “daughter of the soil”. This positive prejudice is later supplanted when he calls her a peasant, showing his ultimate inconsistency and fickleness.<br />The setting of the opening scene in May also serves to introduce a number of ideas. The lazy atmosphere of the scene, and the casual exchange between the two characters, is an early demonstration of pathetic fallacy; this is later evident in Tess herself, where she becomes a synonym for nature and it seems to mirror her emotional condition. Certainly, when she is at Talbothay’s, the weather seems to echo her own growing happiness (and the natural world shows her growing sexual awareness), while at Flintcombe Ash, the weather savagely punishes her, much as she is being punished by Angel.<br />May is also significant when we consider that the next scene introduces us to Tess at a pagan fertility dance. It is a season of warmth and optimism; it is also a season of beginnings. The mirror of the seasons continues throughout and the novel goes on to finish in a July, suggesting a continual, inalterable cycle of time; a force against which human struggles are in vain.<br />The natural world is only one force against which the human characters struggle, and Tess attributes much of her predicament to fate (living on “a blighted star” as she say). The notion of fate is hinted at by the parson in the opening section. He tells Jack that he had been of a mind not to tell him of his heritage, but “our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes.” This is a straightforward admission that the parson had been briefly governed by a power beyond his control. He attributes it to an “impulse”, but considering the many ways in which fate stacks up against Tess, it is easy to argue that this was the first point at which the “President of the Immortals” had begun his sport with her. If the parson had not felt the information important for Jack Durbeyfield, then why say it at all?<br />This idea is continued when we consider the damage unknowingly done by the parson by letting slip that “there have been generations of Sir Johns among you, and if knighthood were hereditary… you would be Sir John now.” Throughout the novel, Tess’s situation is determined by unthinking actions of the wealthy. Alec does not consider her circumstances after she leaves Trantridge; Angel does not consider her terrible grief at his loss. It seems possible that Hardy was commenting that the wealthy may act with impunity while the poor will suffer for their actions.<br />In a short opening section, Hardy introduces ideas of class, fate, pathetic fallacy and characterisation, all of which are later developed. It is interesting to reread this section having completed the novel as these ideas become all the more clear. By presenting the exposition in this manner, a reader is presented with all the elements of the novel that start a powerful chain reaction in motion, and build throughout to the novel’s powerful end.<br />1,222<br />

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