Tess of the D"Urbervilles is generally regarded as Hardy's tragic masterpiece, and certainly it is his most ambitious tragic novel. This novel, subtitled "A Pure Woman" was first published in 1891 to a mixed reception. For Hardy himself, the haunting and tragic figure of Tess was the character who meant the most to him. This novel is basically the story of a country girl, Tess whose fate is tragic and in the end she becomes a "tragic heroine". The book reveals Tess's life, how the first-presented innocent girl turns into a tragic heroine.
Love plays an important role in Tess's life because love does not mean happiness to her but it causes her tragedy. Her life is a series of misfortunes which slowly destroys her personality. The first misfortune is of Tess's family when their horse dies in a fatal accident. The death of the horse can be interpreted as the symbol of "change", her life changes into a series of tragedy. Tess blames herself for loosing the family's means of livelihood. Tess's sense of responsibility for her family is one of the book's most important elements.
At almost every stage of her life, her actions are influenced by this fact. This affection for her family leads to get in contact with the concupiscent, dishonest and cruel young man, Alec. He is attracted by her eyes. Her innocence and naivety allows her to be seduced by this dishonest man. Her honour is slightly blown upon because she is expecting a baby. In the course of the novel as well until this point we can always find hints of foreshadowing of what is to come: the misfortunes and the tragedy. For instance Tess mentions the possibility of the pregnancy and the fact that Tess regards herself as a "murderess"- which she actually to become.
She herself baptised the child "Sorrow" just before he dies. I think she gave this name to her child because she was not really happy about him. The child represented her sorrow. After the death of her child she does not become pessimistic but she wants to start her new life with optimism as if the death of the child meant the end of her sorrow. Her experiences have turned her from girl to woman. She wants to forget about the past and wants to go somewhere where nobody knows her life and secret. In the hope of starting her new life she sets out and she gets to Talbothays where she meets her second love Angel Clare. Her fluty voice attracts him first and he falls in love with Tess.
This love seems to be different from the first one because Angel truly loves her. Angel proposes her to marry him and when Tess agrees, her life seems to get into the right way again. Tess makes a big mistake when conceals the truth from Angel and with this she loses the opportunity to be happy. Beside the misfortunes she is also responsible for what happens to her. She wants to tell Angel the truth but maybe she is afraid of the offence which can come out of it. She decides to write a letter to him in which she tells him about her shameful past. The circumstances are against her because the letter which she wrote slips under the carpet and Angel misses to know the truth.
At their wedding night Tess manages to tell him everything about her past but it is too late and Angel turns away from her and he feels that he is no longer able to acknowledge her as his wife. Till now we know Tess as an infirm person who is not brave enough to stand for her right. She is not able to refuse Alec, to confess her secret, to tell her family about her relationship with Angel. Her naivety and her lies also help her fate to become tragic. Tess is not so strong to stand on her own and after Angel abandons her, she returns home. Instead of helping, her parents blame her and Tess decides to leave home. As I mentioned above here we can also notice her parents influence on her. Tess's real sufferings begin when Angel abandons her for the second time. She has no money and now, her pride is what stops her to be happy.
As the anniversary of her wedding approaches Tess finally decides to go to Angel's parents to ask them for information. When she hears Angel's brothers discussing Angel's unfortunate marriage in despair she goes away. On the way home she meets Alec who is a preacher now. He wants to seduce her once again and at this point her marriage helps her to refuse Alec. She puts her pride away and writes a letter to Angel for help. Another misfortune comes to Tess. Her mother is very ill and Alec takes advantage of this opportunity. He helps them and Tess agrees to live with him. She, as always chooses unhappiness for the best of her family.
Her real love, Angel returns determined to find her but Tess already lives as Alec's wife. She proudly tells Angel that he is too late and Alec regained her with his kindness to her family. Tess realises that she can not live like this and after a quarrel with Alec, she kills him. Angel does not abandon but protect her. They run away to Stonehenge where Tess lives the happiest moments of her life. Stonehenge is a symbolic place because its religious nature. She is arrested here by the police and sentenced to death. Tess has a tragic end because she accepts her fate.
Hardy gives a detailed description of Tess's character and somehow her character is in parallel with her fate. We can find many things in her character which helps her to be a tragic heroine. She is a beautiful girl and there is a continual stress on her beauty throughout the novel. The two man were attracted by her beauty. Alec was attracted by her eyes while Angel was attracted by her fluty voice. Slowly her beauty became a cumber to her and when she voluntary disfigures it, the reader becomes affected by it.
There are contradictory qualities in her character of pride and independence of spirit with a passivity and submissiveness towards other people and her fate: Her determination in leaving Alec, her unwillingness to tell her parents about her marriage, or to approach Angel's parents. She is a credible character, her flaws are not obscured. Tess's tragedy results mainly because she endures the conventional values on her by other people, but the intensity of her suffering is because she acknowledged those values.
She is always afraid of what others will say or think, she suffers under the prejudices of the society. Tess's suffering is repeatedly associated with animal suffering as well at the end of the novel when Tess is arrested and her breathing is "like that of a lesser creature than a woman". I think Tess is a tragic heroine because she accepts the imposition on conventional values on her by other people and that she accepts her fate.