Tess of the Dubervilles

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Thomas Hardy.

The context. The novel itself.

The wealth of a nation. Social unrest. Spiritual crisis.

Late 19th century. The one major fact to be remembered is that in those days Britain was the richest nation in the world. It was only very recent that this was so. It's been agreed that the birth certificate of this new era is a sad date for the french people, Waterloo in 18 June 1815. Napoleon was defeated and this marked the end of a 20 year long war between the English and the French. This meant also that the naval forces started to be recycled into a commercial and also a scientific fleet. Which strongly contributed to the wealth of the nation. And the wealth of the nation, all the money, the riches that were produced by the expansion of what soon became the largest empire of the whole world (the age of empire), were in turn reinvested into what in those days was called an economy of progress; the major symbol of which soon became the railway. Very important in Hardy's novels. What the railway changed is the Victorian perception of space, which was much shortened in a way, it also strongly affected the perception that Victorians had of time (easier to go to one place from another). As far as the plot of Tess is concerned, what we should remember is that these two factors, the commercial fleet and all the money that was invested into this economy of progress, it resulted in the emergence and also the rapid growth of a new class, a new social class, the small property owners, the shopkeepers, the merchants, and all kinds of other newcomers (the soon demanded equal rights). They demanded political rights which were granted to them but only very reluctantly by the ruling class. Still, there is an important landmark, the passing of a new act in 1832, the 1832 Reform bill, the bill stipulated that a certain category of male property owners were now granted the right to vote (suffrage), the result of that is that England was not only an extremely wealthy country, it was also perceived as well as an extremely democratic nation, and London was the center of democracy as well as the center of a very powerful empire. A fine symbol might be found in the great exhibition organized in 1851, which attracted more than 6 million people, which gave the impression to the british themselves that they were indeed a nation blessed by god, that they were indeed a race of elect. That is to say a race chosen by god for salvation, singled out by god that commerce and progress were indeed the road to perfection. And it is this consensus, this ideology that was going to be challenged by Hardy. The emblem of moral perfection, of respectability, and Tess is about respectability, it was the Queen herself, the head of the state. Queen Victoria. Social unrest. To have a look at the laws, the acts that were passed. It became necessary although the ruling classes were very reluctant to grant rights to new classes. 1870, 1871 la commune in France, the british feared it. Poor laws, the Ten hours bill. It became necessary to limit the working hours. 1864: the first contagious diseases acts. The great social evil which is prostitution. A incredible number of women were forced to prostitution became of the poorness. 1870: education act. 1875; it became necessary to organize a national education. 1884; the third reform bill which granted miners and farm laborers the right to vote. It had been prepared by a social movement, which had been chartism. The people's charter which had been written in 1836, the first attempt on the part of the workers to organize themselves. They were forced to pass new acts to control the population. The second point is the gradual emergence of what in those days was called the woman question. And of course Tess is part of the woman question. Emblematic. It should be considered as a proto-feminist novel. There had been a number of feminists before, the mother of this movement was Mary Wollstonecroft. Who in 1792, just...
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