Sometimes the smallest actions can lead to the most significant outcomes. For example, one who does a good deed may inspire another person to pay it forward until there is a chain of positive reaction. The smallest deed can serve as a catalyst and create a domino effect, impacting the lives of one or thousands. However, this idea works both ways in that an inconsequential incident can also lead to complete destruction and the collapse of an entire system. This idea is explored in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a tragedy in which a young woman is led to her unfortunate destiny by elements out of her control. Within the novel Hardy explores the aspects of society that exert influence on Tess’s life and shape her circumstances so that she eventually succumbs to her tragic fall. Several minor characters within the story become pivotal through their influence on Tess’ life, and constricted by their Victorian ideals most are quick to make false and unfair judgments. From Parson Tringham to Angel’s judgmental brothers, Hardy informs the reader of the sweeping power of seemingly insignificant actions as forces that lead Tess to her inescapable tragic fate.
Parson Tringham, an extremely minor character, seems to have one of the greatest influences on Tess’s fortune as he casually meets her father one evening by chance. As John Durbeyfield passes him, the parson greets him: “Good night, Sir John” (1). When John inquires why Parson Tringham referred to him as “sir”, an ill-fitting title for a peasant, the parson informs him of his honorable lineage. John Durbeyfield’s discovery that he is the last of the noble d’Urbervilles sets off a chain reaction for the rest of the book, as their ancestry becomes more of a curse than a blessing and repeatedly haunts Tess and shapes her fate. Parson Tringham also let the information slip on a whim, as he tells John, “At first I resolved not to disturb you with such a useless piece of information… However, our impulses are too strong for our judgment sometimes” (3). If the parson had followed his instinct not to tell Durbeyfield of his lineage, Tess’s fate would have been entirely different. Parson Tringham proves that the most insignificant encounters can have a profound impact on the course of someone’s life, as Mr. Durbeyfield becomes arrogant and makes several disastrous choices based on the knowledge of his heritage.
Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield contribute to Tess’s downfall as they make irresponsible choices and urge Tess to make decisions that have disastrous consequences. When John Durbeyfield learns he is a d’Urberville, he uses it as an excuse to get embarrassingly drunk and shirk his responsibilities. Because he is unable to sell their hives the next day, exhausted Tess takes over and unintentionally kills Prince, who the family depends on as a means to make money. Although her father’s irresponsible behavior is partly to blame for the horse’s death, Tess takes the fault and feels terribly remorseful. Joan Durbeyfield then pressures her daughter to claim kin with the d’Urbervilles of Trantridge, and putting her ego aside Tess reluctantly agrees because of her remaining guilt over Prince’s death. When Tess later has the opportunity to move to the d’Urberville home, Joan persuades John to let Tess go by appealing to his sense of pride, saying, “He’s struck wi’ her— you can see that. He called her coz! He’ll marry her, most likely, and make a lady of her; and then she’ll be what her forefathers was” (42). John Durbeyfield is moved by Joan’s mention of his fine lineage and is swayed to agree that Tess should leave. While John could have prevented Tess’s departure, his pride combined with Joan’s foolish meddling brings Tess to agree to stay with the d’Urbervilles. Later Tess’s mother has misgivings about Tess staying with the d’Urbervilles, expressing, “’Tis a chance for the maid— Still, if ‘twere the doing again, I wouldn’t let her go till I had found out whether the gentleman is really a good-hearted young man and choice over her as his kinswoman” (48). Joan, recklessly impulsive, pushed Tess to go to the d’Urbervilles without any idea of Alec’s character, a decision that leads to Tess being raped by Alec.
Pressured by her mother to stay at the d’Urberville home, Tess is careful to stay away from Alec until a random accident leads the village woman Car Darch to torment Tess until she flees to Alec as an escape. Tess, avoiding Alec for her mistrust of him, walks back to Trantridge with a group that includes Car Darch, who was “till lately a favorite of d’Urberville’s” (64). Intoxicated Car walks along unsteadily with a basket of groceries on her head when one of the group points out that treacle from her basket had begun to leak down her back. Everyone laughs as Car Darch rolls on the ground to clean her back, but the moment Tess joins in Car Darch leaps up as “a long-smoldering sense of rivalry inflamed her to madness” (65). In a jealous rage over Tess’s perceived relationship with Alec, Car flings insults at Tess while the rest of the group joins in until Tess’s “one object was to get away from the whole crew as soon as possible” (66). Car and the other villagers hurt Tess’s fragile ego and make her feel as if she has no other option but to go with Alec when he offers to take her away, although “at almost any other moment of her life she would have refused such proffered aid and company” (66). A simple accident and Car Darch’s belligerent nature changes Tess’s fate entirely as she is subsequently raped by Alec, illustrating the influence of a few jeers.
Once Tess has moved on from her rape, she decides to start anew at Talbothay’s dairy, where she falls in love with the gentleman Angel Clare and is influenced by her fellow dairymaids Izz, Retty, and Marian to both pursue and evade Angel’s attention. As Tess grows to admire Angel, the maids express their own love for him as well. Their enthusiastic proclamations only encourage Tess’s desire for Angel: “There was no concealing from herself the fact that she loved Angel Clare, perhaps all the more passionately from knowing that the others had also lost their hearts to him” (146). Because the dairymaids are so vocal about their admiration for Angel, Tess is ever more reluctant to refuse his affections. Tess enjoys the attention of being Angel’s favorite, but as Angel’s love becomes more passionate Tess begins to feel guilty and apprehensive for her perceived inferiority to Marian, Izz, and Retty. Constrained by Victorian ideals, Tess feels unworthy in comparison to the virginal maidens who remain supportive despite their own unrequited love. When Marian tells Tess that her and the maids support Tess’s impending marriage, Tess cries to herself and “resolved with a bursting heart to tell her history to Angel Clare” (201). Although the dairymaids did not mean to make Tess ashamed and only wished for her happiness, it leads Tess to make the tragic mistake to tell Angel of her sordid past. When he learns that Tess is not pure, he rejects her and travels to Brazil, leaving Tess depressed, unemployed, and increasingly desperate.
In a final moment of desperation, Tess travels to Angel’s home to receive support from his parents, but upon overhearing a few unkind words from Angel’s brothers, Tess flees and gives up hope that Angel’s family will help her. As she is walking she sees Mercy Chant and is reminded that the woman had been intended for Angel before he married Tess. Tess then hears one of Angel’s brothers say, “Ah! Poor Angel, poor Angel! I never see that nice girl without more and more regretting his precipitancy in throwing himself upon a dairymaid, or whatever she may be” (303). His comparing Tess and Mercy makes Tess feel again ashamed and unworthy as Mercy is a pious and pure woman deserving of Angel. Tess is also taken aback by the scorn and believes that Angel’s entire family is set against her and Angel’s marriage and wants nothing to do with her: “Innocently as the slight had been inflicted, it was somewhat unfortunate that she had encountered the sons and not the father, who, despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they and had the full gift of charity” (304). If Tess hadn’t heard the brothers’ criticism, she would have completed her visit to Angel’s parents. However, because these are the only words she hears of the Clares’ opinion of her, she assumes that Angel’s father will be just as scornful of her. She tearfully flees “without knowing that the greatest misfortune of her life was this feminine loss of courage at the last and critical moment through her estimating her father-in-law by his sons” (304). Tess misses her last chance to be with Angel because of an unfortunate chance encounter, a final example of the influence others have on Tess’s fortune.
Throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy employs several minor characters to illustrate the devastating effect that uncontrollable forces have on Tess’s fate. While Tess is not entirely powerless in her destiny, her fate is shaped by the people and society around her. It is ultimately Tess’s choices that lead to her tragic fall, and yet many of the forces that sent her in different directions influenced these decisions. From Hardy’s example of Tess it can be concluded that the society and people that we surround ourselves with have a powerful hand in molding our futures. No matter how much control we believe we have over our lives, there are always extrinsic forces at work that we must adapt or succumb to.