Comparison: The openings of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Middlemarch

This morning, I decided to compare the opening of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Wordsworth Classics) with that of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Wordsworth Classics). Admittedly, I have not read these novels in their entirety yet, although I am planning on reading them both very soon. Hence this comparison is partly a generalisation, yet the sole purpose is just to focus on the beginnings of these novels.

Characterisation is distinctly different between the two novels: Hardy shows the reader details of character and background through dialogue and actions, whilst Eliot tells the reader such details through an omniscient, third person narrative. Another contrast between the texts can be seen through their tone. Tess of the d’Urbervilles has a comedic tone, illustrating the gap between the present and the past. The phrase ‘”It was only my whim.”‘gives the impression of Sir John as a lacking a sense of purpose, offering a contrast between how he is demonstrated to act and his title – ‘Sir’. In contrast, Middlemarch airs a solemn tone due to the impersonal, studied, and omniscient narrative voice.

A sense of ironic distance, between what the characters aspire to and what they really are, can be seen in both texts. This sense of irony can be inferred from the aforementioned difference between Sir John’s title and his actions (such as the ‘bias in his gait’). In Middlemarch Dorothy’s rural, seemingly tranquil location and apparent class makes her ideas regarding philosophers and martyrdom also appear ironic. The structure of such novels also raises interesting contextual ideas, since female literacy rates were on the rise in the 19th Century. Women were often deprived of an appropriate outlet for their intelligence, leading to the desire, or even a need, for the English novel.

Further reading:
The Rise Of The Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding
Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown

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