Parental Shortcomings

Tess’s opinion of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield, is not very positive. She repeatedly points out their faults and even compares the intelligence of her mother and father to that of “a happy child” (p. 37). It is true that the adult Durbeyfield characters are comical for the ignorance and simplicity they display, and Tess would not be the first child to be embarrassed by the actions of their parents. Nevertheless, it seems like a contradiction to normal social rules that, by insulting and calling herself superior to her parents, – however ridiculous they may be – Tess should gain the sympathy of the reader.

By making Tess the responsible figure who is constantly checking the actions of her parents – a reversal of the traditional roles of parents and child – Hardy establishes Tess as an independent figure who is capable of becoming a strong heroine for the novel. A similar, though less extreme, relationship also existed between Margaret and her parents in North and South. Margaret was the one who bore the brunt of the consequences to her father’s almost selfish decision to relocate the family. As in the case for Tess, this relationship allowed Margaret’s positive qualities to shine through and contributed to her development as a sympathetic character.   One can even extend this idea to Jane Eyre. Although an orphan, Jane’s experience with her aunt, Mrs. Reed (who was too heartless to assume the responsibility of raising Jane properly), establishes important qualities of Jane’s character.

The presence of this theme in these novels begs the question of whether it is possible for a protagonist to maintain their credibility as independent sympathetic characters while not making themselves seem wiser or more responsible than their parents. Although I think it is important that the protagonist is not a complete dependent of their parents, I wonder if this can be conveyed without focusing on the shortcomings of the character’s parents.

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