Chance and coincidence play a vital role in all the novels of Hardy. While character is certainly responsible to a large extent for the undoing of human lives in Hardy’s fiction, chance and coincidence often operate as the deciding factors. Hardy felt that an evil power ruled the universe, defeating every endeavour of man to better his fortune or to find happiness. He could not believe in a benevolent Providence; events were too plainly ironical, so they must have been contrived by a supernatural power. He believed that fate or destiny was sometimes indifferent, but most often hostile, to human happiness. One manifestation of the hostility of fate is to be found in the irony of circumstances that we meet with in Hardy’s novels. In other words, when human beings are not themselves responsible for the frustration of their hopes, or when their own temperaments and mutual conflict do not wreck their happiness, fate intervenes in the shape of chance or accident or coincidence to contribute to, or to complete, their ruin.
Early in the story, Prince, the horse of the Durbeyfield Family is killed in an accident. Tess’ father being in no condition to undertake an important journey, Tess offers to take his place. As she is driving the wagon carrying a load of beehives to be delivered in a distant market, the mail van coming from the opposite side collides against Tess’ wagon and Prince is fatally wounded. This accident has a profound influence on the life of Tess. The family business having become suddenly disorganized by the death of the horse, it becomes necessary for Tess to contract the D’Urbervilles living at “The Slopes” for help, and the meeting between her and Alec which follows leads to consequences which are disastrous. Alec’s seduction of Tess is a direct, though not immediate, result of the death of Prince. A sheer accident is responsible for this seduction which eventually proves the undoing of her marriage with Angel Clare.
Another notable mischance that deeply affects Tess’ life is her written confession, pushed by her under Angel’s door, going under the carpet and not reaching Angle at all. Being an honest and conscientious girl, Tess tries her utmost to acquaint Angel with her past history, but all her efforts prove futile for one reason or another. Finally, when a chance meeting with a Trantridge man at a town inn leads to an unpleasant situation, Tess decides to take no risk and writes down an account of her experience with Alec in order to tell Angel of the secret of her life. If Angel had received this statement of the facts in time, he would have either forgiven her or would have been averted. Since he learns the secret after the marriage, Angel adopts a stiffer and more rigid attitude that he might have done if he had learnt it before the marriage. After separating from Tess, Angle goes to Wellbridge to wind up certain affairs, he kneels by the bedside and says:
Oh, Tess! If you had only told me sooner, I would have forgiven you.
A minor mischance thus has grave consequences.
Chance and coincidence play yet another impish trick in the novel. Tess, in her misery, decides to visit Angle’s parents at Emminster. After walking a distance of fifteen miles when she arrives at the Vicarage, it so happens that Mr. and Mrs. Clare are not at home. She turns away, deciding to come back after a while, but it so happens that she overhears the tow brothers of Angel talking about Angle’s wife in a most disparaging manner. She feels much hurt by this conversation, but another chance now occurs. The tow brothers meet Miss Mercy Chant and all three of them comment adversely on a pair of boots which they discover behind a bush. The boots belong to Tess, and the comment hurts her still more. Tess had hidden her thick hoots behind the bush and put on thin ones of patent leather in order to look pretty to her parents-in-law. But Angel’s brothers and Mercy Chant take these boots to be a beggar’s. Tess’ feelings are now so wounded that she changes her mind and decides to return to Flintcomb Ash without meeting Angel’s parents. If she had been able to meet Angel’s parents, he subsequent life would have changed of the better because, as Hardy tells us:
Her present condition was precisely one which would have enlisted the sympathies of old Mr. and Mrs. Clare.
Another mischance that brings disaster into Tess’ life is her unexpected meeting with Alec. For three or four years the two have never happened to meet on any occasion, and now, when Tess’ salvation lay only in continuing to keep out of his way, she runs into him. The meeting awakens Alec’s dormant lust once again; he renounces his missionary’s role and pursues Tess with a doggedness that surprises her. If this chance meeting had not occurred all would yet have been well with Tess. Clare was coming to claim her and she would at least have been re-united with him to spend the rest of her life blissfully in his arms. But a chance meeting with Alec becomes fate’s device for wrecking her chances of happiness.
Another circumstance now occurs to aggravate the. Tess’ mother falls seriously ill and her father becomes unwell too. Tess gives up her job and rushes home. As chance would have it, her father dies while her mother recovers – contrary to expectations. The death of her father means the eviction of the family from their cottage of Marlott and their becoming homeless. The house-owner at Kingsbere, by another mischance, hands over the possession of his house to another tenant, after having promised it to Tess’ mother. This misfortune is an ideal opportunity for Alec to put further pressure upon Tess who sees no way out of the predicament but to yield. Thus a number of chance happenings seem to conspire against any possibility of Tess’ achieving happiness in life. Her surrender to Alec, which completes her ruin, thus comes about as a result of coincidences.
The excessive use of chance and coincidence by Hardy makes his stories somewhat implausible. It is true that chance and coincidence do play a certain role in every man’s life, but this role is a limited one. There are in real life happy accidents as well as sad ones. What exposes Hardy’s stories to adverse criticism is firstly that chance plays too frequent a part in human life and secondly that this part is always hostile to the characters.
In short, Hardy spoils his case by overstatement and exaggeration. He seems to manipulate fate against his characters by showing chance and coincidence at work again and again. However, in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, the logic of cause and effect plays a greater role in the tragedy than chance and coincidence. The realism of this story is therefore not weakened by the use of this device to a large extent.