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“There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman . . .” Helen Cixous (876)
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is, in its way, revolutionarily feminist. Unusual for its time in its address of premarital sexuality and unwed motherhood (Riquelme 12), Tess is even more remarkable in its attack on the double standard of sex roles which persists between men and women. Hardy defends a character whose life is squandered and destroyed by sexual misdeeds, not allowing Tess to become a “fallen woman” though everything in his culture would have made her so.
However, the potential depth of Tess’ character is never entirely explored. She is in some ways a very strong heroine, allowed to learn, experience, and grow, to act on her own for her own benefit, and to take responsibility for her actions. But through all of this she is forcibly maintained as “pure.” Despite a novel’s worth of wrongdoing she is unable to achieve moral complexity: she is never allowed to be wrong.
Sherry Ortner may have been the first to point out the double exclusion of women from culture, their being pushed both up and down (Houston 215). Closer to nature than men by virtue of reproduction, women are “seen as mired in species-being, tend[ing] to drag men down” as the men are trying to acquire culture by transcending nature. This association with nature puts women in the social position of both “grounding men from culture, and existing beyond it” (180). Women are thus represented as both superior to and unworthy of culture, often at the same time. Witness the phenomenon in conservative religion, wherein within one single address women are simultaneously “God’s supremest creation” when she is worthy (Hinckley qtd. in Scott 1) and “misguided” harbingers of cultural evil who must be reformed through the “righteous priesthood of God” (Scott 2) when she has gone astray. Either she is superior to man, or she is the object of man’s redeeming powers. There is very little middle ground: she is good or she is not, she is a wife or she is a mistress, she is an angel or she is a whore (Manzer 35). This polarity permeates literature. From Jezebel to Cinderella’s stepmother to Cathy Ames, the whores of literature are evildoers who manipulate men, use sex for their own pleasure and power, lie indiscriminately, and kill without conscience. The angels, from the Virgin Mary to Snow White to Little Eva are sweet, pretty, childlike, and self-sacrificing. Hardy’s Tess achieves a bizarre schizophrenia in being both.
Tess should, by all accounts, be Jezebel. Within the first hundred pages, she has compromised her virginity not only in the rape/seduction by Alec, but then by living with him for “some few weeks” (95) before running away, pregnant with a child who will die before his father ever knows of his existence. She then continues on to Talbothays, where she will seduce another man, marry him under false pretenses, and then destroy the marriage on their wedding night by revealing her true, non-virginal self. Having rid herself of Angel, her legal husband, she begins anew the temptation of her sham cousin Alec D’Urberville, who seems to want to resist her enticements but is unable to in the face of “those very eyes,” which he tells her “come to me just as you showed them then, in the night and in the day!” (322). Having reacquired the affections of the wealthy Alec, and thus “fairly well provided for” her family (364), she kills Alec just as soon as Angel returns for her, and runs away to continue her affair with him. Tess, throughout the novel, plays two men off each other for her own gain; the tragedy is that she lacks judgment in how far to take this game and is destroyed for her sins.
This is one representation of the events of the book. However, Tess isn’t Jezebel. All of her misdeeds can be qualified, and even justified. She only lives with Alec after her rape by him — which William A. Davis points out from a contemporary legal perspective certainly does qualify as rape, emphasizing that Tess is asleep and thus non-consenting when it takes place (223-4). Her deceit of Angel is not strictly deceit, because she never lies directly to him; on too many occasions to mention during their courtship she wants and tries to be candid, but is constantly rebuffed. It is not her fault, but Angel’s, that their marriage is a failure. When she wants to disclose all of “my experiences all about myself all!”, he is unbearably patronizing assuring her that “My Tess has, no doubt, almost as many experiences as that wild convolvulus out there on the garden hedge, that opened itself this morning for the first time” (187). She merely persists in allowing him to believe something about her which is not true, that she is a virgin, and ultimately she does take the one opportunity she is allowed to tell him the truth. Certainly she does not expect that he will react so badly; she has every reason to expect her husband’s sympathy. After all, he has just confessed to a sin in a similar vein, only more intentional, more egregious.
Her manipulation of Alec leading up to their second union does not even qualify as manipulation; it seems more like Alec’s excuse for abandoning his religious fervor in favor of again devoting himself to the pursuit of women. Alec himself absolves her of his lapse: she has done “Nothing intentionally,” but has been the “innocent means of my backsliding” (316). What he calls her “troubling” of him is in fact his seduction of her, a seduction which certainly would not have been successful had the dire straits of Tess’ family not forced her hand.
In light of this, Tess’ murder of Alec, too, seems justified, and the reader is left firmly on her side. Having forced her into a relationship which only exacerbates her desolation at losing Angel, Alec then has the effrontery to taunt her on that same subject just as Angel has “Gone a second time… now forever… because of you!” (369). Her murder of Alec seems the inevitable, only means of her salvation: at last the villain of the novel has been justly rewarded for his many wrongs, and the heroine is set free.
The problem is that in rescuing Tess from the one extreme, Hardy remains unable to escape the more general polarity and traps his character on the other end. He makes some fair points about the rights and roles of women in his culture, and does a remarkable thing in defending a character who should have been despised: Tess is indeed, by the account of the novel, a “pure woman.” But why should she be? In Hardy’s mind, still, there seems to exist only two kinds of women: the pure and the impure. By saving Tess from impurity, he makes her more pure than is fair. Every wrong she commits can be construed as at least justifiable, and at most morally defensible. If she won’t be Jezebel, she must become Snow White. She loses any depth of moral character, and any responsibility for her actions.
Possibly, only one such character can exist in a novel at any one time. A distinct side effect of Tess’ absolution of any of the blame for the catastrophes which beset her life and loved ones is that the blame has to fall on someone else. Other characters are thus made more complex. Angel, for instance, is at once both too good to be real as well as the very coldest character in the novel. He is intelligent, noble, kind and considerate, and he quite clearly loves Tess, defending her to the point of lying twice to his mother about her past in Chapter 39. However, he is at the same time hypocritical, “yet the slave to custom and conventionality” which he believes himself to be beyond. Prone to consider “what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was” (265); his misjudgment and rejection of Tess stands as the greatest wrong done to her in the course of the book. Moreover, these damages to Tess are clearly committed in the face of his love for her and in spite of his knowing better. As Hardy describes him: “Within the remote depths of his constitution, so gentle and affectionate, as he was in general, there lay hidden a hard logical deposit, like a vein of metal in a soft loam, which turned the edge of everything that attempted to traverse it” (243), including the anguish of the woman he is supposed to love. More moral than compassionate, Angel is given measures of both good and evil, and is allowed to redeem himself in the book’s ending as he accepts Tess this time although her second sin is just as great as was her first.
Alec, similarly, in the midst of all his evil is given a scene of religious fervor, and he commits at least two distinct acts of charity toward Tess’ family. His motivations for the little good he does are murky at best, and certainly they are not all noble. But, if anything, this is liberating. He is free to be as redeemed as the reader can imagine he might be, given the sheer volume of iniquity which he precipitates. Tess is irredeemable, because she has nothing from which to be redeemed.
Hardy denies Tess her own complications. So insistent is he on redeeming Tess from her sins that he denies her the evil of them, thus falsely making Tess his titular Pure Woman. By forcing her to be either all good or all bad, while attributing to her a life that is neither, he creates a character who cannot fit: a “pure” woman who paradoxically and persistently does bad things. While Tess D’Urberville is in many ways a more satisfactory heroine than nineteenth-century writers were usually wont to create, she lacks the moral complexity necessary for her to entirely escape the stereotypes and limitations which writers have imposed on women since time immemorial. Tess does wrong, and Hardy fights too hard to pretend she does not. She should not have been pure; she should have been merely mistaken.
Cixous, Helen. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (1975). 875-94.
Davis, William A. “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law, and the Case for Sexual Assault.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. 52.2. 221-31.
Hardy, Thomas. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Bedford Books: Boston, 1998.
Houston, Gail T. “Feminist Criticism.” The Critical Experience: Literary Reading, Writing, And Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. David Cowles. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1994. 214-34.
Manzer, Patricia K. “‘In Some Old Book, Somebody Just Like Me’: Eliot’s Tessa and Hardy’s Tess.” English Language and Notes. 33.3 33-8.
Ortner, Sherry B.. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Riquleme, John Paul. “Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Bedford Books: Boston, 1998.
Scott, Richard G. “The Sanctity of Womanhood.” Gospel Library Archive. The Official Internet Site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Currently updated. 5 Nov. 2001. <http://library.lds.org/Library/lpext.dll?f=3Dtemplates&fn=3Dmain_h.htm>.
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