Thomas Hardy’s Critique of 19th Century England in His Work Tess of the D’Urbervilles

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles works as a vessel for his harsh critiques of 19th century Victorian England. To understand the entirety and full extent of Hardy’s critiques would require an expansive explication of the novel itself because it offers such a broad variety of social commentary that harshly castigates multiple societal institutions. However, though Hardy includes such a broad range of ideologies, the most prominent of these, and one main focal point of the novel, stems from the sexual double standard that haunts the female protagonist of Tess, and how gender inequality riddles her tragic narrative. In Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Hardy heavily exposes and criticizes Victorian England’s social morality by calling into question its validation and legitimization of a male dominated society. He calls upon his readers to question their own moral and ethical beliefs when considering Tess. In this paper, I plan to argue that Tess of the D’Urberville’s overall treatment of Tess offers unique criticisms of the Victorian society by further analyzing the ideas of a sexual double standard, the events leading up to and following Tess’s rape, and the novel’s concluding achievement of justice for Tess.

The Victorian age was a complicated era characterized by an illusion of stability, social reforms and their resulting progress towards a more desirable society, and, most notably, substantial social problems. Some of these problems included extreme poverty, general social injustice, and an overarching feeling of unrest that ultimately motivated Victorian society to create a strict code of values that would reflect and result in an “ideal” world. This socially constructed, strict code placed the utmost importance on obligation to duty and hard work, the often hypocritical illusion of respectability, extreme conformity to social rules and economic classes, devout religiousness, unwavering patriarchal households, and sexual repression characterized as prudence. It is from these general rules that severe inequalities were established and encouraged. Therefore, this “ideal” society is nearly unattainable and produced a desire for perfection which is, again, unattainable. Rosemarie Morgan writes “The worthy and desirable must acquire angelic proportions if they are to remain worthy and desirable, that the world is unable to dispense with the sexual double standard, that female sexuality still presents a threat to the dominant culture which refuses to grant women the opportunities granted to men” (127). Like men, women fell short of this constructed idea of perfection, but it is their fall and resulting implications of shame, guilt, and loss of self identity that ensures the perpetual existence of female suffering, subordination, and sexual inferiority at the hands of a male dominated society.

These inequalities born through the rigid social rules of Victorian England also birthed a common belief that men are regarded as sinful, lustful creatures in need of a pure and chaste “angel in the house” to redeem them of their moral inferiority. Following the persona of Conventry Patmore’s poem, “The Angel in the House”, women were to be held accountable for the sinful ways of man, therefore placing a great deal of sexual responsibility on women. To some degree, a woman was only worth as much as her chastity and complete innocence. If that woman’s chastity was compromised, by her own doing or not, she then became a “fallen woman”, forever unable to reconcile her purity or reputation. Tess is a perfect example of this “fallen woman”, bearing the burden of the title following her rape. In the eyes of those around her, Tess was complicit in her attack. Mostly believing this herself, she proposes the question of whether or not the sin was actually her doing, but rather done to her. Though this question seems to foreshadow Tess’s fate, it would make little to no difference to the world, as her reputation is that of a fallen woman. Tess considers her own fate, accepting that she is bound for damnation in hell and therefore accepting society’s unfair treatment of her. However, Tess is still in agreement with nature and the moral good, and it is only the arbitrarily rigid rules of Victorian society that she is guilty of defying.

Reaction to Alec’s rape of Tess is the main source for the sexual double standard that exists within this novel. Though Angel Clare was with a woman out of wedlock, he still scorned Tess for her lack of sexual purity, though it was not of her own choice. His hypocrisy embodies how, “unchastity, in the sense of sexual relations before marriage or outside marriage, is for a man, if an offense, none the less a mild and pardonable one, but for a woman a matter of the utmost gravity” (Thomas 1). After he finds out about Alec, Angel no longer wants anything to do with Tess and becomes seemingly unmoved by the feelings of love and adoration he felt for her leading up to her confession of the act. In addition to his response of hypocrisy when learning of Tess’s rape, Angel has a tendency to lose sight of Tess as an individual and instead views her as “a visionary essence of woman – a whole sex condensed into one typical form” (Hardy 187). By stereotyping Tess, Angel ultimately idealizes her as the perfect woman, or, as the title of the novel suggests, “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”. Elements of the double standard persist, moreover, when Angel falls in love with the inflated, perfect image of Tess he created in his mind, a love that “was doubtless ethereal to a fault, imaginative to impracticability” (Hardy 315), instead of falling in love with Tess the individual.

Angel’s idealization of Tess was foreshadowed when he had to work past his previous general assumptions about the farm workers, “Hodges”, at Talbothays. However, Angel was quick to realize his generalizations were not accurate, as each person existed beyond his definition of rural, individualistic farmworkers. It took Angel much longer to reach the same conclusions about Tess; he maintains his idealization of her as a symbol of nature, purity, and myth. Tess begins to break down the idealized version of herself that Angel holds when she shares her pessimistic views on life of which Angel naively blames on “the ache of modernism” (Hardy 124).

Nonetheless, Angel maintains his idea of Tess as an archetypal pure woman, imagining her further as mythical and religious figure of innocence. It is through these same idealizations of Tess, that Angel once placed upon a pedestal, that he uses to berate her later on in the novel once finding out about Alec and the rape. He once praised her for her attachment to nature and disinterest in social matters, yet attacks her with, “Different societies, different manners. You are an unapprehending peasant woman, who have never been initiated into the proportions of social things. You don’t know what you say… Here I was thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the exhausted seedling of an effete aristocracy!” (Hardy 232). Angel Clare wanted to be free from the conventions of society. He did not follow in the path of his father and brothers to become a parson and chooses instead to learn more about the lives of those in lower classes. It is hypocritical then that he maintains the same conventions he tries to escape by finding fault in Tess for her rape. However, there is hope for Angel yet. After removing himself from the heavy constraints and constant pressure for conformity that Victorian society imposes, Angel was able to reach his own logical conclusions about Tess and the question of her guilt. Only once he was free from the rigid societal expectations of the time was he able to realize the double standard and gender inequality he had chosen to perpetuate.

The rape of Tess Durbeyfield also works to criticize multiple institutions of Victorian England, namely gender and class. Alec D’Urberville’s family has a long history of obsessing over money and status, and it could be argued that the family places the importance of their status and wealth over that of human beings, particularly those of a lower social and economic background. The same rings true with Alec’s treatment of Tess. From their first encounter, Alec refuses to take Tess’s will into account and exerts male dominance and force over her, entitling himself to whatever, or whomever, he wants because of his superior wealth and social status. He also establishes a financial hold over her by revealing he had bought her family a new horse, the need for a new horse being the only reason Tess was in this position in the first place. The news of the new horse comes just hours before Alec rapes Tess, a fact that highlights his sense of economic and social entitlement all the more. The rape itself was
“an act of theft, a dishonest appropriation of another’s property with the intent to deprive her of it permanently… It is a fitting emphasis in a novel that stresses a sexual ethic that denies woman the right to control not only her own mode of existence but also her own body” (94).

This description from Rosemarie Morgan reestablishes the issue of gender inequality by exploring the inherent belief that women should not have dominion over their own bodies, an issue that is still prevalent today. Following her rape, Tess does not act in accordance with what was historically expected for women under the same circumstances. Instead of marrying Alec or staying with him for financial security, Tess decides to employ her individual agency and attempt to rid herself of more trauma and shame. It is only under destitute circumstances does Tess finally give in to Alec’s will and allows him to claim her as his, though he tried repeatedly throughout the novel. The readers then are left to wonder what kind of world would force Tess into such a defeat and leave her with no alternative solution other than to finally give in to the man who tainted her purity and who she had resisted for so long. Alec’s rape of Tess is meant to be in direct conversation with history’s maltreatment of women by men in power, a history that Hardy blatantly mentions, “Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” (Hardy 119), just following the rape scene. Also rooted in gender inequality, the legal system tended to deal with violence, or crime in general, towards women in a way that is arguably unjust in historical hindsight. There is much speculation amongst scholars whether the act that occurred in the Chase was in any way equated with seduction. It is my own belief that to refer to the act as anything but a rape is a claim tainted with the double standard that Hardy works to condemn throughout the novel.Ellen Rooney writes “The notion of violent seduction thus displaces the configuration between seduction and rape, in effect figuring rape as seduction… [Readings] suggest Tess is ‘raped or seduced’ or, even, ‘raped and seduced’” (Rooney 90). Both rape and seduction had their own moral and legal implications in Victorian society, but this does not mean that justice was always served. Victorian law would have ruled the attack on Tess as rape, finding Alec D’Urberville guilty of the crime, so why did Tess never seek legal repercussions? “As Joan Perkin points out, ‘working-class women were almost wholly beyond the reach of the civil law.’ With their lack of resources and legal ‘know-how,’ women were effectively outside the scope of the law. Tess may simply not know how to proceed against Alec legally because she understands neither the law nor her place in it (Qtd. Perkin 115, Davis 227). Whether or not Tess would have been able to achieve legal justice would also have to consider her place in society. Tess ultimately belongs to the lower, working class and would therefore have a difficult time making a case against her very wealthy, upper class assailant. This disadvantage once again establishes a longstanding, male abuse of power over women.

Eventually, Tess is able to claim some of the power that was taken from her in the Chase by murdering Alec D’Urberville. In a “moment of mad grief” and “obscure strain in the d’Urberville blood” (Hardy 385), Tess complicates her assigned identity as “a pure woman”. Hardy seems to exonerate Tess for her actions based on hereditary traits that are out of her control, however, readers are still left with the question of whether or not Tess is justified in her acts. Enduring her time in Sandbourne as Alec’s mistress, Tess tries to cope by becoming emotionally detached, dissociative, and “like a corpse upon the current” (Hardy 382). Hardy views Tess as blameless, for she “had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment” (135), and also writes that nature is not subject to the social laws of the time. To Tess, murdering Alec is the only way she may finally be free from the torment and destruction he inflicted upon her. Perhaps it was in Tess’s fate as a D’Urberville to commit a heinous act, or perhaps it was her realization that her life was coming to an end. Her act of murder can be considered her true fall, rather than the act that earned her the title of a “fallen woman”—her rape. Lynn Parker writes, “Although it is frequently and perhaps fairly read as a tragic moment of energy and heroism, Tess’s murder of Alec d’Urberville also exposes the extent of her degradation or ‘stain’ which began with her sexual experience” (280). The eventual requited love from Angel was too late, as Tess had already convinced herself that fate was against her.

The question of her own fate is something Tess has long considered, demonstrated by the conversation with her brother about how their world was a blighted star. From the start of the novel, it seems as if Tess is being pushed towards her eminent death in execution by the series of unfortunate events that unfold. “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended its sport with Tess. And the D’Urberville knights slept on in their tombs unknowing” (Hardy 397-398) suggests that Tess’s death was a deliberate act of malice by an all-powerful deity, possibly God. The placement of ‘justice’ in quotation marks also suggests that Tess’s fate is in no way just, as it was only a result of her lifelong suffering at the hands of others. Despite being blameless for the roles other play in her demise, Tess accepts her fate, “almost glad–yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough, and now I shall not live for you to despise me! … I am ready” (Hardy 396).

Tess’s execution ties together Hardy’s critiques of Victorian England with a neat little bow, though the novel does not end on an optimistic note, presenting one final critique. It sheds light on the possibility for fulfillment after the ongoing cycle of injustice, inequality, and societal struggles that Tess endured, her only fulfillment being in her death. As a result of Tess’s low social and economic standing, her existence as a woman, and her unique duality in Christianity and paganism, she pays the ultimate price. The sacrifice of herself at Stonehenge depicts Tess as a martyr, sacrificed in the name of preserving the status quo of Victorian rules.
In conclusion, Tess of the D’Urbervilles tells the tragic story of Tess and her struggle to overcome the strict nature of the society in which she lived. Thomas Hardy’s story of Tess works to condemn many societal institutions including the Church, elements of capitalism, industrialization, the legal system, and, most glaringly, the status of women. Caught in a double standard and at the hands of these societal institutions, Tess serves as Hardy’s method of condemnation for modernity. Place into a series of unfortunate events by her family’s desire to transcend their current social status and beginning with her rape, Tess must pay the price of these injustices though she herself remains blameless and pure. Though her purity is questioned in the novel’s final scenes, Tess’s actions ultimately lead to her own tragic fulfillment in her death making her a scapegoat for the continuation of society’s beliefs.

This novel’s critique of social structures and obligations can still be felt all these years later, as the issues of class, religion, economic status, and gender render much discussion and, often create negative repercussions. A contemporary reading of Tess of the D’Urbervilles still possesses the ability to arrest any audience with its glaring critique of not only Victorian England, but the mere existence of these unforgiving societies in their transcendence of time. It is only through their reveal and recognition that Hardy’s critiques offer provisional hope.

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