Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles contains social commentary about many of the major issues of Victorian life. Hardy examines the Victorian double standard by using Tess’ submission towards her parents, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare as well as society in general. Tess endures many trials in her life, but this double-standard seals Tess’s doom as the Victorian society prevents Tess to successfully rise above her oppressors. Hardy uses Tess’s subsequent destruction, as well as her submission to the society she represents, in order to critique other aspects.
Tess’ first oppressors are her parents, John Durbeyfield and Joan Durbeyfield. Both of them dream to rise above their lowly status of working class people in order to live a more comfortable life. Tess’s fate is set in motion when she receives financial aid from the aristocratic d’Urbervilles. John and Joan are blinded with greed as they send their daughter, Tess, to marry the d’Urbervilles. Tess’s family rebukes her for letting herself be seduced. Tess is outraged at the hypocrisy displayed by Durbeyfield. Why didn’t I get warned? The ladies know the tricks to avoid because they’ve read books that teach them. I, however, never had that chance and you haven’t helped me.” (82). This cry of help is in vain. Tess returns home to find her parents angry, seeing how humiliated they feel. The Durbeyfield family puts their daughter below themselves, exploiting and ignoring their needs whenever they can.
Alec d’Urberville is the second most powerful force that keeps Tess in submissiveness. Alec’s physical and psychological oppression begins with Tess’s rape. Alec’s return in Phase Six continues his abuse of Tess by accusing her of the incident in the woods. Alec also forces Tess to swear she won’t seduce Alec anymore. Alec’s response to Tess when she is asked about her religious beliefs is quickly dismissed as her husbands opinions. Alec takes advantage of his manhood to treat Tess badly. He uses the inferiority of women as an excuse. The trend is accentuated in the following chapter when Alec’s harsh language toward Tess increases. I will become your master once again. (336). Tess is referred to as a servant, which solidifies her status as Alec’s subordinate. Tess admits this at this stage, saying, “Once you’re a victim…you’re always a victim! That is the law!” (336). Tess is a victim in the society because of Alec’s dominance. Alec still abuses the power he gains from Tess, even when he is done with her sexual conquest.
Angel Clare’s influence on Tess is much more indirect than that of the Durbeyfields. Angel Clare was one of Tess’s only positive influences until their separation. Angel still tries to protect Tess even after Tess reveals her past. Angel’s inflexible morals, and his desertion to Brazil, may have caused Tess more pain than anything else. However Angel’s actions do not lead to Tess being submissive. Tess’s relationship with Angel offers important insights into how Tess has been shaped by other parties in addition to the social belief of the era. Angel sleepwalks with Tess in a coffin as they cross a river. Angel puts both Tess and himself in danger, but Tess remains completely submissive. Tess’s complete submission to her husband is further evidence of Tess’s blamelessness and the tragic nature of this story.
Tess seems powerless to resist men because of her status in society. Tess’s life is ruled by the double standard used in the Victorian era to judge women and men. Mary Jacobus discusses this idea when she says, “A sustained rehabilitation campaign makes Tess a blatant case of sexual morality being applied to both men and women. Tess herself was so blameless that the tragedy became the tragedy for the exceptional.”
Hardy’s greatest criticism of men’s subjugation is not John Durbeyfield or Alec d’Urberville but rather the society who condones such actions. Hardy explores Victorian society’s problems through the conflict between Tess, her men and other characters. Hardy’s conflict with Tess represents other issues in Victorian society besides his criticism of the role of women. Lisa Alther states in the novel’s introduction that Tess lives a life of “endless toil” and that no other writer has been able to capture the harsh demands of farmwork as well. Hardy argues that rural agriculture will not survive the mechanization of farming, just as Tess cannot avoid Alec. The appearance in the farm of the threshing equipment after Alec has told Tess again that he is her master, suggests to Hardy that the land also submits to this new way of farming.
Tess is not always submissive. There are moments in the novel when she struggles to be free. Tess defies expectations of what women should be like at that time. Tess rejects social norms in the baptism of Sorrow. Tess uses this act to reject the idea that her and baby are social outcasts. Hardy describes Tess as “singularly tall and intimidating” in her opposition to society. She is wearing a white nightgown that has a cable of dark hair that hangs straight down from her neck to her waist. Tess has a powerful personality, which is often suppressed but sometimes shown to the public. “…passionately spun the glove around in her face as Alec approached Tess after his return. This violence toward a woman is a stark contrast to Victorian views, and it represents women’s fight against double standards. Tess makes a final stand against Alec by killing him. Tess is portrayed as a woman’s martyr in her subsequent execution.
Tess has been used as a tool by other characters throughout the story. She is exploited for her economic status, sexuality and inferior position within society. She is made to serve the Victorian ideal woman and her men, as well as represent all women. Hardy’s idea that Tess’s Victorian society has a sexual double standard is evident in her various relationships. Tess’s tragic fate is a result of this inescapable inequity. She will never be free and happy despite all her efforts. Hardy uses Tess to illustrate England’s decline and the dangers of industrialization, represented by Alec. This serves to warn the society about what lies ahead. Tess of the d’Urbervilles’s critique of Victorian Society champions the women’s right.
1. Jacobus Mary Tess The Making of A Pure Woman. In: Harold Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations.
2. Lisa Alther’s work. Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Introduction New York’s New American Library published the book in 1999.