Tess: A Pure Woman

It’s hard to imagine the critical reception Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles received when it was first published. Yet, “Literature at the Turn of the Century (1890 – 1918)” states:

“In two of Hardy’s final novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896), his bleak and open treatment of sexuality and marriage caused such an outrage among the puritanical Victorian public that he was deeply disillusioned. Hardy abandoned fiction, and for the rest of his life wrote only poetry.”

Hardy’s title “TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES: A Pure Woman” makes it clear that he’s attacking the Victorian attitude toward premarital sex, particularly the double standard. In order to prove that Tess was a “ A Pure Woman,” Hardy shows that Tess was a victim of both Alec’s taking advantage of her innocence and her mother’s efforts to marry her off to help the family. Alec’s own words prove that he acted badly:

“One would think you were a princess from your manner, in addition to a true and original d’Urberville–ha! ha! Well, Tess, dear, I can say no more. I suppose I am a bad fellow–a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability. But, upon my lost soul, I won’t be bad towards you again, Tess. And if certain circumstances should arise–you understand–in which you are in the least need, the least difficulty, send me one line, and you shall have by return whatever you require. I may not be at Trantridge–I am going to London for a time–I can’t stand the old woman. But all letters will be forwarded.”

Of course an observant reader didn’t need the confession to know Alec was a villain, it’s obvious from the first time he meets Tess and hires her in order to seduce her.

It’s equally obvious that Tess’s mother is more interested in getting a rich son-in-law to help support her family than she is in protecting Tess. She pushes Tess into seeking help from rich “relatives” despite Tess’s reluctance to do so. She tacitly admits her guilt when Tess returns home pregnant:

“And yet th’st not got him to marry ‘ee!” reiterated her mother. “Any woman would have done it but you, after that!”

“Perhaps any woman would except me.”

“It would have been something like a story to come back with, if you had!” continued Mrs Durbeyfield, ready to burst into tears of vexation. “After all the talk about you and him which has reached us here, who would have expected it to end like this! Why didn’t ye think of doing some good for your family instead o’ thinking only of yourself? See how I’ve got to teave and slave, and your poor weak father with his heart clogged like a dripping-pan. I did hope for something to come out o’ this! To see what a pretty pair you and he made that day when you drove away together four months ago! See what he has given us–all, as we thought, because we were his kin. But if he’s not, it must have been done because of his love for ‘ee. And yet you’ve not got him to marry!”

Get Alec d’Urberville in the mind to marry her! He marry HER! On matrimony he had never once said a word. And what if he had? How a convulsive snatching at social salvation might have impelled her to answer him she could not say. But her poor foolish mother little knew her present feeling towards this man. Perhaps it was unusual in the circumstances, unlucky, unaccountable; but there it was; and this, as she had said, was what made her detest herself. She had never wholly cared for him; she did not at all care for him now. She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile: had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all. Hate him she did not quite; but he was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name’s sake she scarcely wished to marry him.

“You ought to have been more careful if you didn’t mean to get him to make you his wife!”

“O mother, my mother!” cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”

Her mother was subdued.

“I thought if I spoke of his fond feelings and what they might lead to, you would be hontish wi’ him and lose your chance,” she murmured, wiping her eyes with her apron. “Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose. ‘Tis nater, after all, and what do please God!”

Strangely enough, at least on her final point, Hardy seems to agree with her. It is 
“nature, after all.” Perhaps in the most controversial claim of all, he suggests that the guilt Tess feels is un-natural:

But this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy–a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism, she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.

Pronouncing “social law” to be little more than “moral hobgoblins” “out of harmony with the actual world” is bound to draw criticism, no matter how valid the point may be. I tend to be more and more cynical as I grow older, but I’m not sure even I would go that far. At the very least, though, it should make one wonder how much of our “social law” is “out of harmony with the natural world.”

Hardy argues that at the same time her experience with Alec had made her stronger society’s values incapacitated her:

“By experience,” says Roger Ascham, “we find out a short way by a long wandering.” Not seldom that long wandering unfits us for further travel, and of what use is our experience to us then? Tess Durbeyfield’s experience was of this incapacitating kind. At last she had learned what to do; but who would now accept her doing?

If before going to the d’Urbervilles’ she had vigorously moved under the guidance of sundry gnomic texts and phrases known to her and to the world in general, no doubt she would never have been imposed on. But it had not been in Tess’s power–nor is it in anybody’s power–to feel the whole truth of golden opinions while it is possible to profit by them. She–and how many more–might have ironically said to God with Saint Augustine: “Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.”

Simply put, we can all learn from inevitable mistakes, and it seems wrong to condemn someone just for their mistakes. We must also consider if they’ve learned from their mistakes and become better human beings because of them.

As it turns out, it is Tess’s sharpened perceptions that attract Clare to her rather than to the other girls he works with:

He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in _logy_ and _ism_, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.

Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.

I’m not sure “the ache of modernism” would make a woman more appealing to me — I surely have enough of that on my own — but it’s proof that her mistake weighed on her and experience made her a better person.

No doubt it was a mistake for Tess not to tell Angel about her past, following her mother’s advice (she should certainly have realized what kind of advice her mother gave by this point in her life) but she did try to tell Angel that she was not worthy of him. It was inevitable that Angel would have eventually heard of it, and nothing could have come from finding it out after the fact. Of course, Angel chose to tell Tess of his own discretions AFTER their marriage, too:

“Well, a certain place is paved with good intentions, and having felt all that so strongly, you will see what a terrible remorse it bred in me when, in the midst of my fine aims for other people, I myself fell.”

He then told her of that time of his life to which allusion has been made when, tossed about by doubts and difficulties in London, like a cork on the waves, he plunged into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger.

“Happily I awoke almost immediately to a sense of my folly,” he continued. “I would have no more to say to her, and I came home. I have never repeated the offence. But I felt I should like to treat you with perfect frankness and honour, and I could not do so without telling this. Do you forgive me?”

She pressed his hand tightly for an answer.

“Then we will dismiss it at once and for ever!–too painful as it is for the occasion–and talk of something lighter.”

“O, Angel–I am almost glad–because now YOU can forgive ME! I have not made my confession. I have a confession, too–remember, I said so.”

“Ah, to be sure! Now then for it, wicked little one.”

“Perhaps, although you smile, it is as serious as yours, or more so.”

“It can hardly be more serious, dearest.”

“It cannot–O no, it cannot!” She jumped up joyfully at the hope. “No, it cannot be more serious, certainly,” she cried, “because ’tis just the same! I will tell you now.”

She sat down again.

Their hands were still joined. The ashes under the grate were lit by the fire vertically, like a torrid waste. Imagination might have beheld a Last Day luridness in this red-coaled glow, which fell on his face and hand, and on hers, peering into the loose hair about her brow, and firing the delicate skin underneath. A large shadow of her shape rose upon the wall and ceiling. She bent forward, at which each diamond on her neck gave a sinister wink like a toad’s; and pressing her forehead against his temple she entered on her story of her acquaintance with Alec d’Urberville and its results, murmuring the words without flinching, and with her eyelids drooping down.

This confession gives Tess the confidence to reveal what she has always wanted to reveal to Angel but had been afraid to do so, apparently still too naive to realize the double standard that Angel, like society, held to.

Tess may have been shocked that after admitting to having sex before marriage that Angel is unwilling to forgive her for precisely the same thing, though the reader probably shouldn’t be. I’m sure a Victorian reader wouldn’t have been.

“Forgive me as you are forgiven! _I_ forgive YOU, Angel.”

“You–yes, you do.”

“But you do not forgive me?”

“O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God–how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque–prestidigitation as that!”

He paused, contemplating this definition; then suddenly broke into horrible laughter–as unnatural and ghastly as a laugh in hell.

“Don’t–don’t! It kills me quite, that!” she shrieked. “O have mercy upon me–have mercy!”

He did not answer; and, sickly white, she jumped up.

“Angel, Angel! what do you mean by that laugh?” she cried out. “Do you know what this is to me?”

He shook his head.

“I have been hoping, longing, praying, to make you happy! I have thought what joy it will be to do it, what an unworthy wife I shall be if I do not! That’s what I have felt, Angel!”

“I know that.”

“I thought, Angel, that you loved me–me, my very self! If it is I you do love, O how can it be that you look and speak so? It frightens me! Having begun to love you, I love you for ever–in all changes, in all disgraces, because you are yourself. I ask no more. Then how can you, O my own husband, stop loving me?”

“I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.”

“But who?”

“Another woman in your shape.”

The problem, of course, is that Angel loved the woman of his imagination rather than Tess herself. I suspect we are all guilty of that, certainly when we first fall in love with someone.

The irony is that though Angel can admit

“Angel!–Angel! I was a child–a child when it happened! I knew nothing of men.”

“You were more sinned against than sinning, that I admit.”

“Then will you not forgive me?”

“I do forgive you, but forgiveness is not all.”

“And love me?”

To this question he did not answer.

he still can’t love her even though he thinks she was sinned against, not a sinner. How can someone blame the victim for what’s happened to them; that can only be justified by a “cloud of moral hobgoblins.” Though Hardy blames that more on Angel Clare than on Tess:

This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgement this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings. No prophet had told him, and he was not prophet enough to tell himself, that essentially this young wife of his was as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman endowed with the same dislike of evil, her moral value having to be reckoned not by achievement but by tendency. Moreover, the figure near at hand suffers on such occasion, because it shows up its sorriness without shade; while vague figures afar off are honoured, in that their distance makes artistic virtues of their stains. In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire.

If Clare had been as enlightened as the narrator would have him be, he would have maintained an independent judgement that would have allowed him to see through society’s condemnation of Tess for her past actions and see her true self, her “tendency” toward moral goodness. Unfortunately, faced with a crisis he fell back on the “custom and conventionality” of “his early teachings,” a Hardy theme that becomes even more prominent in Jude the Obscure.

The tragedy, and the novel seems as close to a true Tragedy as any modern novel I can remember, is that despite their unique strengths, their goodness, neither is able to free themselves from society’s conventions and, thus, seem fated to unhappiness. Only when it is too late does Angel seem to free himself enough to accept Tess for who she really is:

During this time of absence he had mentally aged a dozen years. What arrested him now as of value in life was less its beauty than its pathos. Having long discredited the old systems of mysticism, he now began to discredit the old appraisements of morality. He thought they wanted readjusting. Who was the moral man? Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman? The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.

How, then, about Tess?

Viewing her in these lights, a regret for his hasty judgement began to oppress him. Did he reject her eternally, or did he not? He could no longer say that he would always reject her, and not to say that was in spirit to accept her now.

Of course. the reader may find himself left wondering how one measures “things willed.” If it’s difficult to judge people based on their past actions, isn’t it more difficult to judge them on their intentions?

3 thoughts on “Tess: A Pure Woman”

  1. Lucky for those after the Victorian period that Thomas Hardy had the courage to write Tess of D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Had those novels not been met with outrage, I wonder what other novels he might have written and what he would have been writing about had he been alive today.

  2. I read both Tess and Jude when I was in college and remember being very moved by them. There were so many moral dilemmas. Your analysis reminded me of the plot and it’s coming back to me now – I will have to read these books again! Poor Tess…I think my roommate wrote a paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We were in the same class.

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