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Patricia Ingham has said that Thomas Hardy's heroines “are struggling to achieve a certain autonomy for themselves that baffles the men they are involved with and even the narrators who describe them.”
Discuss the portrayal of Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the light of this comment.
Patricia Ingham has said that Thomas Hardy's heroines “are struggling to achieve a certain autonomy for themselves that baffles the men they are involved with and even the narrators who describe them.” This paper aims to explore this statement in relation to the figure of Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Here, it is argued that this a key theme in Hardy’s writing is that of fate and the extent to which individuals can exercise control over their own decisions. This directly affects the figures level of autonomy within their lives. The argument is divided into four parts: three dealing with each of the key figures who, either in character or commentary, are baffled by Tess’ battle for independence (Angel, Alec and the narrator) and one dealing with the subject of Tess’ autonomy itself. Angel, aptly, sees Tess as angelic: a pure, typical, country girl. However, when Tess is forced to break this illusion by confessing her past to Alec in an attempt to free herself from its weight, he categorises her as the typical fallen woman of the time, thinking nothing of her own independent will. For him there are only pure women and fallen women and no one is free to transcend the barrier to inhabit the space in between. Alec, in a similar and yet contrasting manner, sees Tess as a source of sexual temptation, who causes men to err from their righteous path, from very early on in the novel. However, it was his questionable actions and influence upon her which first created her imprisoning predicament: the birth of an illegitimate child. Regardless of Tess’ attempts to free herself from this fallen characterisation, Alec continues to project onto her his image of a fallen woman, just like Angel. He also views her as an object to be mastered and is infuriated by Tess’ efforts to resist subjugation. In his eyes, it is impossible to see Tess as an independent being. He believes she is too weak to uphold an autonomous position and scorns her attempts. The narrator is the final baffled perspective which this essays attempts to dissect. Consumed by a rather biased, omniscient narration, it is obvious within the novel that the narrator has a shifting perspective regarding Tess’ battle for autonomy. At times he seems to view the story from our heroine’s point of view, however, at other times, all knowing as the omniscient narrator should be, he too seems baffled by Tess’ actions creating a highly problematic relationship. The narrator seems, at times, to defend Tess in a manner uncharacteristic of the time: by highlighting her sexuality and autonomy. Tess’ character and decisions are often questioned in the novel and the reader is unsure who to blame for her unforgiving circumstances in life. However, as she battles through these we see her transform from the young naïve girl who fell prey to Alec into a strong independent woman, regardless of the surrounding disapproving male influences.
A strong theme in Hardy’s writing is fate and to what extent individuals have the power to make their own decisions. It is this sense of free will that our protagonist, Tess, is searching for. Early in the novel, Tess discusses the stars with her younger brother, declaring that each one is a world and that we live on “a blighted one” (31). It has been blighted by the social and moral constraints placed on women, which are against the nature of the planet. Tess struggles against her sexual appeal, wishing to free from the bounds of society and the church which the men around her try to impose upon her. Hardy presents Tess to us in many different lights according to who is regarding and conversing with her. She can be seen as pure, typical or fallen depending on the beholder. This controversy starts from the very title page with the statement that Tess is “a pure woman” (1). The two male protagonists, Alec and Angel have antithetic views of Tess. Angel sees her at first as a typical, unspoilt, country girl, while Alec views her as a source of sexual temptation referring to her as Eve, the quintessential female temptress. Neither sees her as an independent individual. Alec “projects on to the figure before him idealized types of women, such as Artemis, Demeter or the virtuous woman of King Lumuel. Thus he remains the prisoner of gender and class descriptions” (Hardy xxvi). Yet, when Tess tries to free herself from her past by confessing to Angel he reverts to a moral doctrine. To him, the Tess he loved ceases to exist as a fallen woman takes her place. Upon hearing her confession he “casts the fallen Tess as the typical peasant woman and representative of a decadent family.”(Blake 697) However, this situation arises because Angel would not accept that Tess did not want to marry him. Tess constantly compliments the other women at the dairy saying that “They are better women than I” (145) but he refuses to listen as he does not understand that she is bound by her past. Angel only realises how far she will go to liberate herself from moral constraints when she admits to having attempted suicide: “The unexpected quality of this confession, wrung from her, and not volunteered, shook him indescribably.” (Hardy 239)
Alec is similarly incapable of seeing Tess as an independent being, seeing her only as the occasion of a man’s sin. He forces strawberries and roses on her just as he eventually forces himself on her. More than anything, Alec views Tess as a being to be mastered, the slave/master motif dominating many of his encounters with her. He does this through sex and bribery, utilising these two tools to thwart her struggle for independence. This motif of mastery first begins when he bestows on her the “kiss of mastery” (56). However, Tess, in her struggle not to be subordinated by him, wipes her cheek, undoing the kiss as much as was physically possible. This infuriates Alec: “You shall be made sorry for that.” (56) Later in the novel, after Alec has fallen from his new found religion, he verbally assaults Tess, shouting at her to “remember, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man’s wife you are mine!” (322) Yet it is obvious that Alec feels the need to constantly force himself on Tess because he believes she is utterly incapable of looking after herself, regardless of her protests: “I will not take anything more from you” (77). He exclaims that one would think she were a princess from her behaviour, showing that he believes she cannot elevate herself beyond her class to such an autonomous position and continues to bestow gifts on her family, her real weakness. Interestingly, later in the novel when Tess refuses Alec’s offer to escort her home from the pub, Alec, in the quoted edition, says “Very well, silly! Please yourself” (65) but the “MS. cancels Alec’s affectionate ‘silly’ and has him exclaim with rather more exasperation and scorn: ‘Very well, Miss Independence’” (Hardy 413). Alec cannot grasp her struggle for autonomy and constantly reappears throughout the novel in, what he says is, an attempt to make amends for his past behaviour. However it is this ‘helping hand’ which strikes Tess down again and again. While her relationship with Angel was never violent, he fought her through sex. “Tess took with the greatest coolness, that sort of attack being independent of sex.” (319) Eventually, the only way Tess can free herself from Angel’s continual sexual strikes was to kill him. This freedom does not last long however and then she is cast into death, the only true way she could ever achieve freedom. “The formerly free and independent Tess”
(241) dies. And it is all due to the malum in se of Alec, who could not understand her need for female autonomy. The narrator is similarly baffled by Tess, having a shifting and bias perspective on her. At times he seems almost protective of his protagonist. For instance, just before the rape he asks “But where was Tess’s guardian angel?”(74) Despite the novel’s omniscient narration, even the narrator is occasionally baffled by Tess, indicating a problematic relationship between the narrator and the central character. In previous Victorian novels fallen women were not defended as Tess is. These women were salvaged by the “bestowing of middle class virtues of self-sacrifice, altruism and domestic efficiency.” (Ingham125) However, Hardy’s narrator deals with Tess’s fall in a completely different way: by highlighting Tess’s sexuality and autonomy. He “makes a point of stressing Tess’s sexuality in sharp contrast to these earlier narratives. Her sexual allure, that conventional sign of deviance in a woman, is something that all the men in the text, Alex, Angel and the narrator, respond to.” (Ingham 126) This sexuality is seen as her doom, and as shown already, is the reason the men around her will not allow her to live an independent life. Her sexual appeal can at times prevent the narrator and other characters from seeing Tess as an independent woman and leads, instead, to the narrator defining her in terms of her prominent ‘red’ sexuality, as a woman to be owned. Tess shows her struggle for independence time and time again. There are many suggestions in the text that Tess is not fully aware of her surroundings, nor free to make choices, as much as she struggles against this. Her relocation to the D’Urberville estate “represents a new and difficult challenge to her independence, for she is confronted for the first time both with wealth and with real sexual aggression.”(Draper 168) She is too innocent to understand the intentions of those around her. For instance, in the scene in the woods, Alec gives her an unknown drink which is questionably the reason for her unconscious state. Although the text specifically says “she was sleeping soundly” (73) before this encounter, her morals are still questioned and this blights her chances of social independence: “She had been
made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment” (86). While she did primarily sense she was in an inappropriate situation, when Alec told her that her father had just received a new horse she feels obligated to stay. Her family is her weakness; if she were independent of them many of these tragedies may not have befallen her. There is a vagueness around Tess’s moral code in the novel, even though Hardy insists that she is pure. Draper states that “generally, the heroine of romance must choose in some way between good and evil. Tess’s choices are never so clear cut.” (Draper 168) However, we can see that what determines her actions is her struggle for autonomy. She rejects Christianity altogether, refusing to be crushed under its moral code. This is particularly evident when she herself baptises her baby taking on a role traditionally reserved for men of a higher class than her. Jan Jedrzejewski argues that both “Tess and Angel achieve independence by rejecting the Church.” (Lovesey 914) We see a transformation in Tess throughout the novel from the young, naive girl who “was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” (15) to the strong, independent woman who makes independent and untypical choices, particularly regarding her decision not to marry Alec: “Perhaps any woman would except me” (81). She strives for an independence which many other women of the time could not see through the glass ceiling that repressed them. Hardy highlights Tess’s difference from other women from the start of the novel, such as her personal charms which “were in main part her mother’s gift, and therefore unknightly, unhistorical.” (20) This downgrades the patriarchal and highlights the role her feminine features will play in her battle for autonomy. It is these very feminine features that cause her crisis of autonomy as seen earlier. Regardless of this disadvantage she believes that she can achieve the independence she needs to sustain herself whilst refusing the help offered by the men around her, which she eventually does. However it is a short lived freedom with a high price. In the end “she was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself’. Nobody will take Tess as a whole person, as opposed to admiring her spirit alone, as the
idealizing Angel does, or taking her body for sexual or economic profit.” (Eagleton 194) Tess struggles against society and against her fate, which is all too often foreshadowed in the book. Ultimately, one can characterise Tess’s struggle for autonomy and how it baffled the men around her through what her brother Abraham says: “’Tis because we be on a blighted star, and not a sound one, isn’t it Tess?” (34)
Blake, Kathleen. “Pure Tess: Hardy on Knowing a Woman”. : Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 22, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1982). JSTOR. Rice University. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.
Draper, R.P. Hardy; The Tragic Novels. London. Macmillan. 1991. Print. Eagleton, Terry. The English Novel. London. Blackwell Pub. 2005. Print. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London. Penguin Classics. 2003. Print. Hugman, Bruce. Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Wallingford. C.A.B. International. 1970. Print Ingham, Patricia. Invisible writing and the Victorian Novel: readings in language and ideology. Manchester ; New York . Manchester University Press. 2000. Print Lovesey, Olive. “Reconstructing Tess”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43 (2003): 913-938. JSTOR. Rice University. Web. 15 Dec. 2011. Silverman, Kaia. “History, Figuration and Female Subjectivity in Tess of the d'Urbervilles". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 18 (1984): 5-28. JSTOR. Duke University Press. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.
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