The Representation of Women in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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The key objective of this study is to explore the representation of women in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of d’Urbervilles”. It presents a brief sketch of Victorian era, ideas of womanhood prevalent in that time and its influence on the portrayal of woman in literature. It also reflects Hardy’s iconoclast views about femininity and its effect on representation of women. Hardy presents women as a victim of patriarchal social system. They are portrayed as passionate, resolute and courageous women who challenge the Victorian norms as a result their sufferings become unavoidable.


This paper discusses the issues of male dominance, gender discrimination and women subjugation pervading in Victorian era through examination of Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles. ”It is story of strong woman Tess who becomes prey of her parents’ gluttony, Alec’s lust, Angel Clare’s conventional morality and rigid social codes. Ideas of Victorian femininity, trends of feminism and hardy as a proponent of feminism are also integrated. The main objective of this research is to explore the representation of women in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles. ”

Keywords: Patriarchal, Victorian woman, representation, Feminism, Tess’s portrayal

Literature Review

God created men and women different - then let them remain each in their own position. ' (Queen Victoria, letter 29 May 1870). Different societies have different notions and an expectation regarding social behaviours. In Victorian era idea of idealized picture of woman was emphasized by socialists, moralists even by politicians. “Home, Sweet Home” as a famous song of Victorian era enchanted even Queen Victoria who was representation of domesticity. Gilbert and Guber noted that Victorian books for women propagated such feminine traits as “modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability, politeness” (23). Victorian poem, 'The Angel in the House' by Coventry Patmore presented ideal image of woman as angel in house. Victorian society stressed “the polarization of women into the chaste and the depraved, the virgin and the whore” (Boumelha 13).

Home and household activities were considered right spheres for Victorian women. John Stuart Mill in ‘The Subjection of Women” (1869) called this position as slavery. Carol Dyhouse says, “that large numbers of women in nineteenth-century England had no choice other than to seek work outside the home, in order to support themselves or their families…” (176)Anna Clark highlighted sexual violence prevalent in Victorian age and said” potentially undermined the legitimacy of the patriarchal sexual contract, in which men’s dominance was justified by their protection of their wives” (201). Morality gave rise to social prejudice. Byrne demonstrated this prejudice by saying ““The Victorian era (1837-1901) famously espoused oppressive, even stifling, moral values concerning domesticity, sexuality, and femininity. To solve Victorian women issues and secure rights for them feminism movement was started in the whole world. It focused on women freedom and equality at all levels. Feminist critics such as Margreat Fuller, charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barret, George Eliot examined and highlighted the women problems through their literary works. Thomas Hardy as a feminist criticized sexual double standards, gender differences, social oppression pervading in Victorian era.


The present study is a qualitative research which tries to explore the representation of woman in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. The nature of this study is descriptive and exploratory. First conversations of different characters, is selected then data is analyzed and interpreted qualitatively through deep reading to draw results

Data Analysis

The Victorian dynasty established with the succession of Queen Victoria in 1837 sustained until her death in 1901. This epoch was celebrated due to mechanical innovations, trade and financial affluence. Industrialism revolutionized the existing agricultural system with invention of machinery and technical procedures. All spheres of life such as economy, politics and society were significantly influenced by this prevailing industrial revolution. It also evolved the people’s perceptions about world. With reference of gender roles, it was age of patriarchy and gender discrimination, preserving all privileges for men. Women were considered as second citizens to men and economically subjugated by the males of their family. To be superiors creatures, men dominated social, political and financial affairs of society. Paradoxically, as angles in homes, women roles were reserved to domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of their husbands and children. Men were aggressive, self-confident and selfish while women were, dutiful, virtuous, patient and self-sacrificing. Having no personal economic status, Women had only one source of living which was matrimony. Feminine traits of virginity, purity, gentleness and compliance were mandatory for marriage. After marriage all her hereditary property and wealth belonged to her husband. As husbands’ slaves they suffered from sexual harassment, physical oppression, and psychological tortures with other no emancipation. Rights of divorce and custody of children were reserved for men.

Hypocrisy of society endured men’s betrayal but women having such relation before marriage were viewed as fallen women. These prevalent social conditions also influenced the literature of that time and gave birth new forms of writing poetry and prose. According to Carlyle it is writer’s major liability to emphasize and protest against social ills. Feminist ideas emphasizing gender equality were spreading very quickly in society. In Victorian literature women were depicted as submissive, corporeal and adoring. Feminist writers not only exposed social and economical problems of Victorian women but also introduced new ways of women delineation in literature. Thomas Hardy was one of such writers who tried to demonstrate social issues such as double standards, gender discrimination pervading in patriarchal Victorian society and literature. In his novel Tess of the D’urbervilles (1890) he challenged Victorian norms of femininity and tyrannical conduct of women by presenting the character of Tess as audacious, self-determinant, assiduous and self-sacrificing woman.

Initially, Tess is represented as an innocent, obedient and fascinating peasant of sixteen years old who protests against Victorian ideas of womanhood. In very exposition of novel Tess’s White dress in May Day dance represents social demand of maiden’s purity which is regarded as an ideal trait of Victorian woman. However. red ribbon suggests her sexual implication diverging her from social norms. Educational implications has changed her from her conventional mother.

“The mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads” “the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely revised code” (Tess, p. 23)

After knowing about their noble background her parents compels her to go to D’urbervilles but Tess is not interested in ancient nobility. She says:
I'd rather try to get work. (Tess, p. 64) She had hoped to be a teacher at the school, but the fates seemed to decide otherwise. ( Tess, p. 77).

Her desire of having profession of teacher and enjoyment is thwarted by Victorian codes and her family miserable condition. In Victorian era women were dominated by fathers, brothers and husbands. Tess’s father decision of send her to D’Urbervilles is best representation of this idea of male dominance in Victorian society. Victorian Codes reserved superiority for men only. . . Alec as a offspring of a patriarchal family is described as “an almost swarthy complexion, with full lips, badly moulded, though red and smooth, above which was a well-groomed black moustache with curled points” (Tess 64) which shows her scoundrel nature. He is fascinated by Tess’s physical beauty and sexual desire for her. He tries to persuade Tess by using his riches and social power. He says to Tess:

“I have enough and more than enough to put you out of anxiety, both for yourself and your parents and sisters. I can make them all comfortable if you will only show confidence in me, ’” (Hardy 347).

Hardy describes Tess as, “a pale nebulousness at his feet” which illustrates the women subjugation towards men’s oppressive treatment. She is trapped by the strict codes of male dominated society where women are helpless before men. Alec remarks supports this social rule. He says to Tess:

“Remember, my lady, I was your master once; I will be your master again. If you are any man’s wife you are mine!” (Tess p. 352)

At last Tess becomes victim of social injustice and Alec’s lust who rapes her in her unconscious. Hardy criticizes social injustice by saying.

“Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousands of years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. ( Tess, p. 107).

Hardy laments on the loss of Tess’verginity and social oppression and violence of male-centered society. After losing chastity in a male dominated society, labeled as ‘fallen woman’ a woman has no choice except submission to that person. Alec sin is bigger as compared to Tess because he is voluntary and conscious involved in sexual act while Tess is compelled for this in her unconsciousness. Tess also realizes this reality but even then does not surrenders to Alec. Instead she rebukes Alec audaciously. Her way of criticizing Alec’s cruelty shows her valor, veracity and self-respect.

“Almost at a leap Tess changed from simple girl to complex woman” (99)

She rebukes her mother by saying.

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“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk?(Tess, Ch, 12)

‘Tess’s tale is reflection of rigid social conventions, gener discrimination and hypocrisy of patriarchal Victorian society which condemns woman’s indecency and releases man’s adultery. After coming back to Marlott, Tess becomes victim of social criticism and gender-biased behaviours; Country vicar refuses to baptize ‘Sorrow’. Tess baptizes her son by her own. Tess demonstrates hypocrisy of religion when her innocent child is refused for Christian burial and condemned to hell. Her act of baptism her child by her own shows her courageous challenge to Christian codes and her maternal love to secure salvation for her child.

“If Providence would not ratify such an act of approximation she, for one, did not value the kind of heaven lost by the irregularity”. (p. 131).

Tess is embodiment of courage and optimism who never gives up after a lot problems. She was raped by Alec, lost her baby, criticized by society but never lost hope. She decides to leave her Marlott and start a new life. In Victorian males were more expressive in sexual desires but women subdued such thoughts. So, Tess’s indulgence in such emotions presents her as a new woman having unique ideas. In third phase ‘The Rally’ an image of more self-assured, assiduous, enthusiastic and resolute woman is reflected in Tess’s character. Angel a Vicar’s son engrossed in farming, possessing immaginative, unearthly. and idealistic approach towards life is embodiment of conventional morality. Ancients’ feminine traits such as purity and virginity reflected in Patmore’s poem, ‘angel in the house’ were still prevalent in Victorians. They expected that women should be pure, modest and fair. Angel’s Indulgence in Tess by conceiving her ‘virginal daughter of nature’ is illustration of this Victorian view. He idealizes Tess’s character by saying.

“What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is. ” p. 136

“I know you to be the most honest, spotless creature that ever lived”. (Tess, p. 177).

He describes Tess’s character before her parents as regular church-goer, honest-hearted, sympathetic, bright, elegant, chaste as a vestal and extraordinary graceful. Tess. In spite of her parents opposition her decision to marry Tess shows her un-conventional. On the other hand, Tess’s passionate love for angel is absolutely un-Victorian. Victorian era was renowned as immensely oppressive, hypocritical and reserved regarding codes of sexuality, domesticity and femininity. Title of fifth phase ‘The woman pays’ is manifestation of hypocrisy and double standards of society which justify man’s sexual luxury but punishes woman for the same behavior. To be true and straightforward in nature she wants to reveal her identity as D’urbervilles before marriage. Her mother as more experienced and conformist woman knowing the norms of patriarchal society in which only women are condemned warns Tess not to confess. ’On wedding night Angel reveals her voluntarily sexual behavior to Tess for which he is forgiven. After Angel’s confession she feels more confident about her own confession. So she reveals her unlucky past of sexual assault by Alec, giving birth to a baby to Angel and pleads him to forgive her. She says:

Tess: “‘In the name of love, forgive me… I have forgiven you for the same’”

Angel Clare: “‘Forgiveness does not apply to the case. You were one person; now you are another’”

Tess: “‘I thought, Angel, that you loved me – me, my very self!’”

Angel Clare: “‘the woman I have been loving is not you… Another woman in your shape’” (Tess, p. 228 to 229)

Angel adored her as ancient goddess after confession Angel is distressed and cruses her beautiful face as having a round little hole’. Angel’s image as an liberal and broadminded is shattered and her real character as hypocritical and slave to conventional morality and social prejudice is exposed. He blames her as a “species of impostor; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one, ” and deserts her instantly. His decision of abandoning Tess for the same misdeed like his own is reflection of gender biased and prejudiced social codes pervading in Victorian age. Tess is as a frightened and scared requests him to show mercy by saying

‘she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? (Tess 296).

But her confession is resulted nothing except lonliness. So her story of misfortunes and sufferings once again starts after a short interval of happiness with Angel. Due to self-respect she hid this truth from her parents and started working in Flintcomb-Ash in accompany of her friend Marian. Conversion of Alec from a sinner to a preacher in six phase ‘the convert’ is evidence of hypocrisy and gender-biasness of Victorian society which condemns victim and exonerates sinner. . Tess ‘sufferings are due to patriarchal and male dominated society which instead of criticizing sinner (Alec) punishes Tess to be innocent. Alec appearance as preacher is deceptive and hypocritical which is exposed as he sees Tess and haunts her. In spite of accepting his guilt he blames Tess by calling her witch.

Alec D’Urberville: “‘You temptress, Tess; you dear witch of Babylon’” ‘I was on the way to, at least, social salvation till I saw you again’” (Tess, p. 323-334)

Title of seventh phase “Fulfillment” suggests Tess will rest now. Angel as a proponent of Victorian social codes he misjudges Tess’s character. After a long journey his exposure is enhanced and he realizes “‘the beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true story lay, not among things done, but among thinks willed. ”He comes back to Tess and apologizes her. Victorian women were assumed as passive creatures having no power of decision making. By challenging this Victorian norm Tess appears as an active and self-determined un-victorian woman who runs away with Angel after killing Alec. She reveals it to Angel in these words: “He has come between us and now he can never do it any more. ” (Tess, p. 380)

After spending six-days with Angel she is captured and hanged. she says

”I am ready “It shows that she realizes that An audacious, self-assured and governing woman like her is not acceptable in a Patriarchal society which accepts only male supremacy in all affairs. Hardy exposes the spirit of Victorian double standards in these lines.

“Yet it was with this blot, and not with the beauty that the two gazers were concerned” (Tess 384).

It suggests that fault was not in Tess but in two men who measured her in terms of social standards. Tragedy of a woman who is sexually assaulted by one man and psychologically exploited by another is outcome of double-standards and rigid conventional codes pervading in Victorian age. Hardy exposes and condemns this patriarchal and gender-biased social system which destroys the life of an innocent ‘Tess’ in these terms.

“The president of the immortals had done justice and had ended his sport with her”(Tess, p. 390)


Victorian women were assumed as submissive, affectionate, chaste and self-sacrificing. Image of ideal Victorian woman was reflected and propagated by Victorian authors in their writings. Hardy condemned and revolted against sexual double standards, social inequalities and rigid conventional morality of Victorian era which persecuted women. Diverging from prevalent literary trends, He presented the picture of new woman in his works especially in form of Tess. Contrasting to the Victorian ideas of womanhood, Tess was a confident, optimistic, audacious woman who revolted bravely against Victorian social and moral conventions. Baptizing sorrow, killing Alec and making love with Angel are evidences of her rebellion. Tess’s liberal attitude, morever her struggle for freedom made her epithet of freedom and reputed Hardy as feminist.

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