2 November 2017

Why Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a feminist novel // Put on Paper

Hello everyone!

Over the last several months I have been reading one of the most talked about pieces of feminist literature from the Victorian era. Admittedly, it has taken me a long time to finish this masterpiece but it was so worth the wait.

I spent the entirety of this novel with my heart throbbing in my chest as Hardy depicted the horrific lives of women in the 1800s with such honest brutality. I have been dying to write this blog post to explore my thoughts on this book which is so arguably relevant today, especially during this week's light on sexual harassment.
Spent the entire book wondering why it has stonehenge on the front, now I understand
Alec D'Urberville, the villain of the tale, is a symbol of Victorian attitudes towards women. His persistent attitude towards Tess leaves her terrified. In the beginning, he forces her to kiss him after her refusing and making it very clear that "I don't want anybody to kiss me" then continues to stalk her, then rapes her, and then four years later he begins to stalk her again. In a society where persistence for a woman one loves was romantic, Hardy's depiction of Alec D'Urberville as sleazy and untrustworthy was out of place, but one that any woman would have been able to relate to then,  and can relate to now. Hardy makes it very clear that men like Alec D'Urberville were not rare, as he constructs other characters who heckle her due to the "attention she excited by her appearance" which resulted in "rude words" being "addressed to her more than once". To highlight the severity of these comments, Hardy had Tess dress in "one of the oldest field gowns" as she "nipped off her eyebrows" to make herself look ugly to escape from the harassment.  A woman's worth in the 1800s was her beauty and for Tess to give it up out of desperation would have shocked many and invoked their sympathy.
Lake District courtesy @anjibabes instagram
Furthermore, Hardy brought light to the misery of 'fallen women' in the late 18th century. He emphasizes the unjust consequences of Tess' "relationship" with Alec D'Urberville through irony: Angel Clare reveals to Tess on the night of their marriage that before her he "plunged into eight and forty hours' dissipation with stranger", a voluntary act which probably left that woman in the same horrific state Tess had been in. This gives Tess the confidence to tell him of her past in the hope that he would forgive her as she forgave him, but after "her narrative ended" he claims that "you were one person; now you are another".  Hardy had spent the chapters previously building up to this moment with them falling in love and Tess holding back the wedding, desperate to tell him her story, the reader praying that Angel would forgive her and love her still, just to completely decimate any hopes at all with Angel Clare's "horrible laughter". The reader empathises with Tess as she "shrieked 'O have mercy upon me". The pain Clare puts her through in his dismissal of her is so heart wrenching for the reader. I just sat and cried. Any modern reader would be disgusted when he claims that Alec is her "husband in nature" as justification but then women had less or no sexual liberation and the fact that Tess was raped and forced into that situation would not have crossed his mind.

After this, Angel flits off to Brazil, leaving her to be with her family. After running out of money, she goes to find work at Flintcomb-Ash farm. Hardy uses pathetic fallacy throughout the chapters where she works here to reflect Tess' state of mind. The imagery of the farm focuses on the "desolate drab" colour of the fields and the "white vacuity" of the sky.  Even the farm's title "Ash" implies death and misery. The lifeless, colourless state of the farm mirrors Tess' emotions with her husband gone.  Hardy builds up tension to the point of Tess' wedding day and then sends floods of tumultuous emotion through the reader to mirror the chaos of Tess' life and then all of a sudden, she is left with nothing. She has no home, her family is dying and her husband who she loves so much has left her and she believes that he hates her. She is lifeless, she has been run dry completely. This reflects the lives of 'fallen' women of this period: they are left with nothing as society deserts them. Throughout the novel nature is used to reflect Tess' gruesome, despondent story: for example Hardy emphasizes from the beginning of the novel that this story is going to be violent and miserable through the death of the family horse who Tess believes she "killed".  Furthermore, the incident with the pheasants and their "rich plumage dabbled with blood" creates a gruesome and painful image which does not simply distract from Tess' story and her pain but reflects it and foreshadows her own gruesome end.

Moreover, another example of the consequences Tess faces due to Alec D'Urberville is her baby.  A pregnant, unmarried girl in that era would have been disgraced by society but Tess' baby's fate is so much worse. Hardy creates a beautiful scene with the "little ones kneeling round" as Tess' attempts to baptise her baby. The imagery of Tess with her "face a glowing irradiation" and "red spot in the middle of each cheek", "eye-pupils shone like diamond" creates this image of an angel, a "divine" being, which justifies completely that this is holy and Christian and real, despite the absence of a pastor; this detail seems irrelevant to the reader. However, this only makes it all the more painful when the child is laid to rest with the "drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned", as a result of the sin of Alec D'Urberville.

Can we say Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a proto-feminist novel? Clearly Hardy set out to highlight the cruelty in the structure of society at this time through this heart-breaking tale, but still he colludes to some of the conventions through the romanticism of the idea of Tess' being Angel's "property" for example. However, Tess' story clearly defines many issues women faced and still face today. It would be so simple to replicate this in a modern setting as for many women the conditions are the same and the societal backlash would not be much different. How we can be 100 years later and this is the case is beyond me.

Perhaps we need another Thomas Hardy to remind us.

// Jeani

Subscribe for secret tips and tricks to Ace Your Mocks!


  1. Hi Jeani
    I love the way you write about this classic book and how it parralles what is happening in todays society. Women seem to have had it bad for a long time now (like forever) and hopefully times are changing. Its a long slow change that is taking hundreds of years but hopefully your daughters, grand daughters and great granddaughters will feel the benefit of the changes that women in the past and today's women have, are and will continue to force.

    1. I think you’re right, hopefully one day the future generations of women will not be able to relate to Tess and will not be able to see a parallel quite as strong as we can today!

  2. Hey, I love your blog! It's so cool! I've got my own blog which is kind of similar, it's a lifestyle blog about fashion, hair, makeup, general life hacks, rants, music etc. It would mean the world to me if you could check it out! I've had the blog for about 3 years now, and I've recently had to move it due to email issues, so I'm not getting very much traffic. Do you have any tips on getting publicity? Thanks! Here's a link: https://loving-the-teen-life.blogspot.co.uk/ . Teenage Blogger x

  3. Excellent post and so true and well written. I loved Tess when I read it years ago, and I definitely need to do a re read.

    Amy @ A Magical World Of Words

  4. This was a fascinating post and I'm so glad you're shared it! Looking forward to starting it now :)


  5. This looks like a really great review! I'm actually reading the book attached the moment, so I won't read the whole thing now because I don't want any spoilers, but I'll bookmark it for when I've finished, because I'd really like to see your view on it :) I'm loving the story so far, though I already know In going to spend the whole book feeling really bad for Tess!


Thank you for commenting on my blog - I'm having trouble at the moment with replying to comments but I would like you to know that I really appreciate your comment and would love to have a discussion with you elsewhere about this blog post!

Thank you // Jeani