Feminism 101

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Tess of the D’urbervilles // Thomas Hardy

Hardy can be considered as one of the first feminists in literature as he brings to attention questions of morality affecting women in everyday situations and also attacks religious and social excuses made for the immoral and misogynistic actions of men. A number of Hardy’s female characters seek to break the constraints of the Victorian middle class society and seek education, such as in Jude the Obscure. In Tess of the D’urbervilles Hardy attacks social and moral conventions that victimise women and defends more liberal views, writing about topics such as pre-marital sex, rape and illegitimate children, which were taboo during his era.

Throughout the novel, Tess is let down or controlled by male figures surrounding her life. The first chapter begins with a vivid description of the epitome of a failed man: John Durbeyfield, Tess’s father. He is flawed in his obsession with status and is also incapable of looking after his family, mainly due to his drinking habits. Alec, her first suitor, is also an example of an inadequate, male figure. He tries to pressure and control Tess and eventually rapes her. Alec never faces the consequences for his actions and even blames Tess for her enticing beauty, but Tess must live with the repercussions caused by his crime that impact upon every aspect of her life, right up to her final execution. Here, Hardy challenges the reader to question the patriarchal society and the view that men are always infallible and hold higher moral ground. This is a huge step in achieving greater gender equality during the conservative Victorian era.

Despite Tess being an example of a near ‘perfect’ model of womanhood, she is subject to gender stereotypes throughout the novel. Her “feminine loss of courage” and “woman’s instinct to hide” portray the outdated view that women are lesser than men in personal and psychological strength. This could be a reflection of Hardy’s real views on the female sex, however I believe that it serves to provide valid insight on the attitude towards women at the time. Tess’s supposedly feminine weakness and lack of strength prove to also be the fatal flaw in her character as she accepts Angel’s condemnation of her ‘purity’. Her death shows that giving into the constant, unbearable pressure to be a ‘good wife’ or ‘pure’ woman suggests the need for change in the attitudes and expectations of women. Tess of the D’Ubervilles may not at first seem to be a text of great importance to the feminist movement but on closer inspection it can be identified as one of the most poignant novels in history, one that helped raise issues that are still being discussed to date.

Words by Betsy Middleton

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