Tess Of The d'Urbervilles: Revealing Of Harsh Realities Of Victorian Times

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Literature is a reflection of society. By exposing the flaws in their society, authors challenge the values of their time. Published in 1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy challenges Victorian values. In the text, Hardy exposes injustice towards women during the Victorian Era. He focuses on treatment of women; double standards and the power men wield over women. Hardy is very critical of Victorian values, his narrative perspective project the amount of frustration he has for Victorian society and its values. Hardy’s purpose is to expose the cruel reality on the treatment of women especially, in Victorian society.

The Victorian Era was a patriarchal society, women were commonly mistreated and degraded by men, as they held power and authority in their society. Throughout the text, Tess is treated as inferior by her male counterparts, Alec D’Urberville in particular. In chapter 5, Tess is approached by Alec D’Urberville, he shows her around the grounds of the ‘D’Urberville Mansion’ and insists on feeding Tess a strawberry, Tess refuses, but eventually relents. Alec is described by Hardy “to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life”, this metaphor foreshadows the negative impact Alec will have on Tess’s life. Throughout the book, Hardy associates Tess with the colours white and red. White symbolises innocence and purity, whereas, red symbolises desire and sin. Blood in this context represents the permanent effect Alec’s later actions will have on Tess. ‘Blood-red ray’ is imagery that suggests Alec will succumb to his desire for Tess, and his sin will stain Tess for the rest of her life. When Alec insists on feeding Tess the strawberry, Tess says she “would rather take it in her own hand” to which Alec responds with “nonsense!”. Hardy’s use of dialogue reveals the thoughts and feelings of the characters. It is evident that Tess is uncomfortable with the situation, yet, Alec completely dismisses her desires and continues to force his own inclinations onto her. Alec’s actions foreshadow his unwanted advances later in the novel. Hardy describes Tess as being “in an abstracted half-hypnotized state” after she is fed the first strawberry, this removes the individual agency from her actions as she continues to submit to Alec which shows her powerlessness to him. Alec’s dialogue and actions depict his forceful personality and lack of respect for Tess. Hardy exposes disrespect and abuse of power towards women in his society, as seen when Alec insists on feeding Tess a strawberry, and when she refuses. Not only does he disregard her wishes, he gains control of the situation as soon as she accepts the first strawberry.

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Victorian society espoused double standards between men and women. Repressive values towards women’s sexuality, along with, sexual freedom for men. It was acceptable for men to have love affairs prior to marriage, women must keep their purity till marriage. Towards the end of chapter 34, Tess begins to confess to Angel of her forced “sins”, after he admitted to spending 48 hours with an older woman in London. Tess finishes telling her story in the beginning of chapter 35 and awaits Angel’s response. Chapter 35 is the beginning of ‘Phase the Fifth’, which is titled “The Woman Pays”. Hardy uses the title of this phase to expose the values of Victorian society. In Victorian times, a woman had to be pure, sex outside of wedlock was unmentionable. Tess was made to pay for her own rape. Angel is shocked as “his words were nothing but the perfunctory bubble of the surface while the depths remained paralysed.” Hardy uses this metaphor for water to emphasize the state of shock Angel is in. He is shocked that Tess isn’t the “pure” woman, he thought she was. Tess is constructed by Hardy as a “species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one.” Angel does not see Tess as the woman he once loved, but the woman that has deceived him. This exemplifies the hypocrisy of Victorian morality as Angel’s past actions are considered socially acceptable, whereas, the unwanted advances Tess received are not as she is meant to be a “pure” woman. Tess is ready to accept Angel’s love affair before marriage, whereas Angel does not consider her a victim because Victorian values are deeply rooted in his confined views. The title of this phase foreshadows, Angel’s consequent desertion will throw Tess back into the arms of her seducer, which will then lead to her death as a consequence for her final act of vengeance towards her destroyer. Hardy critiques the prejudice against women in his society, Angel appears to be egoistic as his dialogue is coherent with Victorian values, he believes he cannot forgive Tess for her past, despite his own past. His views are so confined and fixated on the idea of a “pure” woman, which leads him to believe that Tess cannot be forgiven as she unwillingly broke Victorian social conventions.

The Victorian period was a male dominated society; men had both emotional and physical control over women. Tess runs away into the woods in chapter 41, where she discovers dead and dying pheasants. A blood motif is incorporated throughout the chapter to foreshadow the murder and Tess’s death. Both events are results of Alec’s physical and emotional control over Tess. The hunters were described with “blood-thirsty light in their eyes”, Hardy uses this imagery technique to symbolise the fear Tess had for hunters as she cannot understand their desire to kill creatures that are weaker than themselves. Hardy associates Tess with the pheasants as she is as helpless as them, both, suffering at the hands of compassionless men. The hunters represent Alec and men that have abused their position and power over women like Tess. “They grew weaker with the loss of blood in the night-time.”, the pheasants’ pain and suffering is a metaphor for Tess’s emotions towards her own situation. She felt vulnerable and weak at the hands of Alec D’Urberville. Hardy uses emotive and sensory language to evoke emotional responses, “Many badly wounded birds had escaped and hidden themselves away, or risen among the thick boughs, where they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood in the night-time.” This arouses horror and resentment as the pheasants represent Tess, and how she was mistreated, physically and emotionally by men who have power and control over her. The chapter ends with Tess breaking the necks of the wounded pheasants to end their misery. This symbolises Tess metaphorically ending her many years of emotional agony, and foreshadows Tess’s resolution to end her suffering, which is Alec’s murder. Tess believes the only solution to end her years of emotional suffering is to eliminate the cause. Her future actions depict the impact Alec’s physical and emotional control had over her life. He had so much power over her, she had to justifiably murder him to regain control of her life, despite the consequences she knows she’ll face. Hardy reveals the harsh realities of Victorian times, by indicating the amount of power men had over women.    


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