Tess Takes Control

Throughout Tess of the D’Uberville’s, Tess Durbeyfield is a victim. From the very beginning of the novel, when we meet Tess and her drunkard parents, Tess is presented at fate’s punching bag. However, despite her perpetual victimhood, Tess presents a significant amount of agency at different times in her life. At first, Tess is a capable farm girl. Even after Alec takes advantage of her, Tess still shows that she can take care of herself. It isn’t until Tess falls in love with Angel that she becomes an (almost) totally passive protagonist. In these scenes, we can track how Tess has changed in a way that illuminates themes femininity and power.

Soon after meeting Tess Durbyfield, the audience learns that the young lady serves often as her sibling’s primary caretaker. Tess’ parents go off to drink and dream, and Tess is the one who must stay at home and finish the work. After her drunk father sleeps in, Tess takes it on herself to take the bees to market. Even after she accidentally kills the family horse, Tess is responsible for earning the extra income to supplant the loss. Throughout the first phase of the novel, Tess shows that she is capable of acting decisively and independently. Even when faced with Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows agency. The narrator describes Tess’ “eye lit in defiant triumph” after she escapes Alec’s speeding trap wagon (84). In these scenes with Alec, the narrator shows us that Tess has confidence in her decisions and is ready to make decisions on her own terms.

Perhaps the best indicator of Tess’ early agency is the christening of Sorrow. Tess, in great anxiety and fear for her baby’s soul, chooses to christen the baby herself, rather than waiting for an ordained minister to perform the holy act. (123). In this, Tess shows herself to be capable and confident enough to perform one of the Church’s most holy sacraments.

This capable and decisive Tess all but disappears when she falls in love with Angel Claire. Suddenly, Tess begins to listen to and obey everything she is told. Tess totally accepts Angel’s theology, his likes and dislikes, and even his mannerisms (222). In Chapter 35, Tess is absolutely passive as she allows Angel to wrap her like the dead, carry her (in the snow) across a river, and place her in a coffin. Tess appears to have lost all agency. While she’s in love with Angel, Tess seems to have lost the capable farm girl attitude that so defined her in the early chapters.

Near the end of the novel, Tess takes charge once again. After seeing Angel in Sandbourne, Tess takes the carving knife from a breakfast tray, and kills her rapist-turned-husband (383). Let’s talk about power moves. In killing Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows that she is once again in control of her fate, and she has accepted herself as a capable and decisive woman. It’s interesting to note that in almost all scenes where Tess acts out her will, she does so in a taboo or criminal way. Christening a child without the help of the ordained, marrying a man without telling him that you had a baby who died, and most obviously, murdering a wealthy man in a hotel, are all acts that society views as abhorrent. In showing Tess’ agency, Hardy also shows the difficulties working class woman face when attempting to take control over their own lives.

The two hypocrites and the girl who paid the price.

Tess has the worst luck with men. She meets two very different men, who have one trait in common, their hypocrisy. This one trait, differently displayed in each man, is ultimately what brings about her untimely end.

First she is violated by Alec. (Hardy 104). If this wasn’t bad enough, she also becomes pregnant after this incident (120). And to make matters worse her baby dies not soon after. These incidents are enough to compose a novel full of sorrow and anguish. However, Hardy isn’t done with us yet.

Next Tess meets Angel, don’t be deceived by the name. Right off the bat we should have known he was trouble when we find out he ventured off from his clergy ridden family. Later we discover that he has had an affair. (241). A fact Tess finds relief in. She assumes that, because of his affair, Angel will be understanding about her past with Alec. (A past which she never had any fault in, because he assaulted her.)


Angel’s first act of hypocrisy is that he cannot forgive his wife, even though she didn’t chose her indiscretion like he did. So he runs off to Brazil to start a farm. (243). He even tells Tess not to follow him. This shows Angels hypocrisy. He had full agency when he had his affair. But he cannot forgive Tess for something she had no control of.

Heartbreaking and infuriating, I know.

Of course after this display of an unfortunate lack of character from her husband, Tess runs into Alec, who is supposedly a newly reformed clergyman.

Yeah right.

Tess ‘tempts’ Alec again and they become lovers. Now Alec is a clergyman taking advantage of Tess.

Hypocrites 2: Tess 0.

Tess still has little agency in this decision. She has been abandoned by her husband and feels that there is no other option. “You didn’t come back to me, and I was obliged to go back to him,” (384).

Angel returns and becomes angry with Tess for getting back together with Alec.

I just can’t with this guy.

So what happens next? Tess kills Alec and flees with Angel.
I think the audience is supposed to be shocked by this. But after each of these men hurt Tess, either by assaulting or abandoning her, is it really a shock that she would do something so drastic?

She beseeches Angel, “Why did you go away-why did you-when I loved you so? I can’t think why you did it. But I don’t blame you; only, Angel, will you forgive me my sin against you, now I have killed him?” (384). Still she only wants to be loved by Angel. This shows her true love and evermore apparent desperation.

She goes on to exclaim, “Angel, I am almost glad-yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!” (395). This terrible act was a product of terrible circumstances. And for it, of course, Tess is the one who pays the price. She is arrested and executed (396).

The double standards of men, their hypocrisy, became the demise of Tess, a simple country girl. Tess would’ve been better off without a man.

The Necessity of Tess’ Execution

The events of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles are spurred by the concepts of equality and inequality. Hardy crafted this novel as an obvious social commentary on said concepts, and although the novel begins and spends much of it time within the realm of inequality, by its end, true equality is reached. Disclaimer: I run the risk of coming off very heartless in this post; let the record show that I am no Tin Man. I do have a heart.

To be clear, Tess was inarguably a victim of inequality. In fact, she was a victim, period. She was grievously wronged by Alec, and then by Angel, and she suffered consequence after consequence for an event she had no control over. Alec raped her, and society blamed her. That is inequality, and that is wrong. For his part, Alec gets what he wants and moves on with his life, never repenting, never asking Tess for forgiveness or anything of the sort. He even goes so far as to blame her for his actions, making her promise to stop “tempting” him (Ch. 41). Tess, on the other hand, lives underneath the shadow of his actions, and her life is irrevocably changed. She lives in shame, guilt, sadness, and anger… but then Angel comes along, a light in the dark, and she begins to feel the glimmer of hope. Then Angel proves less than angelic, and leaves Tess for the same exact “sin” that he himself had just confessed to also doing (Ch. 34). What’s more is that her “sin” was nonconsensual, and his was very consensual. That is inequality. Clearly, Tess was a victim, and I pity and feel for her. More Alec/Angel drama follows, and her life is still burdened by the inequality of the repercussions that befall her after the night in the woods with Alec.

Then, in a plot twist I certainly did not see coming, Tess kills Alec, and in this moment, Tess stops being a victim, and starts being a murderer. I will never in my life defend Alec. I don’t even feel sorry for him. But two wrongs do not make a right, and despite the countless wrongs Tess endured, her actions were not right, and certainly not justifiable. She tells Angel that she “had to” kill Alec (Ch. 57). I admit that my purely emotional response to the murder was akin to “hey that’s cool,” but logically, Tess made just as bad a decision as Alec did when he raped her, and she took a life. Even though Alec’s mother did not particularly like him much, Tess robbed a mother of her son. She took all of her agency and bundled it into the one action from which there is no return – murder. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, and Tess is executed. That is equality.

Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, presents two opposite ends of the spectrum – inequality and equality – and while Tess is pitiable for the majority of the novel, the fact of the matter remains that, logically, if the reader blames Alec for raping Tess, then the reader also needs to blame Tess for killing Alec. Both people made conscious decisions to do their respective wrongs, and, again, two wrongs do not make a right. Where inequality won the first go around, equality wins the second time.

Rape Culture in the 19th Century

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?” cried Tess, our protagonist, desperately trying to blame someone for her rape (112). Even if it was Alec’s actions, Tess absolutely believes that there was some fault in her for it, even if we know she’s not to blame for Alec’s actions. Did the 19th century audience believe the same, though? How could they, when Tess herself is trying to explain to her mother why she ‘hadn’t been more careful’? And later, to Angel, she repeats that she was “a child when it happened” (246), with no knowledge of men and their awful ways, as if she’s trying to excuse herself of blame. Because men are naturally awful, apparently, and women have to be smart or else it’s their fault. (125 years later, and I can recall arguments I’ve had where the other side argued the same. If I had a mind to be cynical, I could have a field day.) This is what Tess believes, and this is what pretty much all characters in the novel believe, so presumably our 19th century audience thinks the same.

Our author and narrator make their stance on Tess quite clear: she is a pure woman, and stays so throughout the novel (even after she murders someone (383), which is a totally questionable move, but okay, sure). Pretty much everyone else in the novel, however, including Tess herself, disagrees. The tension between narrator and characters plays into the author’s commentary on society and societal expectations, which he thinks are narrow and incorrect. He doesn’t outright attack the rape culture of the time (as our protagonist herself is a part of it), but he does try to undermine it by making the audience empathize with Tess and her unfortunate situation. If they don’t believe she deserved her lot in life, then how could they think her impure? When Angel adopts this way of thinking (343), and agrees that Tess is still a pure woman at the end of the novel, we’re meant to be happy that the couple can get back together. Of course, they can’t be, because tragedy societal expectations say Tess has to be with Alec now that he’s ‘won her back’ (379). Alec says Tess and he were meant to be together by natural law in the first place (336), and Tess herself has had the same thought many a time (162; 195; 252). How can the true love couple be together now? Murder, obviously They can’t, and the novel ends with Tess executed and Angel mourning her – but also with him moving on and leaving her behind (398), because this is the tragedy of Tess, not of Tess-and-Angel.

Angel is depicted as a completely stand-up kind of guy – he’s obviously never someone who would rape anyone, which already puts him ahead of Alec and apparently a lot of other men. Angel is “a man with a conscience” – meaning he sees Tess as a person, with a life as “great a dimension” as his own (177), an unfortunately rare quality for the time since our narrator makes the point of remarking upon it. I’d say this puts him in the same league as Jane Austen’s heroes, who are all pretty much wonderfully moral human beings and end up marrying the heroines of her novels. Of course, he also “plunged into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger” (241), so he’s not actually as perfect as an Austen hero. Maybe that’s why Austen’s novels end with weddings and this novel ended in death. And maybe that’s also why it takes Angel so long to figure out that Tess’s ‘actions’ (like she had any choice) didn’t actually taint her, because beauty is in the “aims and impulses” of a person (343). Meaning, I think, that Angel’s finally reached the point in his life where he can say ‘she meant well’, and judge her on that (I believe this is stage 3 of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development). I’d definitely rather have a Darcy or Knightly any day, but Tess is stuck in love with a guy named Angel (a name I think is meant to be unironic), who tragically takes too long to get his act together.

The last corner of this awful love triangle is Alec, who was way too creepy in Phase 1 than I’m comfortable spelling out. No one else seemed to notice, except maybe his ma, who did nothing. He’s still creepy in Phase 6, when we meet him again. He literally asks her to swear to him that she “will never tempt [him] – by [her] charms of ways” (317). ‘It’s all on you, for making sure I behave’ is what he’s actually saying. And Tess, poor Tess, swears, and then tries to get him to leave her alone. (I’d like to take this moment to say that, when she slapped him with her “warrior’s” gauntlet and he started bleeding (335)? That was really, really satisfying. I was very proud.) When he ‘won her back,’ she actually liked him at that point. She didn’t hate him until Angel came, and she realized that Alec had her trapped. She was happy with him before that, though, and. It’s a very awful situation, being told you should be with your rapist and believing it. She probably shouldn’t have murdered him (not just because murder is wrong but also because he wasn’t worth losing her life to), but I can see how a woman in a culture like that could have felt desperate enough to do it. (Still murder, though.)

The Purity of Nature

While Tess does not remain pure in the strictest sense–she does, after all, commit murder. She is pure in the natural sense, rather than abiding by social law.

Tess is not unsusceptible to the view of society; she certainly feels sorrow and alone when society outcasts after she becomes pregnant with Alec’s baby. However, she has realizations that reveals she is more aligned with nature’s law then most people are. When society rejects her and she feels alone, she feels the least alone in nature: “and it was then, when out in the woods, that she seemed least seem” (114). Once she undergoes her second tragedy (Alec’s rape), she gains more worldly knowledge and realizes that she was not the one who was misaligned with nature; everyone else who sunned her was. She realized, “It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she […] She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself an anomaly” (115). She did not remain pure according to the laws of society; she did, however, remain pure according to the laws of nature: “But for the world’s opinion those experiences would have been simply a liberal education” (127).

We also see how purity relates to nature in Tess’s interaction with Angel. Angel is first drawn to her because of Tess’s withdrawal from society. He tells her, “Society is hopelessly snobbish, and this fact of your extraction may make an appreciable difference to its acceptance of you as my wife” (208), although we later learn that Angel holds on to society’s standards more than he lets on. When Angel does reveal his social values and tells Tess she is a peasant woman, Tess responds by saying “I am only a peasant by position, not by nature!” revealing that Tess believes she is not naturally a peasant (247).

We, of course, can’t discuss Tess’s purity without questioning whether or not she remains pure after she killed Alec. The murder itself is not natural. However, in a way this act set Tess free and allows her to become herself in her purest and most natural form. After she kills Alec, she runs to Angel, and this is one of the only times in the novel where she seems truly content and, ironically, the most innocent. Once she reunites with Angel, he notices, “Unable to realize the gravity of her conduct she seemed at last content; and he looked at her as she lay upon his shoulder, weeping with happiness” (385). Killing Alec may not have been the right thing to do socially, or even morally; however, it was what she felt she had to do, and in that sense, it was an act of nature. It did not last, and she had to answer for her decisions. While I wouldn’t say she was happy about being put to death, she did seem content. She said told Angel, “I am almost glad–yes, glad! […] I have had enough” (395). Despite it being the laws of society that killed her in the end, in a way she was set free from all of the pain society has given her.

People heavily critiqued this novel (because of the subtitle) because they believed purity should be judged by society’s standards, and those who depart are not pure. However, this subtitle was controversial because it caused people to question what they considered pure. This is why Hardy chose to highlight this quality in his title–because Tess was pure, not society’s standards, but by nature’s.

The Tragedy of the Misunderstood Mrs. Clare

In considering whether or not Hardy’s novel is a tragedy, we must recognize that the most common trait of a tragedy is the steady decline of a main character over the course of an agonizing and unfortunate journey. This is most popularly represented in Shakespeare’s stage tragedies: the steady decay of the mad King Lear, or the horrible deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Hardy incorporates this sorrowful journey for his main character Tess, as well as her fateful demise at the novel’s end. But he captures this tragic story while still maintaining a sense of realism that had existed throughout the 19th century. He does so by creating a character that is totally misunderstood by society, and it is this element of misunderstanding from society that seems to have grown over the course of realism in the 19th century that reaches its full tragic potential in Tess.

To be frank, Tess’ entire story is the epitome of depressing. When your main character is brutally raped at the end of Phase One, it is a pretty clear indicator that they will be leading a tragic life. Hardy even prefaces this scene by asking “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” (104). This simple question is a notion that there is a devoid of “angelic protection” from Tess’s life. She has no positive force watching out for her, meaning that her life is going to be full of suffering all the way up to her inevitable death at the novel’s end. Even more tragic regarding her death, is that it is the price she must pay for the sake of her “angelic covering.” Her situation is impossible; in Hardy’s world, Tess is not allowed to be happy. Before she is taken away from Angel, she states, “I am almost glad… This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough” (395). Angel symbolizes Tess’s happiness, and the only way she can ultimately be with him is once she has essentially sacrificed away her own life.

With regards to Tess and society, Hardy uses the tragic elements to increase a misunderstanding amongst herself and those around her. There is nothing more agonizing than watching Tess have to put on an act to everyone because her husband has abandoned her. “Who would think I was Mrs. Angel Clare… I don’t wish people to think who I am by marriage, or that I am married at all; it would be so awkward while I lead my present life” (291-92). She must try to fake it in front of society, and even in front of her family. This is evident in the scene when Tess returns home after Angel has left her. “‘D’ye think he really have married her? – or is it like the first-‘ Poor Tess, who had heard as far as this, could not bear no more” (270). Here, Hardy uses the tragic element of Tess’s situation to show that even her family doubts her innocent nature. She is secluded from all of society and Hardy’s tragic truth about Tess is that her purity is misunderstood. She cannot be what love intends her to be (Mrs. Clare) because society says that her purity already belongs to d’Urberville.

Novelists we read earlier in the century seemed to have an evolving tragic element that grew over the course of their realism. For instance, Jane Austen’s novel early in the 19th century had Emma dealing with serious relational flaws in her society. However, the novel’s ending has a comedic tone in that she eventually makes peace with those she clashes with, and everyone ends up happily ever after. Moving deeper into the century, George Eliot took Maggie’s relational circumstances with Philip Waken and Stephen Guest and used society’s misunderstanding to isolate Maggie, and while she did die tragically at the end, there was a redeeming grace for her in that she died trying to save her brother. Hardy brings the hammer home by bringing this tragic realism to its total fruition. There is no saving grace for Tess. She is killed by society because she killed her rapist; there is no greater misunderstanding left unjustified.

Purity; In the Eye of the Beholder

Image result for purity

Hardy’s description of Tess in his sub-title to the book, calling her “a pure woman”, getting lots of criticism does not surprise me. However, I think it’s important to think about the adjective, “pure” that Hardy uses. What is pure? What are the constraints of being pure? I believe Hardy was not only speaking in terms of sexual purity, but a sense of purity in being a well-rounded human being, a sense of purity in being a loving person, and a sense of purity of one’s mind.

If we first look at this prudish form of purity that many Victorians of the time would have wanted, it’s not a secret that Tess is pure until her rape by Alec. BUT, even though technically she has lost her sense of sexual purity, I would call her still pure because she did not want that to happen to her and we indefinitely see that in the naming of her child, “Sorrow”. To me, that name goes against societal archetypes which could only make sense to someone in her sincere grieving position.

Next, if we look at Hardy’s “pure” adjective as someone who is a well-rounded, loving person, I think Tess fits pretty well. Although, in retrospect, Tess was used and abused by those in society, particularly men. Tess finds love and eventually opens up her feelings. She helps those she comes across and likes to enjoy the smaller things in life, like nature. She’s not a bad person.

Lastly, if we think about Tess having a pure mind, I can’t completely agree with Hardy giving her the title “pure”. I only say this because she is always at a war with her thoughts. Whether it be her rape, Sorrow, or hiding this secret from Angel, she is not free from the guilt in her mind enough to say she has a pure mind.

However, no matter what, she is more pure than the men who use and abuse her in the society. Tess began her life as a nice girl who trusted men, and didn’t associate her body with sexual desire. Tess got victimized, and essentially trapped by the men in this novel which makes society and the ability of men to manipulate her innocence what was not pure, not Tess.



Tess’s Consistency as a Sign of Growth

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s growth does not conform to the moral development characteristic of a bildungsroman. Hardy, through Tess, argues that bildungsroman is an inadequate understanding of personal growth. Tess’s growth is her ability to consistently retain her agency in the face of several different circumstances which temporarily rob her of it. For example, after Alec kisses her on the carriage, she chooses to get off: she “could not be induced to remount” and walks the rest of the way (86). She could not resist the first kiss, signaling her lost agency but recaptures it by getting off. After raping her, he offers to provide for her: “‘You need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best’” (107). Yet she retakes her agency by rejecting his offer and moving to the dairy.

Then her circumstances change. Instead of a villain taking her agency, it is a loved one. Angel Claire compels her to marry him, in spite of her multiple rejections: “‘I told you I thought I was not respectable enough long ago…I didn’t want to marry you, only—only you urged me’” (254). His refusal to accept her rejection removes her agency, giving her only one option: marry him. However, within that single option, she exerts her agency by making marriage as acceptable to herself as possible. She satisfies her conviction to be honest with him and tells him everything about her past. In the face of a circumstance which removes her ability to choose, she makes a choice anyway.

When Angel leaves her, she is left to either give up or wait for him and face several months of isolation. Instead of choosing what would be easier, she not only chooses to wait for him, she refuses to blame him for it. When speaking to Marian, she presents Angel in the best light possible, saying that “Wives are unhappy sometimes; from no fault of their husbands’” (292). In a situation in which she is being pushed to give up on him, she exercises her agency by waiting for him and defending him in front of others.

Yet one might note that Tess did eventually give up on him by moving in with Alec. However, she blames Alec for her decision, stating that he emotionally manipulated her; “‘you had used your cruel persuasion upon me…you did not stop using it’” (381). So when Angel returns from Brazil, she retakes her agency by killing Alec and running away with Angel. Even after her death, she retains her agency because she insisted that Angel marry her sister for “‘it would almost seem as if death had not divided us’” (393). Thus her agency remains active, through her sister, after she dies. While Tess stagnates morally, she consistently recaptures her agency in the face of various attempts to take it from her. This consistency is a form of growth which the bildungsroman does not account for, suggesting it is a limited understanding of personal growth.

It’s Just a Phase

The phases in Hardy’s Tess have an effect on the reader that can be seen solely by their titles. Because he calls them “phases” and gives them names that demonstrate the changes within Tess in each phase, he emphasizes the importance of these shifts in Tess’ development.

The mere fact that Hardy chooses to use the word “phase” instead of “book” or “volume” implies that the novel – and Tess’ growth within it – is fluid and representative of growth or development. In this way, the title “phase” alone lends itself to imply that Tess does in fact have a bildungsroman; phases are impermanent, just as Tess’ state is impermanent throughout the novel.

The titles of the phases also contribute to demonstrating Tess’ bildungsroman. Phase the First is titled “The Maiden,” whereas Phase the Second is “Maiden No More.” This pattern can be seen in the next two phases as well: “The Rally” and “The Consequence,” respectively. The pattern here is that in the first phase, Tess encounters Alec, and she must deal with the consequences of that (the baby and her own grief) in the second phase. Likewise, in the third phase, she encounters Angel and seemingly falls in love with him, while in most of the fourth phase she deals with her guilt, the consequence of not telling Angel about Alec earlier on. In this way, Hardy appears to be showing Tess’ growth through how she copes with the things that have happened to her.

The last three phase titles move away from this pattern, however. Phase the Fifth, titled “The Woman Pays,” appears to be another volume discussing the consequences of her actions. In this volume, we see Tess at her lowest point after Angel leaves her, and at the very end of the section, Alec reappears. This appears to be an inversion of the previous four phases; Angel exits, and Alec returns, which sets up Tess’ temptation in the later phases. In “The Convert,” Phase the Sixth, the title itself implies a complete change from one state to another, and it at first appears to be in reference to Alec and Angel’s conversions: Alec’s questionable conversion to Christianity and Angel’s decision to return home. However, we learn in Phase the Seventh, “The Fulfillment,” that Tess has married Alec to help support her family. As a result, Tess is the real convert in Phase the Sixth – she has decided to give in to Alec. “The Fulfillment,” then, demonstrates the consequences of this conversion – Angel returns, Alec is murdered, and Tess must die. Tess has clearly changed through these three phases, from her lowest point to marrying Alec to her death, but she also must pay the price for the ways in which she has changed.

In Tess, Hardy uses even the volume titles to demonstrate Tess’ unsatisfactory bildungsroman. From calling the volumes “phases” to creating patterns within the phases that match their titles, Hardy underlines the importance of Tess’ growth and development.

A Pure(ish) Woman

The claims Hardy so boldly asserts in his sub-title he then spends the rest of his novel hedging and explaining. Tess is “a pure woman” he declares as he writes away her virginity and detail’s Alec’s murder. Setting aside our thoughts of Tess shaped from the inner dialogue to which we are privy, the facts are startlingly damning in the eyes of Hardy’s society. Tess is impure in the sense that she loses her virginity and has a child out of wedlock, which turns her from a pure woman to a fallen one. She also entraps a gentlemen, an “Angel” no less, into marriage under false pretenses (Ch. 2). This further moves her from fallen woman status into scheming temptress territory. Finally, Tess commits what many, especially the Christian audience Hardy faced, would consider the ultimate sin – murder. Murder is the most brutal manifestation of violence, which makes the act furthermore a violation of her own femininity. Now we’ve moved from temptress to murderess.

Yet Hardy, through the guidance of his narrator and the musings of his characters, continues to assert the innocence of his “dear Tess” (Ch. 8). Tess does, in fact, remain pure, although the criteria for purity to Hardy is different from those of his audience. He replaces moral law and religious order with natural law, often juxtaposing the two. We see this when Tess decides to leave the church where “the people who had turned their heads turned them again as the service proceeded” (Ch. 13). She seeks refuge “out in the woods” where she becomes “an integral part of the scene” (Ch. 13). She is isolated and ostracized among the community of believers, whereas she is connected to the woods, “the haunts of Innocence” (Ch. 13). Hardy closes the scene by finally articulating “she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment” (Ch. 13).

Equating naturalism with purity we can see how Hardy’s ending leaves his “heroine” not doomed but set free (Ch. 10). The murder of Alec is significant not for its violence, but for its symbolism as the means through which Tess “extinguished her moral sense altogether” (Ch. 47). She returns to the woods with “the one man on earth who had loved her purely, and who had believed in her as pure” (Ch. 47). Her death sentence is then not moral justice but a consequence of the clash between social law and natural law.

Cool Hand Mrs. Luke

As its title would suggest, George Gissing’s The Odd Women features many female characters, all of whom come with their own set of characteristics which set them apart from the others. Even in the late nineteenth century, women were funny that way, beginning to form their own personalities and almost – almost – becoming close to human. Mrs. Luke Widdowson, sister-in-law of Monica’s Mr. Widdowson, is one such female character, and a peculiar one at that, with a large and independent presence that is entirely fitting of her, but entirely unfitting of the woman of that time period.

Immediately upon her (late) arrival to Herne Hill in Chapter 12, Mrs. Luke becomes the strongest force in the drawing room, in which wait Mr. Widdowson, Monica, and Virginia. The room, which only moments before her appearance seemed empty even with the other three very much present, is “filled and illumined” by Mrs. Luke “in her sole person.” If the reader learned nothing else of the woman, this one sentence alone would suffice in delivering her characterization clearly and unmistakably. Mrs. Luke is a grand, calm, cool lady. Gissing reports her to be “imposing,” describes her garb, despite it being mourning garb, as that which “inspired awe” in women around her, and portrays her act of bowing as being grand even from a distance. Mrs. Luke is something else, and she knows it.

If such adjectives were not enough, another single sentence concerning the act of her tardiness, and her response to it, communicates the depth to which Mrs. Luke is so different from the other female characters: she “had no thought of apologizing for the lateness of her arrival.” The importance of such a statement cannot be stressed enough. In a time period when women are governed by social norms, when their every move is influenced in some way by good mannerisms and proper femininity, a woman who not only is tardy to a get-together, but who also has no thought of making an apology is just odd. It is rude, yes, and befitting of her condescending nature, but still odd. To be fair, though, her wealth undoubtedly has something to do with her near-dismissal of good manners, but now, perhaps because of said wealth, those characteristics are concrete. They are who she is.

Mrs. Luke fills the drawing room at Herne Hill, and the hole she leaves behind following her departure is one of relief; everyone else can breathe again. Monica and Virgie agree that Mrs. Luke is “personally detestable” and even the next day, Mr. Widdowson tells Monica that he does not necessarily like her, but what follows is where I will conclude. Widdowson tells Monica that Mrs. Luke “is a very difficult person to understand.” Notice, he does not say she is a difficult woman to understand, perhaps in part because women should not be difficult to understand. Mrs. Luke is her own larger-than-life person, and she thrives in being so.

Please note: I did not continue on to characterize Lady Horrocks, a) because 500 words is not enough to do her persona and Mrs. Luke’s persona justice, and b) because they are almost two completely different characters despite technically being one and the same.

Monica: The New Woman

It’s apparent when reading this novel that Rhoda Nunn is the ideal New Woman. She is independent and wants more out of life than marriage. However, Monica represents an important group of women during this time: the ones in the middle. Monica wants to find a husband and even love; however, there are certain ideals that Monica isn’t willing to give up about herself. She represents the women of this time who were not yet ready to break out and be fully independent, yet who still were willing to stand up for themselves.

Monica is very naive (yet perceptive) when she firsts agrees to marry. She knows she doesn’t love Widdowson, but she is willing to marry him. However, she becomes more independent and stands up for herself after her scandal occurs. She begins to stand up for herself when her husband has someone follower her and thinks that she is having an affair. Monica then decides to leave her husband and truly does not care about what anyone thinks. She says, “I don’t care for anything let them believe and say what they like” (297). Monica refuses to go back to her husband, something that most women would do, and her logic reveals that she is more of a New Woman than she lets on. She says, “It is not my duty. It can be no woman’s duty to live with a man she hates–or even to make a pretence of living with him” (304). She also notes, later, “A deceitful woman, in my circumstances–you don’t understand them–would have cheated her husband into forgiving her–such a husband as mine. She would have calculated the most profitable course” (308). Monica reveals that while most woman might do anything and say anything to get back with their husbands because it is the most profitable, it isn’t worth it to Monica. Monica would rather stand her ground than take the easier course that may result in the most profitable and go back to her husband.

Monica is a tragic character. What she wants is innocent enough: love and a good life. What she gets is a terrible husband, a scandalous reputation, and a tragic ending, all of which she (arguably) doesn’t deserve. Perhaps Gissing gave her a tragic ending because he thought poorly on Monica’s type of woman: someone who (at first) looks down in single, independent women and wants love and wants a husband. Monica’s death may have been Gissing’s only option because society is unable to accept Monica’s type of New Woman; society will no longer accept her no matter what she does. Perhaps this shows Rhoda Nunn’s New Woman is better than Monica’s New Woman; she certainly strived for independency and was proud of it. However, Monica’s character reveals that there are more than just the independent New Woman and the Old Woman who only wants marriage and is not independent. Monica’s New Woman likely represents a large group of women at this time; women who still want marriage but who don’t think they should give up their values and beliefs.

The Dangers of Being the Not So Odd Woman

For a while, while reading The Odd Women by George Gissing I thought everything was going to work out for the Monica. If by work out I meant that she would leave her husband and elope with the man she really loved. Fortunately (and unfortunately) it didn’t. I think if everything ended happily for the women of this novel George Gissing would have lost a central point to his social commentary. The Odd Women, the one’s who don’t get married, or who are forced to marry someone they don’t love, are irreparably harmed by society. So Monica had to die, as a tribute to the odd and not so odd women in the world.

Monica was a not so odd woman. Monica clearly wanted to get married in life and even laments her sisters for not getting married. She says they would be better off “if the poor girls [her sisters] had never been born,” (Gissing 57). This shows Monica and societies view of women and marriage. It was a necessity for women to get married. It was their purpose. They might as well not have existed if they remained unmarried.

Monica chose to exist. However, she ended up married to the wrong man. Edmund ends up being an overly jealous and abusive husband. Granted she was going to elope with Bevis while being married to Edmund, so his jealousy wasn’t completely unfounded.

Monica ends up pregnant and estranged from her husband, Edmund, and dies in childbirth. This shows that the society, where women are only valuable in marriage, forces young women into marrying men they don’t actually want to marry. This kind of loveless marriage can create animosity within a couple. And for Monica this led to death (332). Because, though not completely true, only married women of the time would have to face the risks of childbirth. If Monica had remained unmarried her life never would have been in danger. But fear of being ostracized by society led her into a bad marriage and the dangers of childbirth.

There is also definite symbolism in the fact that Monica gave birth to a daughter, a future odd woman, at the end of the novel. With the final words of “Poor little child!” (332) we are able to see continuity into the future. That continuity is that the struggle of women in society. This new motherless child represents a new generation of women would will have to conform or become odd women. And chances are that the odd women’s lives will not end happily ever after.

Narrator and Narration in The Odd Women

When we start our story with Doctor Madden, he talks a lot about his daughters (naturally). There’s a little 15 year old girl who’s visiting at the moment – she makes him a bit uncomfortable with her “radical notions” (Chapter 1), so he doesn’t really invite conversation with her, but she’s a friend of his daughters, and that warrants invitations to dinner. His oldest daughter occupies his thoughts more, because she’s his confidant to his hopes and dreams for the family. Quite clearly, in Doctor Madden’s view, Rhoda Nunn is the periphery character, while Alice Madden will have center (or slightly off-center) stage. Then he dies, and our narrator switches – or, perhaps more accurately, our narrator changes focus, and our narration shifts. By the end of the novel, we know that Rhoda is the star, and Alice is a background character (who spends most of the novel not there). But is that true? Can there be a protagonist in a novel where overlapping narrations and changing perspectives muddle things up to the point where we have to figure things out for ourselves?

Our narrator doesn’t have much of a personality – he flits from character to character, and sometimes to outside-of-character, such as our awareness of Rhoda’s witnessing Everard’s confidence with Monica, without glimpsing her thoughts (but oh, we can guess them) (Chapter 18). We are often introduced to a character several times, sometimes before we come to them ourselves. For example, we see Monica the five-year-old from her father’s eyes (Chapter 1), Monica the twenty-year-old from her sisters’ comments (Chapter 2), and Monica herself from her own views of her life and of others’ (Chapter 4). We don’t stop there, however. We get her from Miss Barfoot (Chapter 6), Rhoda (Chapter 7), and Everard, who is the first to introduce us to her as “Mrs. Widdowson” (Chapter 14). Monica has to reintroduce herself to us as Mrs. Widdowson, too (Chapter 16). So many different views of a character, and not all can agree. She’s merely on the periphery of Everard’s story – a sad creature, with a sad story, who he decides to trust. Rhoda doesn’t think of her at all, or thinks very little of her (at least until the end). Her sisters think her lucky, then stubborn; her husband thinks her both perfect and confounding, then a liar. We know her better, but only because we’ve heard her narration, which we know we can trust in relation to her own thoughts and actions (at least, when she’s honest with herself). In relation to other characters, though, how much does she really know?

She and Rhoda often share the spotlight, as side-characters in each other’s stories, and these narration shifts emphasize, I think, the realism of this novel. Little worlds are contained to their star player, and outside of themselves they are smaller, and their problems smaller (if they exist at all). We have so many big characters, whose perspectives shape so much of the narrative, but our narrator also gives us smaller characters, like Virginia, who’s unnamed drinking problem exists from almost the beginning, and is obvious to us in the background of other narrations. She is very much a realist element, too, because she’s so, so small in the narratives we’re given to focus on, but still very much there, with her own problems, which go unnoticed for so long. And we know this problem before so many of the ‘main’ characters do, just as we know about Rhoda’s misunderstanding and Everard and Monica’s innocence.

We are left in the dark about some things, however. Miss Barfoot’s feelings for her cousin she was very good to never show us until it was most convenient (and maybe most shocking) (Chapter 21). Rhoda, evidently, was also aware, because she knew Miss Barfoot so well as to read her manner. This just shows us that, while in some ways we’re more knowledgeable about both characters and situation than the characters in the book, we actually don’t know everything. We think we’re learning all about them, but still they manage to hide themselves from us.

I think Gissing uses his narrators to comment on society, with all its limitations. The multiple introductions to a character, seen through so many eyes; the differing narrations, that are limited to the one person at their center; the lack of character understanding, on both our behalf and on theirs. We can’t know each other, not wholly and perfectly. Maybe not even at all. Misunderstandings will abound, and we can see why, but we also can’t stop it. We have characters we focus more on than others in this story, but we also have characters that all matter in their own narrations. I don’t think there can be a protagonist, anymore than there can be one in life, because there’s no single narration, and no narration agrees with another on the main problem, and the main character with it.

Everard and Rhoda; Secret and Opposite Lovers

Perhaps one of the most passionate conversations in Gissing’s social-problem novel, The Odd Women, was Everard Barfoot’s confession of love for Rhoda Nunn. This conversation, which may be said to go on for two separate meetings and a letter, show Barfoot’s love towards Rhoda; a love that transcends traditional gender boundaries in favor of an intellectual pairing of individual personalities. These conversations also display Rhoda’s commitment to her lifestyle of helping the “odd women” in British society.

Rhoda Nunn is established in The Odd Women as the epitome of the proud and independent woman in English society. Rhoda is described of as “full of practical expediments. The most wonderful person! She is quite like a man in energy and resources” (57). This explanation of Rhoda illustrates her as the quintessentially independent woman. Additionally, Virginia describes Rhoda Nunn as “the first woman [she had seen] daring enough to think and act for herself” (52). Rhoda don’t need no man…until she meets Everard Barfoot.

Everard Barfoot initially presents himself as quite opposite to Rhoda Nunn. Everard is remembered as having committed an immoral act with a young woman in his youth, and is regarded as a rascal by his cousin and Rhoda’s mentor, Miss Barfoot.

Considering the initial characterization of these two important characters, the conversation in which Everard Barfoot explains his love for Rhoda becomes one of the most important scenes in the novel. In these three stretched-out scenes, Barfoot attempts to explain to Rhoda the serious and untraditional nature of his love. One very early example of the untraditional nature in which Barfoot courts Rhoda is in asking her for flowers very early in their relationship. Women at this time, and in our time, would typically be presented with the flowers, but Everard flips this tradition to show Rhoda that he is not the average man. Everard Barfoot also explains his openness in allowing his potential wife (Rhoda) absolute freedom in marriage. Barfoot says: “If my wife should declare that she must be released…I should admit that the suffering couldn’t be helped” (161). In this, Everard attempts to show Rhoda how serious he is about expanding upon traditional gender stereotypes of love, to allow her the freedom any woman of her disposition would desire in a relationship.

Of course, Rhoda denies Everard’s affection in these preliminary conversations, although the narrator describes her lip quivering and her cheeks blushing (163). Despite her coy smiles and hints at interest, Rhoda denies Barfoot in his offer of love and marriage, and, in doing so, fulfils her role as the example of the “odd woman,” oddly unhappy. Everard, on the other hand, appears to grow out of the younger self his reputation supposes him to be, and in these conversations with Rhoda, he opens up to new possibilities of marriage.