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.