The Fallen Woman

In Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Audley’s Secret and Mary Barton, the author writes about the character development of a fallen woman. Each of these texts critiques the society of the time period the author writes in. Within these critiques, there are models for how people of the society should act and also as a counter to the models, the characters that show how not to act. The fallen woman does something that society deems as unforgivable so they are cast from society. Mary Barton’s Ester becomes a prostitute to take care of her baby, Lady Audley represents a fallen woman who keeps a secret and betrays her family, and Tess is raped by Alec which leads complications in her marriage. Each of these fallen women act out of necessity, have a secret to keep and feel ashamed through out the novels.

In Mary Barton, Mary serves as the model woman who is loyal, dedicated and hard working despite the poverty and horror around her. Ester and Mary’s lives parallel. They both work hard to provide for their family because the man in their life left (or is unable to work, in Mary’s case of her father); however, because Ester does so in a way deemed wrong by society, she is cast out. They also both fall for an upper-class man. Marrying a richer man is the only way women have agency in the society. If the man Ester fell for had stayed, her life would have been set. Since the man left her, Ester had no other option and she was forced to act out of necessity to provide for her child. She then flees from her family and keeps it a secret because she is so ashamed. When she sees Mary going down her same path, she desparetly tries to warn Mary. Mary and Ester parallel because any woman could turn into a fallen woman. There are only so many options for a woman. While Ester succumbed to a life of poverty and shame, she was able to warn Mary and help give her a better life.

Similar to Ester, Lucy tries to marry a rich man to get out of poverty, however, her secret comes back to haunt her. When Sir Michael Audley proposes, she tries to refuse and say she doesn’t love him but he persists. Like Ester, marrying rich does not make one a fallen woman. It is what the woman does when something goes wrong that makes her a fallen woman. When Lucy, or Helen’s secret comes out is when she must act of necessity. When George comes back, Lucy fakes her death; when he finds her out, she tries to kill him; and when Robert confronts her, she tries to set a hotel on fire to kill both him and Luke. On top of these acts, she hides another secret: her mother’s heredity madness. All of these things do add up to a fallen woman, so much so, Sir Michael Audley basically flees the moment he finds out. When Ester knew she could not get that life back, she gave up. Lucy fought hard to keep her life in luxury, but it backfired and her real secret of madness came out. Madness is another option for a woman, and in this novel, it seems to be an excuse. The author allows her to die peacefully in a institution despite her actions, and leaves the reader wondering if she learned her lesson like Ester did.

While each of these reasons the women “fell” happened because of a man, the same is true for Tess. Despite her constant decline of Alec’s love, he still rapes her which leaves Tess a tarnished woman. Just as with Ester, society cast her away and she believed it. Tess continues to work, though her self worth is devalued in her eyes, which is why she is distant and removed from Angel, even though she has real feelings for him. When she tells him the truth, he sleepwalks and imagines her as dead. The scene is so obviously how Angel really feels about Tess. Even though he leaves her, Tess is faced with the same problem as Ester and Lucy: marrying a richer man. As we have seen with these two, it does not go well. Tess fights to succumb to the temptation of being taken care of by Alec until he finally convinces her Angel isn’t ever coming back. When Angel comes back, Tess fully surrenders to the “fallen woman” image and kills Alec, though it is out of love of Angel, unlike Lady Audley who does it for selfish reasons. Like Lucy, Tess is able to have a time of peace with Angel where they fall back in love, but unlike Lucy’s death, Tess is taken by the police to face her punishment. Tess battles with temptation throughout the entire book, but with her “moral woman” image being taken from her in the beginning, her fate is set.

Even though, Tess is labeled as a “fallen woman” by society in the very first phase, Thomas Hardy labels her as a “pure woman” before the novel even starts on the title page. This is the difference between Tess and the other fallen women: she is pure despite what she has done. While there are very few options for a woman, Ester does not seem to look very hard before becoming a prostitute. She does not ask her family for help nor does she seek other work. Though it seems she learned her lesson when she tries to save Mary, the author paints a negative picture of her when she implies Ester fleeing is the reason for Mary’s mother’s death. Ester is a fallen woman from the beginning. Several different times the author implies there is something wrong with Lady Audley. The most notable being the dog doesn’t like her. Also, the end of the very first chapter, the author allows the reader to suspect she is hiding something with the description of the lock of hair and locket. Again, from the very beginning, Lady Audley is a fallen woman. Ester and Lucy both act out of necessity but seem to do it easily. The author makes it clear Tess does not love Alec before he rapes her. Tess has preserverance and denies Alec’s proposals many times despite what is happening in her family. Even though Tess eventually succumbs to Alec and then killing Alec, she surrenders to her punishment. She goes willinglingly when the police show up: “I am ready” she says (487). Tess understands what she has done wrong because all along she is a pure woman.

 

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.