The End of the Fallen Women

Many novels deal with the idea of the fallen woman and her fate. The Mill on the Floss, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles each do just that. While the respectability of the women and their ends differ in each, there is an idea of the woman being replaceable, or at least being unnecessary to the other characters, in all three of the novels. The endings for these fallen women show how they were viewed. While writers garnered sympathy for their characters, in the end they had to be disposed of, and life had to carry on.

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie is deemed to be a fallen woman after her extended boat ride with Stephen. When she returns, she is rejected by most of society, including her brother. While Phillip, her mother, and others do take her side, most of society sees Maggie as someone to avoid, even though she did not actually do anything with Stephen. However, this is enough not only to gain the ill will of the town she grew up in, but also for her to have to die. When the flood comes, she and her brother Tom die in each other’s arms, their ship sunk by debris in the water. Maggie had to die despite not actually doing anything wrong. In the end, Maggie is dead, and Stephen has moved on to be with Lucy. Life carries on, and while Phillip is sad and alone and Stephen visits her grave, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care about the fate of this fallen woman.

Things are worse in Lady Audley’s Secret, however. When Robert discovers that Lady Audley is the wife of his friend, George Talboys, he exposes her to his uncle Michael Audley. Lady Audley’s fate for marrying two men is not death like Maggie. She instead gets sent off to a sort of mental institution where she cannot bother either of her husbands anymore. She is just shoved out of the story at the end, despite all the sympathy the narrator tries to make the readers feel for her. While she is not replaced by either George or Michael, she is shown to be unnecessary to either. George lives with his sister and Robert, and Michael has his daughter to depend on. Everyone seems to get along fine with Lady Audley out of the picture, almost as though she never existed at all, save for the melancholy of the men who had married her.

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, however, the main character is actually replaced, at her own suggestion. Tess is a fallen woman because of what Alec did to her. She keeps what happened to her a secret, however, and by doing so is able to marry Angel. Once he finds out about Alec, he wants nothing to do with Tess, leaving her to fend for herself and eventually to be drawn back to Alec’s side. When he comes back for her though, Tess longs to be with him, murdering Alec so that she can. She is caught and persecuted for this crime, and interesting change from being punished for being fallen. Lady Audley of course did try to kill people, but Tess here is punished solely for her murder of Alec. She too though is replaced, this time by the younger sister whom she told Angel to be with when she was caught eventually. Tess’s death is in line with getting rid of a fallen woman, but the sister getting with her husband, at her own suggestion, is not. Still, however, to most of society Tess was a fallen woman, so she had to die in the end.

Tess of the d’Ubervilles stands out from other novels about fallen women because Tess is killed for a different, though related, crime and because Tess is replaced by her younger sister. Tess being killed for murder shows that the real crime was that she was influenced into taking such measures after all the terrible things that had happened to make her fallen. Her being replaced by her sister shows a form of sympathy for her, trying to have Angel be with Tess, or the closest thing to her, while still getting rid of the fallen woman who has no place in society. So while all these novels deal with fallen women, giving them bad fates and showing that they are unnecessary to the people in their lives, Tess of the d’Ubervilles goes farther, showing that the fallen women are only criminals because of the extreme situations wrongly forced upon them. It demonstrates that, if the woman had not done the one thing that made her fall, she would have been able to have a good life like readers can presume Tess’s sister can have with Angel. The way this novel deals sympathetically with the fallen woman sets it apart from others and makes it a novel truly worth studying.

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.

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.