The Problem With Tess

After finishing Tess of the D’Urbervilles I wrestled with the ending of the novel and the image of Tess it seems to portray. Throughout the novel Tess is painted as a selfless young girl who would do anything for her family. Her mother and father knowingly sending her to the house of Alec D’Urberville, and she suffers through his bewildering harassment, and then at the end of the novel returns to his bed in order to feed and house her remaining family despite Tess trying time and time again to resist him in the latter half of the novel. When Angel comes back and sees Tess in her new finery, we lose Tess’s perspective completely and the rest of the novel is seen through several different points of view, including Angel’s and the innkeeper.’s We have no notion of what Tess is thinking or feeling. It is implied that Tess kills Alec out of shame, guilt, and giving into temptation. However I don’t agree with this reading of the novel. Tess has suffered considerably in her short life, and everything that Tess ever did was for the betterment of her own family. She did what was expected of a woman in her position at her time, and endured only sorrow as a result. The only choice she really was able to make herself was in her marriage to Angel. For Tess, seeing him finally come back to her after she has already sacrificed herself yet again for the good of her family was truly the last straw, and I don’t blame her for her rage. Alec then becomes an easy target, since he was the direct source of all of the sorrow in her life. At this point, it is too little too late to regain her freedom and she is sentenced to death. Instead of having Tess’s death be tragic and sad, it is almost predictable. It becomes the punch line to a cruel joke of the fallen woman story. In this last half of the novel, we lose the personality of Tess and only hear about what happens to her from outsiders looking in. Hardy phases us out, and makes Tess just another sad story instead of a character who’s thoughts and feelings we as readers have come to care about. Her dying is so ridiculously gothic it seems almost comical, and she becomes a bona fide sacrifice on the shrine of all of the fallen women.  I believe that the there is room to interpret the ending of the novel as raising the question of whether or not there will always be “Tess’s” of the world and that a woman’s status is dependent on her perceived purity, faithfulness, and loyalty. This can be perceived as incredibly sexist of Hardy, but perhaps he is trying to convey a greater message that as a society we expect women to be not only pure, but good daughters, sisters, and wives. Tess is an example of the consequences of that pressure, and we as a society must look out for our women so that they do not fall victim to a similar way of thinking.

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