Tess as a 'Pure Woman'

Although Hardy only added the novel's subtitle, 'A Pure Woman' at the last minute in one of the later editions, various changes in the text suggest he had been changing his emphasis to bring out Tess's purity.

Victorian and present-day attitudes to purity

When Tess of the d'Urbervilles was first published in 1891, there was a huge debate about whether Hardy should have described Tess as pure. According to conventional Victorian morality (based on the teachings of the church) no one who had engaged in pre-marital sex could be described as ‘pure'. Rather they were to be seen as ‘fallen' into sexual sin – mistresses and prostitutes were commonly described as ‘fallen women' and shunned by polite society (although their male partners were not!).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, readers are more likely to be troubled by Tess's murder of Alec, rather than her sexual experiences. It would seem an act of gratuitous violence. Why could she not just walk out on him?

Only by reading the novel in Hardy's terms, rather than their own, can students appreciate that there is a deeper level on which to discuss the issue, involving intentions, desires and human endurance. This is where the universality of the novel lies. This contextual awareness is also necessary in order to understand Hardy's masculine construction of femininity in general, and female sexuality in particular.

Establishing purity

Hardy establishes Tess's purity in a number of ways:


Hardy does not actually provide the details of the worst things that happen to Tess:

  • Her violation by Alec (Ch 11)
  • The period of living with Alec immediately afterwards (Ch 12)
  • Tess's confession to Angel by letter (Ch 33)
  • Her confession to him face to face (Ch 34)
  • Her arguments against Christianity that help cause Alec to lose his faith
  • How she was persuaded to live with Alec again
  • The act of murdering Alec.

It might seem that Hardy was bound by convention not to be explicit, but it is much more probable he used these limitations to exploit ambiguity. This is a much more modern way of writing, forcing the reader to reconstruct events and then challenging this reconstruction. It also spares us the grisly details, so that a more idealised vision of Tess may be maintained.

Bringing out the flaws of Alec and Angel

In revising the text, Hardy makes the men seem worse:

  • An element of force is added to Alec's seduction to make it seem as though it could have been rape (in the initial serialisation, Alec involved her in a bogus marriage)
  • Alec's conversion is made to seem more superficial
  • Angel's hypocrisy is emphasized.

The potential difficulty of making the men more evil is to make Tess seem more a victim rather than establishing her purity. You need to consider what you think.

Including dramatic and symbolic episodes

Hardy creates a number of dramatic situations which symbolically reinforce Tess's innocence:

  • The baptism of her baby (Ch 14)
  • Angel's sleepwalking and Tess's 'burial' (Ch 37)
  • Her purgatorial sufferings at Flintcombe-Ash (Ch 42, 43)
  • Her idyllic stay with Angel in the New Forest (Ch 57)
  • The final sacrifice of herself at Stonehenge (Ch 58).

In terms of symbolic colour imagery, Hardy associates Tess with images and descriptions of white in particular (see Colour symbolism for further detail), though the presence of red increasingly haunts her.

Direct comments

Direct comments about Tess's virtue are made either by Hardy as narrator or other characters, for example:

  • Angel's assertion to his mother, with Hardy's comments (Ch 36)
  • Izz's confession of Tess's love for Angel (Ch 40)

Emphasising Tess's virtues

Tess is frequently seen to act with integrity and responsibility, such as:

  • Her sense of responsibility for her hapless family (Ch 3, 4, 38, 50)
  • Her efforts to commend the other girls to Angel (Ch 22)
  • Her patient acceptance of Angel's judgement (Ch 35, 36, 37), linked to her loyalty, resignation and renunciation, all of which were regarded as female virtues by the Victorians (Ch 44, 45)
  • Her refusal to pity herself (Ch 41).

Emphasising her self-condemnation

Hardy does not deny Tess has weaknesses (see Characterisation: Tess), but when Tess blames herself excessively, the reader tends to defend her against herself, e.g.:

  • Causing Prince's death (Ch 4)
  • Feeling condemned by the sign-writer (Ch 12)
  • Hardy's comments on her feelings of guilt (Ch 13).

Linked themes: Laws of nature vs. laws of society; Tess as a victim

See also: Colour symbolism; Characterisation

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.