Sexual predation

Sex and class

This theme can be linked with the Disempowerment of the working class, as the only examples we see of sexual predation are connected with middle-class men exploiting working class girls.

More on sex and class in Hardy's work: In Hardy's other novels, such as Jude the Obscure, sexual predation is working class on working class (Arabella on Jude), so it is dangerous to generalise what Hardy is saying from just one novel.

One example in Tess is the way in which the farmer at Flintcombe-Ash exploits Tess's labour by making her work on the machine doing heavy manual labour. It might seem at first just economic exploitation, but there is enough in the account of previous meetings to suggest a sexual, rather than just a gender, basis.

Alec as sexual predator

The most obvious and classic example of sexual predation is Alec's of Tess in particular, and other farm girls in general.

More on sexual predation in English novels: Alec's actions follow in the pattern of many English novels, from Samuel Richardson's eighteenth century Pamela, through Dickens and George Eliot:
  • It takes the form of seduction and/or rape, the birth of an illegitimate child, disgrace and death. The case of Hetty in Eliot's Adam Bede is a classic case
  • Sometimes, as in Mrs Gaskell's Ruth, repentance and redemption are possible, but generally, the girl still fares very badly
  • Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is a deliberate counter to this moral tradition, which sees the whole thing as comedy rather than tragedy.
Hardy differs from this tradition very little.

The reader's attitude

Hardy wants readers to condemn Alec, but is in danger of undermining his position by defending the law of nature, into which Alec fits perfectly as an alpha male (Ch 47). In addition, Alec at times does seem genuinely fond of Tess and offers to help her. In his conversion stage, he even offers to marry her and briefly suffers some remorse (Ch 46).


Alec's murder stands at the extreme end of the moral tradition. Often the sexual villain does get his comeuppance, but not usually at the hands of the girl he has wronged. It is, on the one hand, melodramatic; on the other, a bid for freedom from the past by Tess. However, the outcome is that Tess's death is required by the law.

Predatory images

Images of predation abound:

  • Hunting (Ch 41)
  • Entrapment (Ch 48)
  • Phallic symbolism in the lit cigar (Ch 10)
  • Moustache, garments and gestures associated with the villain of popular melodrama
  • Descent and fall (Ch 8).

Different types of predation

Hardy's later revisions added to the stereotype of Alec as predatory male, in an effort to establish Tess's purity (see Tess as a 'Pure Woman'):

  • Alec establishes sexual mastery and Tess acknowledges herself as being mastered (Ch 12)
  • Alec gains economic mastery over Tess, his money contrasting with her poverty, channelled through gifts to her family - gifts that do very little good to them in the end (see also Ch 9).

Angel's predation

An unlikely predator

Angel is a much more unlikely candidate as predator:

  • He appears to be the hero, a thoroughly decent young man
  • The fact that no fewer than four dairymaids become infatuated with him is hardly his fault
  • He is careful not to take advantage of them - the contrast with Alec is deliberately drawn (see Characterisation: Angel).

However, Angel's bizarre behaviour when he asks Izz to go to Brazil with him shows just what he is capable of.

‘Playing' with Tess

In one sense, Angel's predation of Tess is from an excess of virtue, in that he idealises her as, 'a visionary essence of woman'.

However, he is trying to mould Tess into what he wishes her to be. Tess is as uncomfortable with this image of herself as she is with Alec's attentions. She is Tess, not Artemis or Demeter or some other goddess (see Characterisation: Tess). In the end, Angel's lack of reality is what causes his rejection of Tess. He claims, 'I loved some other woman'.

Complete ruin

In the end, Angel causes Tess's ruin as completely as Alec ruins her, casting her out to fend for herself with a casual gift of money which inevitably gets largely spent on her family. The one thing he does not do, have intercourse with her, actually leaves Tess in exactly the same social and economic position as if he had not married her but simply slept with her: not properly married but nevertheless dependent.

Deception and honesty

Honesty and equality

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy upholds the importance of honesty between a man and a woman if any sort of equality of relationship is to be achieved. It is the obvious centre of the question as to whether or not Tess should tell Angel about her past:

  • Her self-giving instinct is to tell
  • Worldly wisdom, as represented by her mother, is to keep quiet to be less than honest
  • Ironically, had Tess not confessed, she would probably have got away with it, but readers sense that confession is inevitable, given her character.

Truth and innocence

When Tess does lie, in order to protect Angel and herself after he has deserted her, the one person who sees the truth of the situation is Alec. In a sense, Alec is most honest when most villainous: he makes no pretence about his intentions for anyone who is able to read the signs. But of course, Tess does not know; she has been kept in wilful ignorance by her family. There has been a conspiracy of silence against her.

Angel of course thinks he is honest, but he 'does but slenderly know himself' to quote Shakespeare's King Lear. Self-knowledge is the prerequisite for honesty, and this is where Angel's modernity falters and is found wanting.

Related themes: Tess as a 'Pure Woman'; Tess as a victim; Disempowerment of the working class

See also: Characterisation

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.