Tess as a victim

There are two key aspects to consider under this theme.

Tess as tragic heroine

Animal sacrificeSome religions operate around the system of sacrificing either an animal or human victim, either to appease the gods worshipped or to gain some benefit. Such sacrifices usually have to be physically or morally spotless, and on them are laid the wrongdoing or sin of the whole community which they then ‘pay for' with their lives:

  • People who have died, though guiltless of any crime and usually against their will are often referred to as 'innocent victims'
  • However, in the Christian faith, Jesus Christ is seen as the ultimate, willing sacrifice, choosing death rather than being forced into it. (For an account of Jesus' trial, crucifixion and resurrection, see Luke 22:47-71, Luke 23:1-56 and Luke 24:1-12).

How did Hardy mean Tess to be regarded? There are contrasting views.

Tess is merely a tragic victim:

  • She is subject to the forces of convention and prejudice in society working against her (Ch 13, 14, 51)
  • At the end, Hardy suggests 'The President of the Immortals' is also against her
  • She dies on an altar at Stonehenge, where previously victims of Sun worship may have been sacrificed
  • It can be argued that Tess is ‘pure', one of the requisites of a sacrifice (see Tess as a 'Pure Woman')
  • Tess passively accepts her fate (e.g. Ch 7, 8), when she allows her needs to be sacrificed for the sake of her family
  • Tess passively accepts Angel's judgement of her (Ch 35, 36) – the ‘laying on' of sin
  • Tess is the victim of Alec's ruthless pursuit (Ch 47).

Tess is not merely a tragic victim:

  • Tess does make choices: she chooses to go with Alec; she delays telling Angel
  • It could be argued Tess has a fatal flaw, an 'acquiescence in chance' (Ch 37) – she is not ‘spotless'
  • Tess is not portrayed as a one-dimensional victim, but as a complex individual who undergoes a process of suffering and punishment (Ch 43), which refines and develops her character.

Tess as representative of a powerless group

Historicist and Marxist interpretations make Tess a type or example of social groups that were being victimised at the time of writing (see A Marxist analysis [in Social realism]):

  • Thus, Tess could be seen as typical of the rural working class which became more and more powerless as they lost the security of employment and housing.

In some feminist interpretations, Tess typifies women in Victorian society:

  • She is the victim of Alec's privileged predatory instincts and made an ‘object' of desire
  • She becomes a victim by failing to uphold Angel's unreal idealism of her
  • She has no recourse against either
  • At a deeper level, it has even been claimed she is the victim of Hardy himself, determined to pursue her to death!

Certain images and episodes suggest such a reading:

  • Images of animals trapped (Ch 14, 48) symbolise Tess's predicament
  • Other images or episodes also speak of entrapment (Ch 23, 29, 43, 45, 47)
  • The image of the blood-stained paper being blown about (Ch 44) hints at the spilling of blood to fulfil the requirements of others
  • Tess is dressed-up, as a victim often is, at crucial moments (Ch 6, 7, 44).

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

See also: Characterisation: Tess; Critical Analysis

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