Feminist interpretations

A good deal of modern criticism of Tess has been feminist, that is to say, emphasising:

  • The female aspects of the novel
  • Its portrayal of Tess as a woman
  • Its depiction of women in society etc.

It needs to be said that there is not just one feminist interpretation. There are many strands of feminism, ranging from the historical to the psychoanalytical to the political. Thus, these interpretations do not always agree with one another.

Historical and political aspects

Interpretations arising from this emphasis try to reconstruct the context in which Hardy wrote the novel, and the position of women in late Victorian society. They may well involve a discussion of 'the New Woman' controversy going on in the 1890's, and Hardy's own views on this.

Hardy and feminism

Hardy himself had two sisters and a cousin who managed to get further education by training as primary school teachers. His wife, Emma, also sought some independence for herself as a writer and woman of the intelligentsia, though Hardy does not seem to have particularly encouraged her. A number of his female characters seek education or to break out of the narrow roles allocated middle class women in the late nineteenth century. Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure in particular, is assigned this fate, although it has to be said that she was no more successful than Jude in attempting to do this.

In Tess, this is not a major theme. The reader merely gets the impression that Tess was intelligent and could have gone on to have a career as a teacher, but she does not mourn the loss of this opportunity. Angel's perspective on Tess as an ‘educational project' never comes to anything and is seen as mere social pretension on his part.

Thus, it might be concluded that the cause of female emancipation was not a major concern for Hardy in Tess. However, he does attack social and moral conventions that condemn and victimise women and to that extent, he defends more liberal views which seek to redefine the idea of purity.

Male constructs

One of the concerns of feminism is to see to what extent the idea and ideal of women in a society and culture are male constructs. In Tess, this could work in two ways:

  • To see to what extent Tess is a construct of the male writer, Thomas Hardy. Hardy admitted he was very involved emotionally in his heroine. Does this distort his portrayal of her, in idealising her? Does it make his attempted defence of her distorted or even contradictory?
  • To see to what extent the two male characters construct Tess in their own image, and thereby miss her true person and identity. This is probably a more fruitful line and less hypothetical, in that all the evidence is in the text.

Destructive male perceptions

Tess is certainly aware that neither men see her as she believes she truly is:

'She who you love is not my real self,'

she says to Angel (Ch 33). Partly this is because she has not told him all about herself; but mainly it is his unreal idealisation of her; an unreality that is reversed as he looks at the portraits of the d'Urberville women and sees Tess projected in them.

Such male constructs are destructive and are resolved in two ways;

  • Angel does finally recognise Tess for who she truly is, loving her for herself
  • Alec's death symbolises the destruction of his wrong construct of her as an object of desire.

Female consciousness

This interpretation is concerned with how accurately women are portrayed in the novel and what insights are given about them.

Gender stereotypes

Hardy makes a number of generalisations about women in the novel, for example he talks of Tess's 'feminine loss of courage' (Ch 44), or 'the woman's instinct to hide' (Ch 31). Readers need to decide whether:

  • This is really a valid insight or simply a male perception?
  • Is this meant to be seen as a 'fatal flaw' or an individual fault of Tess - the reason she does not fare better?
  • When Tess accepts Angel's condemnation of her, is her sense of guilt justified or is she fitting into the stereotype that, socially and psychologically, women typically feel guilt?

Women and love

How Tess is portrayed as a woman in love:

  • How does Hardy describe her female passion and does he really grasp female sexuality?
  • How does female love compare with male love? What tensions grow up between Angel's love for Tess and hers for Angel?

Women's relationships with men

Hardy examines how a woman deals with the destructive elements in the men around her:

  • Ch 1 opens with a vivid description of a failed male, Tess's father, John Durbeyfield, with whom Tess has to take the ‘adult' role, and who fails to protect her
  • Male failure is re-enforced for Tess by Alec's powerful masculinity which seeks to undermine rather than defend her, as the sexual predator
  • Though damaged, Tess is able to assert herself again after these encounters
  • However, in the face of Angel's destructiveness, she seems passive and accepts the guilt laid on her (see above).

Above all, can the reader strip away the male constructs and destructiveness and see just who Tess really is, her unique identity? What sort of woman does she represent?

See also: Characterisation: Tess; Sexual predation; The world of women

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.