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Tess of the d’Urbervilles | Context

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Critical Reception

Tess of the d'Urbervilles inspired a great deal of criticism, much of it negative, because of its controversial stance on fallen women, its relative openness about sex and the female body, and its criticism of religion. The Saturday Review indicates Hardy "tells an unpleasant story in an unpleasant way." The Spectator acknowledges the book as a "powerful novel" but "cannot admire [Hardy's] motive in writing" it.

However, not all reviews were negative. According to The Pall Gazette, Hardy had "never exercised [his art] more powerfully—never, certainly, more tragically—than in this moving presentment of a 'pure woman.'" The Atlantic Monthly called Tess of the d'Urbervilles "Hardy's best novel yet." The reviewer for The Athenaeum went even further, saying that Tess was "destined, there can be no doubt, to rank high among achievements of Victorian novelists."

In general critics admired the quality of the writing, the skill, and the execution. However, other critics—or sometimes the same ones—took issue with Hardy's implicit condemnation of religion and society in the way fallen women such as Tess were treated.

Gender Issues in Victorian England

The Victorians held the notion that moral purity was tied to physical virginity or sex within wedlock—not one's character or state of mind. This definition did not exempt victims of sexual violence. Whether a woman was seduced, raped, prostituted herself, or chose to have a sexual relationship, she was considered "fallen" if she engaged in such activities outside of marriage. Charities existed for the purpose of rehabilitating and reforming "fallen" women, including the Highgate House where Victorian author Christina Rossetti volunteered from 1859–70. Activists employed various tactics, such as providing pamphlets on morality and running homes like St. Mary Magdalene (also called Highgate House) where women could live in a community and learn skills to help them earn a living. Modern readers will note that responsibility for a woman's lack of virginity fell solely on the woman; men had no responsibilities toward former partners and frequently failed or refused to provide for their own illegitimate children.

Similarly, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess repeatedly bears the responsibility and the consequences for her fallen state. Angel accuses her of being a flirt when she refuses his advances. On hearing of her past he acknowledges she was "sinned against," but he has envisioned her as "pure" and according to his definition—and society's—she is not. When her former rapist, Alec, becomes devoutly religious, he suggests she veil her face and asks her to swear not to lead him astray. In Victorian England Tess is as guilty as the perpetrator.

The novel also raises the topic of divorce, a thorny issue in Hardy's England. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 was the first significant revision to the laws governing the ability to obtain a divorce. The 1857 act required a man only to prove his wife had committed adultery. A woman, however, had to prove adultery as well as cruelty, bigamy, incest, or desertion. Hardy tackles issues of marriage and divorce in both Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Tess mistakenly believes Angel can divorce her. However, because the event occurred before her marriage, her failure to tell him before the wedding and his refusal to let her tell him mean they no longer have the solution of ending their marriage when Angel reacts so callously to her revelations.

Classism and Rural Decline in Victorian England

Hardy's background is important in his representations of social class. Hardy's mother worked as a maid, and his father was a master mason. Because they provided him with as many advantages as they could, he had opportunities to move to a higher social position. Hardy's awareness of the problems of rural life, classism, and morality is often reflected in his fiction; poverty, job instability, and a generally hard life are more responsible for lower morality—if it is lower indeed—than class. This concept is shown in the portrayal of Tess. She is not impure because she is poor; rather she is exposed to dangers that arise because her family's poverty places her in a vulnerable position.

Moreover, both the wealthy Alec d'Urberville and the more philosophically inclined middle-class Angel Clare commit immoral, irresponsible, and cruel acts, further imperiling Tess. Alec rapes her and leaves her pregnant; Angel admits to sexual relations before marriage—his doing, unlike Tess's—and then abandons her when she admits to a similar event.

Hardy highlights the lost aristocratic history of Tess's ancestral family: their ancient nobility and its possessions are in ruins, and its surviving son, Jack Durbeyfield, is a lazy drunk with few, if any, morals.

Although Angel is a critic of the nobility, he is impressed by Tess's lineage. But because Angel comes from a class that tends to regard rural laborers as simple, he places them only slightly above farm animals. Angel is even surprised when Tess has complex thoughts. But when Angel learns about Tess's past, he blames her behavior on congenital weakness: essentially, since her formerly noble family fell into decline and poverty, he thinks that she must have a genetic tendency toward moral weakness.

Related to the issue of classism is the rise of industrialization, which Hardy viewed as causing a problematic mobility and a loss of connection to nature and local identity. This is represented especially by the threshers at Flintcomb-Ash, the least vibrant farm in the novel. Changing demands created the necessity for rural itinerancy. Tess works at multiple farms throughout the novel. Her family must relocate from their farm after her father's death. Car Darch and her sister Nancy, Marian, and Izz all work at multiple farms, and at the end of the season they are left to seek work elsewhere. The inability to remain stationary destabilizes an area and results in a loss of community. In addition technology, which Hardy represents as dangerous and disturbing, causes farm workers to be disconnected from the land that they work. There is a notable contrast between the idyllic work at the Talbothays Dairy, in which milkmaids even have a preference for particular cows, and the unpleasant, depersonalized labor at Flintcomb-Ash.

Real-Life Models for Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Hardy's letters and autobiography offer insights into real events that influenced the creation of the novel. In mid-1877 Hardy visited Marnhull (the fictional Marlott of the novel) where he witnessed a celebration that included girls dancing much as they do at the start of the novel. Not long after Hardy and his wife caught their servant, Jane Phillips, attempting to bring a man into the house. The Hardys went to see her parents when she ran away soon after. Research indicates the unwed Jane Phillips baptized her newborn child who died at the age of two days. Like Tess in the novel, Jane Phillips also sang and, according to Hardy, had a memorable voice. Another real-life influence was Augusta Way, whom Hardy apparently saw milking cows at her grandfather's farm as a teenager. He was struck by the image, and he may have invoked it for the novel.

Hardy's Wessex

Thomas Hardy's Wessex is a fictional region of England that strongly suggests the real landscapes of the southern and southwestern parts of the country. Keeping some real place names but changing others, he established boundaries that stretch along the coast north to Oxford (which he calls Christminster) and from Windsor (which he calls Castle Royal) to Taunton (which he calls Toneborough) in the west. Marnhull is the real-world location of Marlott, and the Isle of Wight (the British island in the English Channel) was renamed as "The Island"; Slepe Heath is believed to be the source of Egdon Heath in Hardy's 1878 novel The Return of the Native. Hardy did not mind if readers matched up real and imaginary places but cautioned them that his landscape was fictitious and he would not guarantee the "details" to be correct. He used this setting in his best-known novels, including Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd.

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