Masterpiece Monday: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Cover of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Oxfo...

Cover via Amazon

Rating: 2 out of 5

So I’ve finally finished the rough draft of my comprehensive paper!!! Tonight I’ll get some feedback from my amazing grad girls, and I’ll spend the rest of week fine-tuning before turning it in on Thursday. Just one step closer to graduation! But while I do feel like a huge weight’s been lifted, I can’t slack off since tomorrow I’m taking my first exam in my Media Ethics class.

One of the questions on the exam will be whether journalists should name rape victims, and my answer will be absolutely not. Not only is it unnecessary to the story, it violates the victim a second time by stripping them of their anonymity and dignity.

The tragic consequences of rape are shown in Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which is why I chose to discuss it for Masterpiece Monday. With its subtitle “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,” readers are faced with its connotations of moral and sexual purity.

Tess is a young peasant woman who discovers that she is related to the noble d’Urbervilles. At the May Dance, she meets Angel Clare, the son of a reverend (Yes, his name is also symbolic, and often ironic), but she is soon involved in an accident which kills her family’s horse and must visit Mrs. d’Urberville in a nearby town and ask for financial help as a relative.

Unfortunately, the woman is lying about her heritage, but Tess manages to get a job on their farm anyway. She meets Mrs. d’Urberville’s son Alec, who makes unwanted advances toward her. One night he offers to take her home but “gets lost” in a grove and rapes her while she sleeps.

The rest of the novel follows Tess’ ruined reputation. The child she birthes as the product of the rape dies after a few weeks. Angel falls in love with her and marries her, but after hearing about her past, abandons her because she was not a virgin. The neighborhood also gossips about her, filling her with shame to the point where she thinks she deserved her failed marriage. She does exact her revenge on Alec, which I won’t spoil, but it does little to relieve her of her suffering.

While I did not enjoy Hardy’s writing style and despised the characters who mistreated Tess, I appreciated the novel for reflecting the double standard women face. Angel was not a virgin either at the time of their marriage, but nobody cared. However, Tess’ loss of “purity”–which was entirely not her fault–is considered scandalous. Hardy stresses that Tess is still a good person despite her past, but sadly, she is judged for circumstances beyond her control.

Many scholars have debated whether a rape actually occurred, since Hardy is so subtle about the scene, you could read it and completely miss his point. However, I believe that Alec’s advances were completely forced upon Tess, given the references to screams later in the novel, and of course, Tess’ actions in the end.

But seriously? What’s with all the research questions? Doubting Tess’ consent just further perpetuates rape myths, as if one teeny “yes” justifies a whirlwind of “NOs.” It’s cruel that people still believe that women who dress provocatively, drink too much, or even prostitute themselves deserve to be raped. NOBODY deserves to be raped.

Instead of blaming women for poor judgments, why not blame men for being rapists?! I want to punch Alec and every rapist in the face for making their victims feel like they asked for it…but when the sad truth is that 1 in 5 women in America have suffered sexual assault, let’s face it, my fist would be pretty sore.

Rape is not about sex, it’s about power, and that’s why I’ll be against naming rape victims on my exam. Let the victim keep as much power for themselves and not let judgmental people ruin their lives. I believe that we’ve made great progress since the 1890s in regards to women’s rights, but we still have much to improve.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel, but I do encourage my readers to research rape stereotypes, raise awareness, and support prevention. Tess of the d’Urbervilles may be a dull read, in my opinion, but its themes are still profound after a hundred years.

One thought on “Masterpiece Monday: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

  1. Pingback: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy « Blurb

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