Professor Chao-Fang Chen
19th-Century British Novels
How Is She Doomed?
The Tragedy of a Working-Class Woman as a Sexuality-Trigger in the Fatalist Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Tess is absolutely one of Thomas Hardy’s most tragic characters. Her fate being a woman labourer and a sexuality-trigger leads to her tragedy. For all her life, she is manipulated by the society and she is hardly given the chance to decide what she wants to be and how she wants to end her story. As Hardy suggests, her fate is determined by the social construction. In Tess’s case, on the one hand, because of her status as a woman labourer, she is expected to get rid of her self-interest and to sacrifice herself. In order to maintain the underprivileged family, Tess undertakes the responsibility of acting as the financial backbone. Under such condition, her chance of being confronted with perils and threats increases. Her rape, for instance, is considered one of the dangers into which she is placed. Owing to the social prejudices for a working-class woman, Tess finds no way out of the misery. She must bear the shame for the rest of her life, which eventually results in her murder. On the other hand, she, as a Victorian woman, is not allowed to demonstrate her ‘temptation’ to men for Victorians believed women were essentially passionless and passive in terms of sexuality. Hardy firmly implies that the inconsistency concerning female sexuality to some extent leads to her tragedy. She is fated because of the fact that the constructed conception toward her sexuality is misled by the society. As I assume, what Hardy manages to signal is that sexual instincts and longings are definitely normal and natural and we must not refrain them. Overall, in this paper, I intend to connect the two products—knowledge of sexuality and social status—in Victorian society with Tess’s tragedy and claim that she is destined to experience mishap mainly due to the false concept of her epoch. Simply put, I consider Tess as just another woeful puppet of the time.
Tess’s Fate as a Woman Labourer
For the poor girl like Tess in Victorian time as the rural woman labourer, there is barely room for her to choose life. She is supposed to sacrifice herself in order to maintain the huge family. As a result, Tess is denied the possibility of being embraced and protected by parents. On the country, she works as a woman labourer for slight income, helping her parents raise the sisters and brothers. Her situation is even worsened for she is born into a family that her father is incapable of sustaining a family. Under such circumstances, as the only financial backbone for the family, she experiences hardship as early as a little girl. Also, that represents her situation as fated to be constrained by her class. That is, she is not only declined to decide for her future but also exposed to a variety of dangers as a woman labourer when she is supposed to be enjoying the sweetness of a girl’s youth. For example, her rape results from her forced state to claim kin to Stoke- d’Urbervilles. What comes after the incident is that she is pregnant and becomes a young mother at the age of teens. With that in mind, we are aware of the fact that she is doomed to be a tragic woman partly because of her destined hierarchy in the Victorian age. As Thomas Hardy unfolds the story of Tess’s at the scene that she feels guilty for stealing some time enjoying the fun of dancing, we instantly realize that her responsibility outweighs her pleasure. At this point, as a working-class woman who is subject to family duties, Tess is hardly able to live the life of her own but that of others’—her father, her mother and her siblings’: She might have stayed even later, but the incident of her father’s odd appearance and manner returned upon the girl’s mind to make her anxious, and wondering what had become of him she dropped away from...
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Perry, P. J. “Working-Class Isolation and Mobility in Rural Dorset, 1837-1936: A Study of Marriage Distances.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 46 (1969): 121-41.
Preston, Cathy Lynn. “‘The Tying of the Garter’: Representations of the Female Rural Laborer in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-Century English Bawdy Songs.” The Journal of American Folklore 105.417 (1992): 315-41.
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