Upon its publication, Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles inspired much debate as to whether Tess should be perceived as an innocent young woman thrust too early into the cruel world of men or as a shameless, immoral woman who deserved everything she got. The author claimed to be surprised by this controversy, as he had intended the interpretation to be clear all along; he even added the subtitle "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented" in an attempt to clarify the issue.

Now the pro-Tess interpretation intended by the author was also my own interpretation of the novel, so I don't need that explained to me. I'm still puzzled, however, by how it could be read as a criticism of Tess and the women like her. What justifies the anti-Tess reading of the novel? What is there in the text (or anywhere else, e.g. prevailing views in the society of the time) which could be interpreted in that light? Why did some people's sympathies not lie with Tess after reading it?

Has any anti-Tess critic ever explained their interpretation in detail? Lacking that, can we still work out what exactly might have led such people to their view of the book?

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    I can't supply an authoritative answer, but I suspect it boils down to misogyny.
    – Kevin Troy
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 0:22
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    I found this thesis paper (engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/…) from Cleveland State University that seems to me to provide an answer, by analyzing cultural mores that were prevalent at the time Tess was written, and how the author criticizes these mores. I am not quite sure if it is valid to base an answer on a single piece of scholarship. If it is valid here to use just this single (albeit seemingly well-researched) paper to provide an answer, I will happily write it up as such.
    – magerber
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 20:33
  • @magerber Oh yes please! It's absolutely fine to base an answer on a single thesis. Ideally you might want to write out its arguments and conclusions in your own words, relying on it heavily for inspiration and perhaps additional citations without copying its words wholesale (as I did here, for example). But even if you're mostly quoting and summarising the relevant parts of that thesis, bringing new expert knowledge to the site is always a good thing!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 22:08
  • Cool...I guess I should read the thing then! :-)
    – magerber
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 22:42

1 Answer 1


It was mainly due to the Victorian interpretations of several events and actions in the novel and subsequent comments from contemporary critics.

Firstly, Tess committed murder when she killed Alec. Although the reader of course sympathises with Tess after all Alec did to her, it was still murder, and therefore immoral, in the eyes of Victorian law and hence Tess was heavily criticised for this act... and given the death penalty. Contemporary critic R. H. Hutton described Tess' actions thus:

'though pure in instinct, she was not faithful to her pure instinct'

Furthermore as an aside, Hardy hints his views on Tess' crime and punishment (and thus Victorian society's views) in this line at the very end of the book:

"Justice" was done

Ch. 59

The presence of the quotation marks suggests Hardy's contempt of contemporary views on a situation like Tess'. They are unforgiving and condemn her without consideration of the crimes that the 'victim' (Alec) committed. The stress here is that he is criticising the same people who then criticised the subtitle of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Secondly, Tess became an adulteress when she married Angel and then married Alec when Angel travels to Brazil, however she really thought he would never return, which makes it excusable in our eyes. But this adultery would have been shocking and inexcusable to the Victorians and would certainly have been classed as immoral.

Thirdly, it was interpreted that, after Alec assaulted her, Tess lost what was called her 'physical purity' and hence Hardy came under fire for his subtitle of 'A Pure Woman (...)' since this contradicted the contemporary commonly accepted ideas of purity. (this article explains it well if you want to go into it.) I will paraphrase the basic idea: The Victorian idea was that 'purity' was lost in such a situation regardless whether consent was given. Virtue was synonimized with this 'purity' and hence Tess would not have been considered pure by many contemporary readers.

In addition, there has been ambiguity over the scene in which Tess is violated by Alec (although it is usually decided that it was non-consensual - discussed in this question) there were obviously those who believed it to be a seduction and hence a fault and immorality on Tess' part. This was fueled by the commonly accepted belief at the time that (quoted from the thesis below):

Olwen Hufton claims that the common Victorian belief was that pregnancy (...) “was held to demonstrate [the woman’s] active consent”

So, many thought that Tess was additionally morally impure due to this event, due to the fact she did conceive Sorrow.

Furthermore, there are also aspects of misogyny, as while Angel committed a consensual immoral act and Tess forgave him for it, when she confessed that she was violated as a young girl, an involuntary act in her case, he 'cannot' forgive her (reference) :

“Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel.”

“You–yes, you do.”

“But you do not forgive me?”

“O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God–how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque–prestidigitation as that!”

Ch. 35

Even though Angel admits that she was "more sinned against than sinning" he cannot forgive her as society's expectations were very different for women. They were expected to be strictly moral but men's actions to the contrary were brushed under the carpet. In our time we cannot comprehend this injustice, but as early 20th century critic Norman Page noted:

'what is fairly obvious to the modern reader, however, would not have been obvious to all Victorian readers'

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was Hardy's attempt at criticising this double standard among other negative aspects of Victorian society, a criticism which again caused controversy among his contemporaries.

In regards to anti-Tess critics, Mowbray Morris published a heavily critical review soon after Tess was published, in the Quarterly Review, but I have been unable to find a copy to find exact explanations.

(Main reference for points 1, 2 and 3 from this thesis from Utrecht University, in addition to specific cited sources)

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    Excellent answer, with great delicacy in discussing some unsavoury topics and opinions. (pregnancy (...) “was held to demonstrate [the woman’s] active consent” - WTF?!) I'm glad you got around to answering this one!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 19:40
  • @Randal'Thor Thanks! Yeah I was quite uncomfortable writing about it so I tried to put it as euphemistically as I could :) Oh and yes, I agree, those Victorian beliefs were quite ridiculous!
    – Fabjaja
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 19:46
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    Morris' essay was reprinted in Thomas Hardy: the Critical Heritage ed. R. G. Cox, and this can be read via Google Books. Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 10:06

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