The first part of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles ends on an extremely dark and sinister note: Alec d'Urberville successfully gets Tess on her own in the middle of nowhere, and they end up having sex. This scene is deliberately not described explicitly, and we need to deduce what happened from surrounding events.

It was already established that he was attempting to seduce her and she, despite not returning his feelings, was too inexperienced to know how to deal with him. But the big question is to what extent their sexual relationship was consensual.

This has been a long-running debate among readers and critics, and whether or not I get a definitive answer one way or the other, I'd like to see the arguments supporting each side. The answer to this question may be an important factor in determining the interpretation of the character of Tess.

I'm aware that this question is more clearly resolved in various film adaptations, but my question is about the novel alone.


I would disagree about there being ambiguity as to whether Tess was raped. I think this question misunderstands the actual debate about that specific scene.

Let's take a look at the scene in question

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D'Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Tess is asleep. Tess can not give consent. Consent means that you give permission for something to happen. Tess can not give permission because she is literally unconscious.

The ambiguity in this scene isn't about whether Tess was raped. The ambiguity stems from how the scene was written. After Hardy tells us that Tess is asleep, the narrative essentially ends. The next chapter begins "some few weeks subsequent to the night ride in The Chase". The question of why this gap occurs, and what affect the gap has on the story, is a very interesting question best addressed in a followup question.

Another interesting question is about what this scene tells us about gender and class. Hardy is clearly trying to make some sort of criticism of the dynamics in this scene: in the next paragraph, he essentially asks why this scene occurs over and over again.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.

There's a lot you can critique about Hardy's portrayal of this scene. For example, the passage seems to imply that we should give up trying to stop sexual assault. The sentence "many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order" implies that sexual assault is a strange, unexplainable phenomena that can never be stopped. Another interesting followup question would be to ask about the political message this passage conveys about rape, class, and gender.

There are a lot of interesting questions about this passage where there's a lot of room for debate. I don't see how there can be any debate about whether Tess was raped, given what actually happened.


In addition to the excellent reasoning of the existing answer, I would like to add one detail.

Although not much more can be gleaned from the edition that is in circulation today, the 1891 first edition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles contained some details that were later removed. During the episode at the Chase, Alec actually forcibly drugs her in a very unambiguous act, in order to make sure she is asleep before coming back and subsequently taking advantage of her in her senseless state:

“Nights grow chilly in September. Let me see.” He went to the horse, took a druggist’s bottle from a parcel on the saddle, and after some trouble in opening it held it to her mouth unawares. Tess sputtered and coughed, and gasping, “It will go on my pretty frock!” swallowed as he poured, to prevent the catastrophe she feared.
“That’s it - now you’ll feel warmer,” said d’Urberville, as he restored the bottle to its place. “It is only a well-known cordial that my mother ordered me to bring for household purposes, and she won’t mind me using some of it medicinally. Now, my pretty, rest there; I shall soon be back again.”

In the revised and now definitive 1892 edition this was changed to

"Nights grow chilly in September. Let me see." He pulled off a light overcoat that he had worn, and put it round her tenderly. "That's it--now you'll feel warmer," he continued. "Now, my pretty, rest there; I shall soon be back again."

which practically transforms all connotations by replacing the object that he uses to 'warm' Tess with his "light overcoat" instead of the "druggist's bottle". Tess' sleep as a product of simple tiredness in the newer edition is subsequently a drastic change from the drugged sleep and consequently undeniably sinister intent of the action contained in the original edition.

Alec drugs her against her will which confirms that the sexual act between Alec and Tess was premeditated rape and definitely not consensual. Most likely this was removed from the final edition to censure the violence of Alec's actions to make it more socially suitable reading, but this reveals Hardy's original intention to cement in Victorian minds Alec as the violator of an actual, blatant crime and Tess, without any doubt, as the victim. The Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Hardy Dr Rosemarie Morgan ed., which further details this first edition scene, cites (p. 106) that a contemporary law meant that

If a person by giving a woman liquor makes her intoxicated to such a degree as to be insensible, and then has connection with her, he may be convicted of rape

exacting precisely what Alec does. However, scrutiny of Tess' blamelessness and purity (as established in the subtitle of 'A Pure Woman') arose after Hardy, for whatever reason, decided to omit this intrinsic clue and soften the degree of threat of Alec's act, creating new ambiguity around what was unquestionably rape in the original edition.

  • I think the surviving text 'Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.' reinforces this. It may not have been the most ruthless it could be, but ruthless it was, and a matter than cannot be mended or excused by justification.
    – Spagirl
    Apr 8 '20 at 14:25
  • @Spagirl Absolutely, that's an invaluable detail.
    – Fabjaja
    Apr 8 '20 at 15:21

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