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.


3 Answers 3


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.

  • 2
    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, 2020 at 14:25
  • @Spagirl Absolutely, that's an invaluable detail.
    – Fabjaja
    Apr 8, 2020 at 15:21

I would disagree with the claim that Tess is necessarily raped because the scene ends with her asleep.

I can think of several scenarios where even in this day and age, there could be some sort of consent, the consent would be naive, or impulsive, but still allowed.

Also, Hardy said himself that it is a seduction.

Even without him, we can establish that it would not work as a story nor as Hardy style of drawing his characters, so it was a seduction.

Example: Tess repeatedly throughout the book refers to her loss of social standing. I am not sure who writes these conflicts of rape vs seduction if they can't understand that although that losing standing and a promise of a perfect husband would be the focus, that these ideas would not be the largest issue if raped, but also would be worded differently. Which are never reflected in Tess's internal voice.

It is also easily deducted by what we know of Hardy's other works. Unless you think Hardy wrote a book with weak characters who are almost comically constricted to stereotypes and tropes, such as The Villain - Alec Stoke, having even the mustache to complete a Snidley Whiplash image in so far as he presents himself...it doesn't explain him later on when they meet again. If you read it with Tess being seduced, then his behavior and conversation makes sense. How is it he is a sexual predator immediate in opportunity and pursuit in Chapter 9 and a milquetoast missionary who slowly mimics what he thinks she wants from him, and what she claims to value in Angel, so she will accept him in chapters 44 onward? It is not possible because it isn't true. And if so, would be the only one dimensional characters Hardy ever wrote.

I am not saying he is not a brute or pushy or manipulative type, I am saying the whole dialogue falls apart with it being villainous assault. Not to mention, why would Tess say to her mom about not telling Tess men could be like that?

Angel is no hero, no savior. While he romanticized her, Tess claims to love him with all her heart, but does not do so as her own self, but as to erase herself and agree with him all the time. Which is also not what Angel wanted in a bride. But still he objectifies her. Read his view when he finally finds her at the lodging with Alec. Tess only desperately writes him when Alec is becoming more becoming to Tess again...she says it almost plainly when she says she likes it when Alec is nice and not when he isn't.

What Tess lost that night, was her right to be who she is, she lost herself. She is prideful throughout the book. Due to one indulgence, one mistake, one moment where she enjoys her blooming sexual drive to kiss Alec back or respond to his seduction that actually carries on to Alec's home as they had only stopped one month before she heads to her home in a previous edition. Which offsets the drunk idealization. Unless one means to say that she was drunk the whole time? We cannot rely on such editions. Only the one we have, whichever it is to be used.

She is upset that she has lost exactly what she says she did. She lost her self-identity and her right to all possibilities. For one moment she regarded him, it was a mistake.

The focus to the history of her ancestors isn't the physicality, it is what she lost being the same as what the women then violated by her ancestors lost. As one can not possible rape the same as another rapist, then there is nothing they all mutually lost as the same interchangeable thing but the sense of self, sense of standing. It can not be positioned so that a violent rape of woman in her ancestor's period has anything else in common. That section clearly says:

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.

Hardy leaves the Chase scene as it is so as to honor the reader in the book and then have the virtue of the reader decide what is the extent of Tess's torture. You see it again when she is telling Alec about what Angel told her about philosophy and dogma and religion. Because if Hardy, making some solid position on any of those topics, endorses any, there will be many people upset by what is offered as pure and what is not, as that would be the proper placement on the scales of justice and religion.

This book is made to enjoy as is, but Hardy is an erudite in the areas of literature and history, who makes an incredible book with complex characters who change as your life changes alongside them. It should be read as such, I am not trying to tell anyone not to get what they want out of the book, or to not view Tess as a victim. I actually have much compassion for Tess and not any for Alec or Angel.

Hardy made a balanced and brilliant book with complex and comprehensive characters because he himself was a very learned man and so his thinking and consistent output of such type of writing, shows there is only seduction.

  • 8
    Are you saying that because she was asleep, it's not rape? That doesn't make any sense; someone cannot consent while asleep, and so if she was asleep it was definitely non-consensual.
    – Mithical
    Mar 18, 2022 at 8:13
  • 3
    Hi Valark, it seems that several people have downvoted your answer due to various issues. Rand al'Thor asked, "But the big question is to what extent their sexual relationship was consensual." Your first sentence implies that it was not consensual, yet you somehow seem to defend Alec's behaviour. You claim that "Hardy said himself that it is a seduction". Could you please provide evidence for this? You write, "Why is it every time Tess is talked about in these either/or situations, does no one vilify her for the brutal and gruesome murder of Alec?" How is this relevant?
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 21, 2022 at 15:25
  • 3
    "A sleeping, unconscious, or incompetent person cannot consent." Quoted from U.S. Code § 920 - Art. 120. Rape and sexual assault generally.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 24, 2022 at 16:28

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