In 1891, Tess of the d'Urbervilles first appeared with the subtitle A Pure Woman, Faithfully Presented. Twenty years later, in his Preface to the edition of 1912, Thomas Hardy wrote that he had added the subtitle "at the last moment, after reading the final proofs, as being the estimate left in a candid mind of the heroine's character — an estimate nobody would be likely to dispute. It was more disputed than anything else in the book."1 It has remained in dispute for more than a hundred years, and the dispute now turns on the question of whether Tess was raped or seduced. Ellen Rooney clearly explains why. While rape entails "the unambiguous violence that would guarantee Tess's purity," she writes, seduction defines the "less pure space of complicity, desire, and reading. . . . Ultimately, the meaning of purity hinges on the relation between seduction and rape." But Hardy, she says, cannot clarify this relation because he cannot represent Tess "as a desiring or speaking subject."2
Rooney's probing analysis of rape and seduction in Tess deserves close scrutiny by anyone who would write on this topic. But close scrutiny of the novel itself does not fully confirm her conclusions. On the contrary, it shows that Hardy can and does represent Tess as both a desiring and speaking subject, that he endows her with agency, that she explicitly considers Alec her seducer, and that as such he is far more dangerous to her than he would be as a rapist. Lurking plainly as well as mythically behind Alec is the figure of Milton's Satan. Alec tempts Tess as Satan tempts Eve, and in spite of the enormous differences between Tess and Paradise Lost, between a world supervised by Providence and a world abandoned by it, Hardy's repeated references to the Book of Genesis and to Milton's poem prompt us to consider carefully the relation between what Tess wants and what she is led to desire, what she is and what she does. For Tess, I contend, is an agent, a heroine endowed with the power to act and choose and with the tragic power to fall — even as her purity, unlike Eve's innocence, survives.
Like many other critics of Tess, Rooney makes the heroine's purity depend on her passivity, her status as the helpless victim of rape. According to Catherine McKinnon, whose essay on feminist jurisprudence serves as Rooney's point of departure, "objective" definitions of what constitutes rape in the eyes of the law cannot truly distinguish between rape and intercourse. A "feminist distinction" between the two, McKinnon argues, lies "in the meaning of the act from women's point of view."3 Applying this principle, Rooney argues that we cannot adequately distinguish rape from seduction by invoking the difference between equivocal and unequivocal resistance. If seduction entails complicity, and "complicity is reduced to (feminine) acquiescence," then "the passive object of seduction repeats the passive object of rape" (Rooney, p. 93). As Rooney notes, then, McKinnon herself "preserves the purity of women by seeing them as objects; sexuality is entirely the work of men and sexual women wholly victims. The (desiring) feminine subject does not exist" (Rooney, p. 94).
Rooney complicates McKinnon's thesis. Reading her text "against its grain" (Rooney, p. 94), she finds Tess a seductive female subject. Yet "the seductive Tess," as Hardy calls her in the original though not the final version of Chapter 24 (Rooney, p. 96), cannot be wilfully seductive without forfeiting her purity. She can only be the passive medium of her own innate, inescapable seductiveness, the vessel of a beauty she is fated by "nature" to display, however she may try to hide or efface it — as in Chapter 42, where she snips off her eyebrows (p. 219). In a key sentence that Rooney quotes from Chapter 14, the narrator speculates on what distinguishes Tess from the other women binding sheaves around her: "Perhaps one reason why she seduces casual attention is that she never courts it, though the other women often gaze around them" (p. 69). She is, then, passively and helplessly seductive, "a victim of her own sexuality" but also a victimizer, "an overpowering temptress who ravishes men" (Rooney, p. 97).
The latter role is foisted upon her by Alec, especially when he catches up with her after finding her among the listeners to his sermon in the Evershed barn during his brief fling at Methodist preaching. Complaining that she has "upset [him] somewhat," he compels her to swear that she will never tempt him (p. 244), and shortly afterwards he charges that she has done precisely that, turning him away from religion: "You have been the means — the innocent means — of my backsliding," he says. "And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again — surely there was never such a maddening mouth since Eve's. . . . You temptress, Tess; you dear damned witch of Babylon — I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!" (pp. 253-54). Alec's language bristles with contradiction. He calls Tess both "innocent" and maddeningly seductive, a whore of Babylon, and a "temptress" — a word echoed by her own name. But Alec himself is the arch-tempter in this novel, as he himself later admits when he looms up next to Tess while she is digging one night in the family's allotment-plot. Wearing the smockfrock of a laborer and suddenly caught in the firelight with a pitchfork in his hand, he laughs diabolically at the farcical hellishness of the scene, then jokingly casts himself as the serpentine Satan of Milton's Paradise.4 "You are Eve," he says, "and I am the other old one, come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal" (p. 275). He then quotes from the speech with which Milton's Satan lures Eve to the forbidden tree (Paradise Lost 9.626-31).5
Like Milton's Satan, Alec proves himself the master of disguises, both sartorial and rhetorical. By jokingly posing as Satan, he prompts Tess to deny that he is: "I never said you were Satan or thought it," she says (p. 275). But he forestalls her suspicion precisely by his Satanic capacity to play any part he chooses. Having switched the garb of the dandy for a "half-clerical dress" (p. 259) that he soon discards, he then dons the laborer's smock to keep himself from being noticed when he comes "to protest against [Tess's] working like this" (p. 275). In other words, he once again casts himself as the would-be benefactor of Tess. He deplores her suffering just as Milton's Satan deplores the plight of pre-lapsarian man, who is forbidden on pain of death to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. "With show of zeal and love / To man, and indignation at his wrong" (PL 9.665-66), Satan delivers the coup de grace — the speech that clinches his temptation of Eve.
If Tess is "radically unreadable," as Rooney contends (p. 97), we do well to remember that Milton's Eve is radically indeterminate. First the embodiment of innocence, then the guileless victim of temptation, she becomes the unwitting instrument of it, a "serpent" of fraud, as Adam calls her (PL 10. 866-67). Traces of both extremes resurface in Tess. In the "spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light" of pre-dawn at Talbothays, when Angel and Tess are the only ones awake and at large, he feels as if they are Adam and Eve, alone in the world and presumably pre-lapsarian (p. 102). Yet not long after, when he notices her yawning just after a midday nap, he sees "the red interior of her mouth as if it [were] a snake's" (p. 133). Tess too will prove a serpent of fraud. Though Angel thinks her "spotless" before their wedding (p. 139), what she tells him on their wedding night makes her seem to him "a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one" (p. 179). Like the role of temptress that Alec hypocritically assigns to her, this serpentine duplicity is something projected onto Tess: one more example of what Rooney calls Hardy's "unflinching inscription of the inexorable forces that produced her as the seductive object of the discourses of man" (Rooney, p. 111). In this formulation we can again recognize Milton's Eve, the prototype of Tess.
Yet unlike Tess, Milton's Eve is not simply constructed by "the discourses of man," except in the banal sense that every speech in Paradise Lost, including those of God, is scripted by a male poet. Milton's Eve speaks for herself, and sometimes quite audaciously. In the face of Adam's warnings on the fateful day of the fall, she insists on working by herself, and after hearing Satan extoll the powers of the forbidden fruit, she constructs her own argument for taking it (PL 9.745-79). After the fall, when God asks her what she has done, she tersely admits: "The serpent me beguiled and I did eat" (PL 9. 162). In Milton's moral universe, swallowing the deceitful words of Satan — being "seduced / And flattered out of all, believing lies / Against [one's] Maker" (PL 10.42-43) — is no less reprehensible than eating the forbidden fruit. Milton carefully shows how Satan subverts Eve's loyalty to Adam and to God, but he unequivocally charges both Adam and Eve with "foul distrust, and breach disloyal . . . revolt, / And disobedience" (PL 9.6-8). In a poem explicitly written to "justify the ways of God to man" (PL 1.26), it is precisely this disobedience that justifies God's punishment of Eve, who is first of all told what she in particular will suffer:
Thy sorrow I will greatly multiply
By thy conception; children thou shalt bring
In sorrow forth. . . . (PL 10.193-95)
Tess's only child — the outward and visible sign of her intercourse with Alec — is baptized SORROW just before he dies (p. 74). But unlike Milton's Adam and Eve, he dies with no clear assurance of salvation. Denied a Christian burial, he is buried in a weedy corner of the churchyard where "the conjecturally damned are laid" (p. 76).6 Furthermore, Hardy's moral universe offers nothing like a Miltonic justification for the sufferings of Tess. While Eve has been rigorously warned against Satan's wiles before she encounters him, Tess's mother tells her nothing of the "danger in men-folk" and never steers her to novels — like Tess itself, one might say — where she might learn of men's "tricks" (p. 64). Joan Durbeyfield actually admits that she told Tess nothing of where Alec's "fond feelings" might lead lest the girl "lose [her] chance" for a husband while overprotecting her virginity (p. 64).7 The absence of parental guidance — or the replacement of such guidance with what is virtually a prostitution scheme — reinforces the absence of anything like Miltonic Providence in Hardy's world. At the moment when Alec consummates his desire for her during their night in the Chase, Hardy famously asks: "But, some might say, where was Tess's guardian angel? where was the Providence of her simple faith?" (p. 57). These questions subtly evoke the opening of Book 10 of Paradise Lost. When the angels appointed to guard Adam and Eve hasten to the throne of God to plead that they have done their jobs with "utmost vigilance," God assures them that their "sincerest care" could not have forestalled what He himself foretold: Satan's seduction of mankind (PL 10.28-39). Milton's God watched Adam and Eve fall by their "own inclining" (PL 10.46); Hardy's Providence paid no attention (p. 57). To justify what happens to Tess Hardy floats the "possibility" that she was being punished for the sins of her "mailed ancestors [who] rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time" (p. 57). But a double irony undercuts the would-be justice of such retribution. Even if "average human nature" did not scorn the "morality" of making children pay for the sins of the fathers, as the narrator suggests (p. 57), the notion that one act of sexual exploitation should be avenged by another simply perpetuates the heinousness of the original crime.
So far from justifying Alec's treatment of Tess, therefore, this speculation about her ancestors prompts the inference that she was raped, "dealt the same measure" as the peasant girls they assaulted. Yet as Rooney herself observes, "Hardy's invocation of the brutal and 'more ruthless' rapes committed by bands of armed men also works to reopen the distance between the ancient d'Urbervilles and the imposter Alec, between rape and seduction" (Rooney, p. 102). Rooney admits that on the night of the Chase, Alec plays "the lover-seducer" who "pouts, pleads, bribes, and tries to persuade" (p. 100), that Tess does not plainly say "no" when he asks if he may treat her "as a lover" (p. 55, Rooney, p. 100), and that his last reported acts on the night in the Chase — kneeling beside Tess and putting his cheek to hers — are "singular in [their] lack of aggression and . . . implicit equality" (Rooney, p. 102).
On the other hand, in a passage Hardy added to the one-volume edition of Tess that appeared in September 1892, one of the women working with Tess says of her baby,
"A little more than persuading had to do wi' the coming o't, I reckon. There were they that heard a sobbing one night last year in the Chase and it might ha' gone hard wi' a certain party if folks had come along.
"Well, a little more, or a little less, 'twas a thousand pities it should have happened to she, of all others." (pp. 70-71)
To speak of "a little more than persuading" is to imply that Alec forced himself on Tess and thus crossed the line between persuasion and rape. Yet if, as the second speaker suggests, a "little" plus or minus does not change the "thousand pities" of Tess's condition, the little becomes — says Rooney — "too trivial to bear mention. . . . Rape and seduction collapse into each other — at best, the project of separating them out, distinguishing them clearly, is a fruitless one" (Rooney, p. 100). What makes it especially so, according to Rooney, is that Tess is never allowed to tell in our hearing what happened to her in the Chase after she fell asleep. As Rooney notes, we never see the misplaced letter she writes to Angel before their wedding, or hear the confession she makes to him on their wedding night (Rooney, p. 97).
Rooney is right to this extent: if we have no testimony from Tess herself, we cannot confidently say whether or not she is raped or seduced. But do we lack her testimony? Even though Tess never tells her whole story for us to hear or read, we have her own thoughts on what she experienced with Alec — in a passage that Rooney altogether overlooks. Before examining this passage, which first appears in the 1892 edition, we should realize that it supplants what Tess says about Alec to her mother in the serialized version of the novel, which appeared in 1891:
He made love to me, as you said he would do; and he asked me to marry him, also just as you declared he would. I never have liked him; but at last I agreed, knowing you'd be angry, if I didn't. He said, it must be private even from you, on account of his mother; and by special license; and foolish I agreed to that likewise, to get rid of his pestering. I drove with him to Melchester, and there in a private room I went through the form of marriage with him as before a registrar. A few weeks after, I found out that it was not the registrar's house we had gone to, as I had supposed, but the house of a friend of his, who had played the part of the registrar. I then came away from Trantridge instantly, though he wished me to stay, and here I am.8
This version of what happened leaves Tess wholly innocent — so long as we understand that "made love to me" means simply "told me of his love" as it surely does.9 A trace of the sham marriage survives in the final version of the novel, where — as we have seen — Tess complains that she was never forewarned against such "tricks," and where Alec himself asks Tess to marry him with a proper license in order to make "amends . . . for the trick" he played on her (p. 247).10 But even before the serialized version had been published in full, Hardy regretted substituting "a mock marriage . . . for the seduction pure & simple of the original MS. — which I did for the sake of the Young Girl. The true reading will be restored in the volumes."11 The mock marriage made it easier for Hardy to credibilize the innocence of his "Pure" heroine, who could hardly be faulted for doing what seemed to her perfectly respectable.12 Likewise, she could not be held responsible for anything she did while drugged by the potion that Alec slipped into her mouth in the 1891 edition of Tess.13 But at the risk of complicating her purity, Hardy removed both the mock marriage and the drugging from the 1892 edition, and thereby sought to restore what he called "the true reading" — "seduction pure & simple." This reading plainly emerges in the novel itself at the end of Chapter 44, where we are told that when Tess sees and hears Alec preaching in the Evershed barn, she feels "the strange enervating conviction that her seducer confronted her" (p. 238, emphasis mine).
By itself, this epithet for Alec hardly disentangles seduction from rape, or proves that Tess was victimized by "seduction pure and simple." But it does tell us clearly what she felt and thought at the sight of Alec, and it confirms what goes through her mind as she mentally reviews her experience with him right after her return from Trantridge. If the "feminist distinction between rape and intercourse . . . lies in the meaning of the act from women's point of view," as McKinnon declares (with Rooney's endorsement), the following passage is crucial to any analysis of her sexual relations with Alec. Unlike the second-hand testimony of the fieldworkers who passed on reports of "sobbing" and "a little more than persuading" in the Chase, this passage defines Tess's relations with Alec from her own point of view:
She had never wholly cared for him, she did not care for him now. She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile: had suddenly despised and disliked< him, and had run away. That was all. Hate him she did not quite; but he was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name's sake she scarcely wished to marry him. (p. 64).
"Temporarily blinded by his ardent manners," Tess "had been stirred to confused surrender awhile." This is her own way of recalling her response to Alec's advances, and it echoes what she says to Alec when he catches up with her on her way home from Trantridge: "My eyes were dazed by you for a while" (p. 59). Nothing in these words implies rape. The only reasonable inference to be drawn from them is that for a time, Tess was superficially attracted to Alec — her mother calls him a "mighty handsome man" (p. 33) — and sexually stirred by him. Because Tess never "wholly" loved Alec, many critics seem to assume that she could not in any way have consented to intercourse with him. But to assume that no "pure" woman can be sexually roused by a man she does not love is about as plausible as assuming what led Queen Victoria to think there was no need to criminalize lesbianism along with homosexuality: "No woman would do that." 14 Hardy shows what even a "pure" woman will do under particular conditions.15 As Tess tells Alec himself after leaving his house, it is precisely because she yielded to a man she did not love that she now "loathe[s] and hate[s] herself for [her] weakness" (p. 59). If Alec had raped her, would she hate herself for her weakness rather than hating Alec for his brutality?
Supposing for the moment that she could, I will also admit that one part of the passage quoted above could imply rape. When Tess recalls that she "succumbed to adroit advantages [Alec] took of her helplessness," William Davis argues that she refers to his sexual penetration of her while she slept. Under English law, a sleeping woman was presumed incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse, and intercourse with such a woman was therefore judged to be rape.16 To reconcile Hardy's intentions with Victorian law on rape, which he probably knew something about, Davis suggests that what Hardy calls "seduction pure & simple" was actually rape followed by seduction (Davis, p. 229).17
But this formula cannot survive close scrutiny. Beyond the fact that rape followed by seduction is anything but "seduction pure & simple," such a sequence would require of Tess a kind of pliancy that is utterly foreign to her character. Prior to the incident in the Chase, Tess shows that she can defy Alec. Racing his dogcart down a hill with her enroute to Trantridge, he will not stop the horse until she agrees to let him give her a kiss — what the narrator calls "the kiss of mastery" (p. 40). But when he threatens to start racing again in quest of another kiss, she lets the wind take her hat off, steps out of the gig to fetch it, and refuses to remount the dogcart. Roundly telling Alec, "I hate and detest you!" (p. 41), she walks all the way to Trantridge — some five or six miles. Given the hatred and defiance Tess displays when Alec merely tries to extort a second kiss from her, could she succumb to seduction right after he had raped her?
One might say "no," and go on to claim that Tess never succumbs to seduction. As they make their way into the Chase,. Tess tells Alec plainly, "I don't love you" (p. 53), and in spite of her exhaustion, she nearly pushes him off the horse when he tries to put his arm around her. Also, when he complains that she has spurned him "for near three mortal months," she says, "I'll leave you to-morrow, sir" (p. 54). But why then does she remain with Alec for "some few weeks" after their night together in the Chase (p. 58)? Since there is no evidence that she is made to stay at Trantridge before she decides to leave one Sunday morning, what prompts her to stay? Could her aversion to Alec have been somehow conquered by rape? Nothing of what Tess says to Alec or thinks to herself confirms this hypothesis. When she tells Alec on the morning of her departure that she "never really and truly loved" him (p. 61), and that her "eyes were dazed by [him] for a little, and that was all" (p. 59), she can only mean that she found him briefly and superficially attractive, appealing enough to live with "for a little."
Tess can be compliant about small matters, but nothing in her character suggests that she could suffer rape without fiercely and outspokenly resenting it afterwards, without making Alec know how much she hated him for it. When her mother insists on dressing her up for the journey to Trantridge even though Tess says she is simply "going to work" there, Tess says resignedly, "Do what you like with me, mother" (p. 35). Likewise, when Alec insists on a farewell kiss before Tess returns to Marlott, she "indifferently" offers him one cheek and then another (pp. 60-61). But she withholds her mouth, she insists that she cannot love him; and when he begs her to come back, she says, "Never, never! I made up my mind as soon as I saw — what I ought to have seen sooner; and I won't come" (p. 61). What she saw "too late" — after losing her virginity — was Alec's "meaning" (Tess 60), his intention, which was to make her his "creature," his mistress, his mannequin — clothed "with the best" that his money can buy (p. 60).18 She scorns this role — just as she scorns the claim that "every woman says" what Tess says about misunderstanding Alec's intentions. "How can you use such words!" she cries. "My God, I could knock you out of the gig! Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?" (p. 60).
Tess not only reviles Alec; she threatens violence, and sometimes employs it. We have already noted that in the Chase she nearly pushes him off her horse, and much later she strikes his face with a leather glove, drawing blood from his mouth (p. 261). Besides prefiguring the murder of Alec, these episodes remind us that violence and the threat of violence are the distinctive weapons of Tess — not of Alec. Though he can be intimidating, though he makes Tess feel like a helpless sparrow whose neck is about to be broken just after she strikes him with her glove, and though she dares him to "whip" her and "crush" her (p. 261), Alec is not a brute. He fights Tess not with the blunt instruments of force but with the far more insidious weapons of temptation. What goads her to strike him with her glove is precisely his seductive invitation that she abandon "forever" the "invisible" man she "call[s] husband" and return to her "first husband," who stands ready to help her and whose "trap" — a diabolically apt word for his two-wheeled carriage — awaits her (p. 260).
To read Alec as a rapist is grossly to underestimate him. Like Satan, the role he jestingly but also revealingly plays, he seeks not to pinion the body of his victim but to master her mind, to exploit her weaknesses, to take — as Tess herself thinks — "adroit advantage of her helplessness" (p. 64). Why does she finally agree to live with him in Sandbourne? Not because he compels her to do so but because — in her own words — he "used [his] cruel persuasion" on her. Taunting her about the very existence of her long-absent husband, he finally breaks her faith in his return. Tempting her with the promise of help for her desperately needy mother and siblings, he finally breaks her resistance to him. In her own words, he "won [her] back" (p. 299).
This particular act of persuasion leaves our own faith in Tess's purity intact because it exploits only her susceptibility to deceit, which we — unlike Milton — readily excuse, and her altruism, which we just as readily admire. Yet when Tess tells the returning Angel that Alec has won her back, she clearly reminds us — and Angel — that she chose to live as Alec's mistress once before. This of course must have been part of what she confessed to Angel on their wedding night, when his own confession of having "plunged into eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger" treacherously seemed to give her "Providential" license to tell her own story, which she ingenuously thought was "just the same" as his (pp.176-77). A thicket of ironies sprouts from this simple phrase. First used by the parson who denied Tess's infant a Christian burial but felt moved by her pleading to say that its chances for salvation would be "just the same" (p.76), the phrase simply heightens our sense of difference when used again. Angel reflects the conventional morality of his time in judging female lapses from chastity far more harshly than male lapses.19 The mere existence of this double standard draws our sympathy to Tess, who seems less culpable than Angel because she did not wilfully plunge into sexual dissipation. We also know that as an unwed mother who suffered both social disgrace and the pain of losing her infant, she has already paid far more for her sexual experience than Angel ever could by way of remorse. Yet the fact remains that she chose to live with Alec for a period of "some few weeks" after their night together in the Chase — a period considerably longer than 48 hours. The differences between what Angel confesses to Tess and Tess confesses to Angel do not always work to her advantage.20
What then can we infer from Tess's choosing to live with Alec the first time? Could she make such a choice without forfeiting the purity that Hardy emphatically grants to her? This is the kind of question implicitly raised by Rooney in a passage I have already quoted in part. "Hardy's effort," she writes, "simultaneously to assert Tess's purity and to revise the meaning of purity itself traps him in the opposition between rape and seduction, between the unambiguous violence that would guarantee Tess's purity in even the most rigid patriarchal codes and the ambiguous and thus less pure space of complicity, desire, and reading" (Rooney, p. 96). Assuming that purity varies inversely with desire, Rooney argues that Hardy cannot represent his "pure" heroine "as a desiring or speaking subject" (Rooney, p. 96).
I have already considered how Tess recalls her desire for Alec in a passage Rooney ignores. Let us now consider a passage describing what she does just after accepting Angel's proposal, when he asks her to prove that she cares for him:
"How can I prove it more than I have done?" she cried in a distraction of tenderness. "Will this prove it more?" She clasped his neck, and for the first time Clare learned what an impassioned woman's kisses were like upon the lips of one whom she loved with all her heart and soul, as Tess loved him. p. 149)
Tess both speaks and enacts her desire, making it unmistakeably clear. But in passionately kissing a man whom she has just agreed to marry, she prompts no serious questions about her purity. What threatens her purity here is not her desire but her deception of Angel, for she has just lied to him about her past. Starting to tell of her troubled "history," she falteringly says that she is
"not a Durbeyfield, but a d'Urberville . . . And — we are all gone to nothing!"
"A d' Urberville . . . . Indeed! And is that all the trouble, dear Tess?"
"Yes," she answered faintly. (pp. 147-48)
Faint though it is, her "yes" is a lie. She doesn't just withhold the story of her past; she falsely affirms that she has told Angel "all the trouble" of it. "At the last moment," we are told, "her courage had failed her, she feared his blame for not telling him sooner; and her instinct of self-preservation was stronger than her candour" (p. 148).
The self she preserves by telling the lie, however, is precisely a desiring self, the self that wants Angel, the self that yearns "to snatch ripe pleasure before the iron teeth of pain could have time to shut upon her" (p. 139). Tess is not an ascetic. She cannot always steel herself against the lure of pleasure. She has already yielded to Alec's temptation, and the reason she loathes herself for her weakness in doing so — as she tells Alec himself — is that she typically prides herself on her strength, her self-reliance, her spirit of self-assertion.
These qualities plainly emerge on the night that John Durbeyfield gets too drunk to drive the beehives to the Casterbridge market. When Joan awakens Tess at 1:30 A.M. to tell her.that "somebody must go" and suggests that "some young feller" might do it, Tess "proudly" rejects the idea of asking for help. She insists on driving the family horse and wagon herself over bad roads and through the dark for some twenty or thirty miles — with no one but her little brother Abraham to keep her company (pp. 19-20). Enroute, Tess lets Abraham sleep — a typical act of consideration for her younger sibling. But she also flexes the muscles of her self-reliance. "Tess was not skilful in the management of a horse, but she thought that she could take upon herself the entire conduct of the load for the present" (p. 21). As a result, she herself falls asleep and fails to see — much less avoid — the pointed shaft of a speeding mail cart that "entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword" (p. 22).
A horse or nag with a comically chivalric name, Prince could no more protect this would-be princess or lady in distress (descendant of ancient Norman d'Urbervilles) than she could protect him. The fatal wounding of Prince during a night ride in which Tess falls asleep obviously prefigures Alec's sexual penetration of her during their night journey in the Chase, and the spouting blood that she helplessly tries to staunch could well prefigure the blood he shed in tearing her hymen: all of which implies the wounding violence of rape.21 But before the moment of Tess's first sexual experience, which Hardy could not represent directly, he offers us a quite different way of imagining it, or foreseeing it. During her first meeting with Alec, when he shows her the fruit-garden at Trantridge, he offers her strawberries, holding a particularly fine one to her mouth by its stem:
"No, no!" she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips.
"I would rather take it in my own hand."
"Nonsense," he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in. [p. 29]
Behind this episode lurks Satan's temptation of Eve. In this first of many allusions to the Miltonic version of the story, Alec overcomes Tess's resistance just as Satan overcomes Eve's, urging her to "freely taste" the forbidden fruit (PL 9.732). Of course Tess has not been forbidden to eat strawberries, and she says herself that she would like to take one in her own hand. But she ends up letting Alec feed it to her, and "in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in" (p. 29). Hardy precisely articulates both her reluctance and her acceptance. Though slightly distressed, she actively parts her lips and takes the strawberry in. If the violent and fatal wounding of Prince can be read as prefiguring rape, Tess's opening of her lips to a strawberry can just as plausibly be read as prefiguring her "confused surrender" to the pleasures of sex, especially in light of the passage that follows:
They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d'Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose-trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream. . . . [pp. 29-30]
Half-pleased and half-reluctant, Tess dreamily consumes whatever Alec offers her — until she can consume no more. Whether or not this truly prefigures what happens in the Chase, it gives us a way of imagining what happens there — and at Trantridge in the weeks that follow — that is at least as plausible as the violent alternative.
I stress this point because I do not think we can use the oxymoron "violent seduction" to reconcile Hardy's claims for Tess's purity with what I believe to be compelling evidence that she was seduced.22 Unlike Rooney and many other critics, I do not believe the novel makes seduction indistinguishable from rape. While Hardy sometimes skirts the line between the two, he prefigures the possibility of each in vividly contrasting ways, and gives us ample reason to conclude that Tess yielded to temptation, not to force. But the question remains: if Tess cannot be exculpated by the claim that she was raped or "violently" seduced, if Alec won at least her partial consent to sexual intercourse for a period of "some weeks," and if she lies to Angel about the "trouble" of her past, how can she be considered the "pure woman" that Hardy says she is?
In his preface to the 1892 edition of Tess Hardy tries to answer this question himself. Regretting that some readers could not associate the word "pure" with anything "but the artificial and derivative meaning which has resulted from the ordinances of civilization" (p. x), he plainly implies that for him it does not mean "chaste" or "virginal." Instead it denotes "the meaning of the word in Nature, together with all aesthetic claims upon it, not to mention the spiritual interpretation afforded by the finest side of . . . Christianity" (p. x). Hardy thus returns us to the root meaning of "pure," which is "clean" (from the Latin purus), unmixed, and free from foreign matter — as in such natural substances as "pure oxygen" and "pure gold" (Elledge, p. x n. 2). "Aesthetic claims" is almost inscrutably vague, but by "spiritual interpretation," Hardy may allude to stories such as that of Mary Magdalen, who gained forgiveness for her sins by the purity — the unstinting devotion — of her service to Christ (Luke 7:36-52).
Unfortunately, none of these meanings can by itself exonerate Tess. When the milkmaids rooming with Tess at Talbothays have been impassioned by Angel, we are told that "cruel Nature's law" makes each of them "but portion of one organism called sex" (p. 115). In terms of Nature, then, they each embody pure lust. And while Mary Magdalen may show pure devotion to Christ, just as Tess for a time shows pure devotion to Angel, Mary Magdalen is said to have been "leading a sinful life" (Luke 7:38-39), normally construed the life of a prostitute and hardly compatible with the claim that Tess does nothing wrong. So Hardy's comments on the meaning of "pure" cannot answer the questions raised by his subtitle. In 1912 he wrote that "it was appended [in 1891] at the last moment, after reading the final proofs, as being the estimate left in a candid mind of the heroine" (Tess,s character — an estimate nobody would be likely to dispute. It was more disputed than anything else in the book" (p. xii).
For more than a hundred years, it has remained in dispute, but now takes the form of a debate over seduction and rape. Having argued that what Tess experiences in her own consciousness is temptation and seduction rather than rape, I wish now to argue that her way of yielding to temptation does not compromise the kind of purity that Hardy claims for her or injure "the estimate left in a candid mind of [her] character."
The key to Hardy's conception of purity lies, I believe, not in his obiter dicta on this vexingly elusive term but in what he says of Tess in the novel itself just after she has buried her infant child: "Almost at a leap Tess . . . changed from simple girl to complex woman. Symbols of reflectiveness passed into her face, and a note of tragedy into her voice" (p. 77). A complex woman cannot be "pure" in the scientific sense because she is no longer simple, homogenous, unmixed. She is rather "good" in the sense that Aristotle intends when he says that the protagonist of a tragedy must be "first and foremost . . . good. There will be an element of character in the play, if . . . what a personage says or does reveals a certain choice; and a good element of character, if the purpose so revealed is good."23 The virtue of a tragic character cannot be absolute and unassailable, for the passage of such a character from "good fortune to bad" would then be "simply odious to us" ("Poetics" 1452b, lines 34-35, p. 2325) — unless, one might add, the character is a Job whose faith in God is tested and confirmed by his sufferings. But if there is no Providence in the world of Tess and if "Justice" denotes only the "sport" with which the President of the Immortals wantonly contrives her execution, is her own fall simply odious to us? Or can she remain good and pure while somehow bearing responsibility for her fate?
Whatever the answer to this question, she cannot assume tragic stature — in the Aristotelean sense — without also assuming responsibility. The cause of the fall of a tragic character, says Aristotle, must lie within himself: "not in any depravity, but in some great fault on his part" ("Poetics" 1453a lines 15-16, p. 2325). Tess dies not only for the amusement of a wanton God, but for a murder that cannot be explained or justified by self-defense or by the threat of rape, since she kills the very man with whom she has chosen to live, the man who "won [her] back" to him. The candid reader must admit that with the possible exception of a plea of insanity, no defense of Tess in a court of law could succeed. In strict legal terms, she is greatly at fault. Yet by now the candid reader has been made to feel something of what Angel feels when she tells him of the murder: "horror at her impulse . . . mixed with amazement at the strength of her affection for himself; and at the strangeness of its quality, which had apparently extinguished her moral sense altogether. . . . As well as his confused and excited ideas could reason, he supposed that . . . her mind has lost its balance, and plunged her into this abyss" (p. 304).
Still partly entangled in the nets of conventional morality and rationality even as he vows to protect Tess lovingly, Angel can only conclude that Tess has gone mad. But Tess is not insane. She kills Alec because in seducing her a second time, he threatens to make her his "creature," as she once said (p. 60), to take possession of her soul. "Have no fear," said Christ to the apostles, "of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. You had better be afraid of one who can destroy both soul and body . . ." (Matthew 10:28). As I have said already, critics who treat Alec as a rapist grossly underestimate him. He is far more dangerous and diabolical as a seducer, and that is what finally goads Tess to strike him down.
If we do not believe that Tess forfeits her purity when she murders Alec, why must we believe that it cannot withstand the taint of seduction, that only the "unambiguous violence" of rape can guarantee it, as Rooney says (p. 96)? In murdering Alec, Tess acts on desperate impulse, and it is precisely her own impulse — cunningly manipulated by Alec — that leads her into the Chase. Just before he appears on his horse, she is physically threatened by Car Darch, who jealously resents her for becoming Alec's "favourite . . . just now," and then reviled by various other women (p. 52). Into this crisis steps Alec — would-be rescuer of a lady in distress. Quick to take "adroit advantag[e] . . . of her helplessness," as Tess later reflects (p. 64), he urges her to jump up behind him: an invitation she would have declined "at almost any other moment of her life. . . . But coming as the invitation did at the particular juncture when fear and indignation at these adversaries could be transformed by a spring of the foot into a triumph over them she abandoned herself to her impulse, climbed the gate, put her toe upon his instep, and scrambled into the saddle behind him" (pp. 52-53, emphasis mine). Rooney tells us that "to preserve Tess' purity, [Hardy] must insist on her passivity" (p. 97). But here — as in the strawberry-eating episode — he insists on her activity. Tess is not siezed by Alec, definitely not raped — rapta — in the root sense of the word. Instead she makes her own moves. Highlighted by contrast with the passive verb just before them, four active verbs express what she impulsively does to elude — and thus "triumph over" — the other women.
Laughing scornfully at the departing Tess, the others know how illusory her triumph is and how fateful her impulse will prove to be. Having provoked this impulse, Alec contrives to elicit another that all but liquefies her resistance to him. First he checks her impulse to leave him. When she discovers that he has led her into the foggy depths of the Chase at one in the morning, she calls him "treacherous" and demands to be set down from his horse so that she may walk home at once. Pleading for time to find out where they are, Alec makes a nest for her in the leaves and then with studied casualness — "by the bye" — reveals that he has given her father "a new cob to-day." "O how very good of you that is!" she says. (p. 56). She cannot check her own impulse to thank him, for he has suddenly lifted the burden of guilt she has borne ever since she led the family horse into a fatal accident.25 Reluctant to work at the d'Urberville house without seeing Alec's mother, she had taken the job mainly because she felt obliged to replace Prince: "I killed the old horse," she tells her mother, "and I suppose I ought to do something to get ye a new one" (p. 34). Now that the Durbeyfields have a new one, and toys for the children as well (p. 56), Tess cannot help feeling grateful — even as she fears that "his passion for herself" prompted the gifts to her family.26 Exhausted by the labors and walking and quarrelling of a day that began at five in the morning, she falls asleep in the knowledge that she is deeply indebted to Alec, who knows exactly how to stir and exploit her impulses.
We never learn exactly and directly how Tess responds to Alec's sexual advances in the Chase. But in my judgment, the case for seduction decisively outweighs the case for rape. Critics who would argue the opposite must assume a formidable burden of proof: must explain why she chooses to stay with Alec for weeks after their night in the Chase; why she remembers her sojourn with him in terms of mild arousal ("stirred to confused surrender awhile"), and why she tells Alec that he has "won [her] back" with "cruel persuasion." Critics who believe that a "pure" Tess cannot have been seduced must also explain how her purity could be impugned by her surrender to seduction and yet remain unsullied by her commission of murder. I believe that her purity withstands both murder and seduction. Tess kills Alec to free herself from a man whose diabolic manipulation of her motives and impulses has twice threatened to make her his "creature," to take possession of her soul. Only in grasping this point do we begin to grapple fully with her agency, her tragic complexity, and her own kind of purity.
Last modified 3 January 2010