Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Merely Mistaken: Polar Morals in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles

"There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman . . ." Helen Cixous (876)

Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is, in its way, revolutionarily feminist. Unusual for its time in its address of premarital sexuality and unwed motherhood (Riquelme 12), Tess is even more remarkable in its attack on the double standard of sex roles which persists between men and women. Hardy defends a character whose life is squandered and destroyed by sexual misdeeds, not allowing Tess to become a "fallen woman" though everything in his culture would have made her so.

However, the potential depth of Tess' character is never entirely explored. She is in some ways a very strong heroine, allowed to learn, experience, and grow, to act on her own for her own benefit, and to take responsibility for her actions. But through all of this she is forcibly maintained as "pure." Despite a novel's worth of wrongdoing she is unable to achieve moral complexity: she is never allowed to be wrong.

Sherry Ortner may have been the first to point out the double exclusion of women from culture, their being pushed both up and down (Houston 215). Closer to nature than men by virtue of reproduction, women are...

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