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The Sub-Title of the Novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles

This content is about the protagonist of the favourite novel of many novel lovers and readers – Tess of the d’Urbervillles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented by Thomas Hardy. The subtitle has always been one of much discussion because of the one word “pure”. Opinions differ on various grounds as to prove the pure-ness of Tess. The subtitle is a social comment indicating the author’s and readers’ belief that Tess though a rape victim, is “pure” despite being a fallen woman by the standards of the day.

The argument is in keeping with the Gender Issues that prevailed in Victorian England. They held a notion that whether a woman was seduced, raped, prostituted herself or chose to have a sexual relationship she was considered “fallen” if she engaged in such activities outside of marriage. The question that is raised here is what makes Hardy call Tess ‘a pure woman’ despite knowing that she was raped. But the answer to the question is very sensitive if the reader looks at Tess from the Victorian lenses. But here is a logical answer to the question with reference to the narration from the text of the novel itself.

In the Phase First – The Maiden: Chapters 9-11, Hardy creates a beautiful scene; the reader sees Tess at The Slopes – taking care of the fouls on the farm of Mrs. d’Urberville. Here Hardy must be careful to create a scene where Tess maintains her innocence even though she is in different surrounding and environment. Hardy takes care to give an opportunity for Tess also to partake in the dance in the month on an evening of September. Alec takes advantage of the situation- Tess needs to return home; she has no partner so there appears Alec, whose offer she turns down. Alec is not successful in his adventure – again he comes to rescue Tess from a small mob of resentful women.

Is Tess weak and vulnerable? Or is it the “fate – philosophy’ that Hardy believed in that he adopts to carry forward the plot of the novel? Alec meanders along, and finally loses his way in the dense fog. He leaves Tess in the woods as he goes to find a cottage for directions back home. Meanwhile, Tess, tired and weary goes off to sleep.

Let us take a diversion from here just to look at Hardy’s Tess. For Hardy it was the ‘desire’ that acted as the catalyst for a negative result from the action of Alec. In the section ‘Maiden No More’ the disruption emerges firstly from Alec’s desire for Tess that leads to her being raped by him – as the narration goes. Hardy describes Alec as a ‘blood -red ray in the spectrum of her young life’; where the desire of Alec and the inability of Tess to control her destiny merge. His desire stains her. The two colours ‘red’ and ‘white’ represent Tess and Alec: white for Tess’ purity or chastity and red for Alec’s destructive presence and his male energy and power that dominates the youth of Tess.

So, the justification to the subtitle of the novel is that Hardy doesn’t mention in words saying that Tess is a pure woman. But, beginning from the first phase Tess is presented as an innocent, modest, simple, and guileless girl trapped in a traditionally bound society. If the reader goes by the Victorian standards of Purity, he will agree with some of the critic’s opinions; that loss of chastity is the loss of purity. But for Hardy, Tess is pure because she was pure of soul and mind and even her physical raping is the uncontrollable desire of Alec that robs Tess of her chastity when she was in a state of pure innocence- while she was asleep. Tess though lost the physical purity never lost the purity of the soul.

Sister Nelsa AC
Designation: Assistant Professor
Department: English