Hardy Understood Sexual Predators Well

Hans Matheson as Alec d’Uberville, sexual predator


After discussing Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman with my Senior Seminar students, I declare it to be the novel for the age of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all those other powerful men who have harassed, assaulted, and raped vulnerable women (and sometimes men). Hardy held sexual predators fully accountable for their actions by adding the inexorable word “pure” to victimized heroine.

The adjective is necessary because virtually every predator tries to impugn the victim. If the woman is not pure, predators say, then what happens is at least partly her fault. They were saying that in 1891 when the first serialized installment of Tess appeared and they’re saying it today.

As a result, discussing Hardy’s novel is like walking through a minefield. As soon as our class tried to figure out what exactly happens in the woods—Hardy has drawn a curtain over the actual assault—one student wanted to close down the discussion then and there. After all, once one begins distinguishing between a hard rape and a soft rape, one leaves enough daylight for predators to accuse the woman of consent.

Here’s the situation: Tess’s employer Alec d’Urberville, whose sexual advances she has been resisting for weeks, rescues her from an angry woman on a late-night journey home from a fair. As the novel puts it, however, Tess has only escaped the frying pan to fall into the fire. Alec deliberately gets them lost, Tess falls asleep, and “a coarse pattern” is “traced” upon “this beautiful feminine tissue”:

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

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.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

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. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. 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.

All we are explicitly told is that Tess’s rape is not as “ruthless” as rapes in the past have been. Then Hardy complicates the matter further by having Tess stay with Alec for “a few weeks” before leaving him. When she finally does, she talks about her “weakness” and being “dazed by you for a little.” A defense attorney today would jump on those facts in a heartbeat.

Nor is it only predators and their attorneys who do so. In a case of editorial malpractice, the editors of the Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, 3rd edition (1990), thought that they would help out readers by adding titles to the chapters, which Hardy only numbered. This chapter they titled “Seduction or Rape,” thereby making the very distinction that Hardy challenges. Given that Tess has been under assault from her employer for weeks, to suggest that she might have been seduced shows that the 1990s editors aren’t much more enlightened that the novel’s first audience.

My students were much more clear, perhaps because they are third wave feminists, perhaps because we all participated in Maryland’s mandated sexual assault workshops. Those extra weeks, that accepting some of the blame, are irrelevant they said. First of all, Alec is employer, upper class, and male while Tess is an inexperienced farm girl, so the field has already been tilted. Furthermore, in addition to unwanted sexual advances, Alec also sets psychological traps for Tess, paying money to her family to foster within her a sense of indebtedness and gratitude–which in turn undermines the leverage she has to resist him. When Tess leaves him, he throws in her face the predator’s final justification, which is that the woman knew what she was getting into. In other words, she acted of her own volition:

“I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.”

“That’s what every woman says.”

“How can you dare to use such words!” she cried, turning impetuously upon him, her eyes flashing as the latent spirit (of which he was to see more some day) awoke in her. “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?”

Later in the novel, when they meet up again and Tess again resists him, Alec makes clear that his intercourse with her has never been about sex. It has been about power:

“[R]emember one thing!” His voice hardened as his temper got the better of him with the recollection of his sincerity in asking her and her present ingratitude, and he stepped across to her side and held her by the shoulders, so that she shook under his grasp. “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again.”

Had Tess left him the morning after the rape, many Victorian readers would have allowed Hardy to call his heroine pure. By making the situation more complex while still insisting on her innocence, he denied them such an easy out. As a result, audiences reacted in fury.

Two weeks ago, the White House reiterated claims that the 16 women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual assault are all lying. How will we respond when defense lawyers find defects in them, as they invariably will? Will we insist upon a narrow definition of purity or will we, like Hardy, look at the broader facts of the case? I like to think we’ve made progress, but we’ll see.

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