The Problem Of Tess

The Problem Of Tess

This is a blog post about Tess of the d’Urbervilles and therefore by extension, it is a blog post about rape. I’m not going to mince my words or skirt around the point — that happens too much in readings of this text. So if discussion of rape triggers you or causes you misery, you should probably stop reading now. And if you haven’t read Tess, it may not make much sense. (You could watch my latest vlog instead. It’s funny and I’m wearing a poncho blanket.)

I get angry about this book and about studying it. Angry about it the same way I get angry about rape culture in the media or in things I hear people say. So let’s look at exactly what it is that gets my goat.

You see, the problem with studying Tess of the d’Urbervilles is how teachers and critics deal with Alec raping Tess.

I’ve been studying it for my A-Level English Literature course, and I hate it. It’s not so much the book itself as how we discuss it, analyse it, pick it apart … in a way that blames Tess. There’s this old argument with this book, you see, the “rape vs seduction” argument. Was Tess forcibly raped by Alec d’Urberville, or was she seduced, persuaded to sleep with him? Critics delight in discussing this. Some of them do it very badly.

Let me tell you about the essay, ‘Is Alec a rapist?’ We were given it in class as a photocopy that omits the author’s name, but I’ve pencilled in that John Sutherland wrote it, so we’ll blame him. If he didn’t, my apologies. You see, this essay dedicates perhaps the first few pages to discussing the textual material and trying to determine whether or not Tess was raped, but then spends the rest of the essay discussing an entirely different question: ‘Is Tess a murderess?’ It’s as though Sutherland feels that Tess’s misdemeanours justify anything else that happened to her, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether or not she was raped.

No, really. My angry annotations ought to be an indication of exactly what I thought of this essay, and at the end, I’ve simply written: “Nope. Screw this.

From my reading of the text, I think it’s entirely clear that the exact moment at which Tess loses her virginity, no matter how obscurely it’s depicted by Hardy, is non-consensual. But to be perfectly honest, it makes absolutely no difference.

The ‘rape vs seduction’ argument is problematic because it encourages the idea that Alec’s pursuit of Tess after she turned him down repeatedly was okay. It encourages the idea that coercing somebody into having sex is okay. It encourages the idea that if they’re uncertain and you press the point, that’s okay. It suggests that emotionally blackmailing somebody so that they feel indebted to you and are therefore guilt-tripped into doing what you want is okay.

In other words, this reading of the text and this critical debate perpetuates rape culture and an attitude that’s totally inappropriate to be teaching to school students. Seventeen-year-olds need to be told they’re allowed to say no and that can be final. Their peers need to be told that if someone turns you down, you leave them alone, not think up ways to trick them into feeling obliged to sleeping with you.

Teaching people Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the way it’s taught and giving them the critical essays that are more concerned by exonerating Alec’s behaviour than actually paying attention to the text is promoting unhealthy, manipulative relationships, and it drives me mad.

I read a great article the other day — particularly good because it addresses society as a whole and how we view relationships, instead of pointing fingers at specific people — called Why I Never Play Hard To Get. It’s worth reading in conjunction with this post: I think it’s relevant.

The crux of the matter is that it’s not romantic to pursue someone after they say no, it’s inappropriate. And as a result, we shouldn’t even be considering the “rape vs seduction” argument. There is no argument.

Telling suggestible young people that Alec’s behaviour could possibly be justified is irresponsible. Many of them may have been in emotionally manipulative relationships. Some of them will have got out of them; some of them may be trying to. Others may still be in the process of coming to terms with whatever has happened to them. To shove in their face literary criticism that tells them their behaviour could be interpreted as being “secretly interested” in the other person will lead them to internalise that idea so that they won’t recognise the problem.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter whether Tess was physically forced or whether she was coerced into giving consent because they are exactly the same thing. Consent is worthless when it isn’t given willingly and we need to stop telling teenagers that emotional manipulation is consensual and it doesn’t count as rape. It’s made pretty clear what Tess was feeling, and she made it clear too. Nothing that Alec does for her justifies his later behaviour.

There may even be rape survivors in a class studying this text (and nobody ever asked any of us to fill in a form to say whether we were comfortable with these books, so maybe there were some in my class — who would know?), obliged to sit there while people say that Tess should have got over what Alec did, dismissing her misery and her suffering as an overreaction. People point out the good things that Alec does as though that excuses everything else while somebody could be sitting there barely resisting having an anxiety attack because all they’re remembering is the nice things their rapist did for them, too.

It’s time we stopped teaching texts that send these incredibly unhelpful and harmful messages to those studying them, and started approaching them from a different angle. We should never have discussed whether or not Tess was raped, because she was. Let’s not pretend there’s anything ambiguous about that: it’s made pretty clear* that she’s not about to give her consent to the man she detests. Let’s look at the rest of the text. There’s so much about the story that’s more interesting than debating the nitty-gritty of whether or not it was emotional blackmail or physical force that caused Tess to lose her virginity to Alec.

Because I am absolutely sick of the way critics (and, I suppose, teachers and examiners) use this text in a way that perpetuates a victim-blaming rape culture that devalues consent and tries to excuse inappropriate sexual and ‘romantic’ pursuit of somebody who has made it clear they’re not interested.

And if it weren’t for the fact I don’t approve of destroying books unnecessarily, I would be sorely tempted to set this book on fire the moment I finish the exam.

* Initially, this post included analysis of excerpts from Tess to back up my argument that she makes it very clear she isn’t giving consent, since some people dispute that. However, that made it about 2.5k long, which seemed overly intense for a blog post. If people are interested in the full literary analysis, I’d be happy to do a follow-up post containing the material I cut from this one, but please let me know in the comments, as if it would bore people I won’t bother you with it.

4 thoughts on “The Problem Of Tess

  1. The only thing I liked about Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that it is shorter than Jude the Obscure. I can accept that Hardy’s technique is skilled but, like you, dislike the content intensely.

    I might be misremembering exact details (I did not keep any of my notes on Hardy after the exams), Hardy’s stance throughout his opus is that a single moment of imperfection makes you responsible for everything bad that happens to you for the rest of your life, and that bad stuff happens to utterly pure people anyway. Overall, too depressing a philosophy to inflict on the young.

    Especially as the world is not short of technically skilled writers who did not also want to whine on for hundreds of pages about how characters were bad people for not enduring the inevitable horror of all existence better.

    1. Hardy spends the whole book defending Tess against the opinions of society yet society continues to blame her and it frustrates me. Up to a point, I’m not even blaming him, though he tends to write incredibly depressing books…

      As for his technique, it has its moments of beauty, but I sometimes feel he should’ve stuck to poetry. Then we could get the nice imagery without the novel attached. ;)

  2. I’ve been reading Tess for school too, and I absolutely detest it — and completely agree with you. If it’s going to be part of a school syllabus it has to be treated a hell of a lot differently, because my Eng Lit class got into a discussion about /whether it was Tess’ fault for leading Alec on/ (this is at an all girls’ school) and all the teacher did was look vaguely uncomfortable and try to change the subject,

    1. Sounds like our class discussions. It’s not that I don’t think it’s an important examination of Victorian values etc and I know why they make us read it, but it’s handled insensitively and just plain badly.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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