Tess of the D'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
Tess of the D'Urbervilles Women and Femininity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still. (2.6)
The women's club in Marlott is a holdover from the ancient springtime rituals of the pagans – which is why Hardy references the "Cerealia," or festival to the Roman goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of the earth, and agriculture, and all growing things. Yes, our word "cereal" comes from the name of the Roman goddess Ceres. Springtime festivals in honor of the earth goddess were the especial responsibility of women, because those festivals were all about new life and seeds, and nurturing – all things associated with femininity and motherhood.
So Tess and her female friends are being associated with this long and ancient lineage of women that is even older than the D'Urberville connection on her father's side of the family. After all, the spring festival and the worship of the earth goddess go back way before 1066, the time of the first Sir Pagan D'Urberville. So again, this passage dissolves the distinction between the contemporary and the time-out-of-mind ancient.
There were a few middle-aged and even elderly women in the train, their silver-wiry hair and wrinkled faces, scourged by time and trouble, having almost a grotesque, certainly a pathetic, appearance in such a jaunty situation. In a true view, perhaps, there was more to be gathered and told of each anxious and experienced one […] than of her juvenile comrades. (2.9)
The club-walking group of women includes both young women, like Tess, and old women. Again, Hardy wants to collapse the distinction between past and present, old and young – all of those women are together in the same group, performing the same ancient ritual festival to springtime, so the distinctions of age hardly matter: they're all women.
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, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. (11.63)
We looked at this passage in the context of the "Fate and Free Will" theme, but it's very important to the theme of femininity, as well. First of all, the narrator uses words that denote delicacy and fragility to describe Tess's body – "tissue," "gossamer," and "snow." (Gossamer is a poetical word for the dew-covered cobwebs that appear on grass in the early morning). This seems strange, given that at other points in the novel, he describes her as strong, healthy and robust – even able to defend herself physically on occasion (take, for example, the scene in which she almost shoves Alec off his horse at 11.20). But here, in The Chase, as Alec takes advantage of her relative helplessness and their isolation, Tess is described as "sensitive" and delicate – she seems temporarily, at least, to have lost her ability to defend herself.
This description seems to be an effort by Hardy to pin the blame of her rape firmly on Alec, despite the complaints of contemporary critics that Tess could have done more to ward him off – Tess is asleep when he finds her, and Hardy's choice of words makes Tess seem even more delicate and vulnerable than she was. It's also interesting to note that while Hardy associates femininity elsewhere with "fullness of growth" (5.63), in this passage, it's her delicacy and "sensitiv[ity]" that makes Tess seem more feminine.