Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Sex

By Thomas Hardy


Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Five

She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D'Urberville's eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted. It had troubled her mind occasionally, till her companions had said that it was a fault which time would cure. (5.63)

Yes, Alec's eyes are "rivet[ing] themselves upon" Tess because – you guessed it – she has big breasts. This is just one passage that contemporary critics pointed to when they complained that Hardy included too much detail about Tess's sexiness. Why, they asked, did Hardy need to include this description of Tess's chest? Because Tess's "fullness of growth" "denote[s]" her femininity – her curvaceousness is supposed to make her seem like some kind of primitive nature goddess, which is probably why Hardy connects Tess's "fullness" to her mother – he wants to tie her to a matrilineal history that reaches back to pagan times when femininity and motherhood were considered sacred, and were worshipped in the form of nature goddesses.

Alec D'Urberville

"Well, my big Beauty, what can I do for you?" said he, coming forward. (5.30)

Point of interest here – this is the first thing Alec D'Urberville ever says to Tess. Why does he call her "my big Beauty"? Why not just, "my Beauty"? Aren't Victorian heroines supposed to be all tiny and petite and corseted? Well, Tess is repeatedly described as a blooming, country girl – she's also described as very "womanly" for her age (see the next quote for an example). We're going to give you one guess what that means.

P.S. Not all editions include the word "big," so be sure to double check your version.

Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Eleven

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. (11.60)

The scene of Tess's rape by Alec is deliberately ambiguous. Hardy never once uses the word "rape" to describe it, although that's certainly what it was by today's definitions. The sense of ambiguity is set up from the moment that Alec finds Tess sleeping under the tree – Hardy uses words like "obscure" and "nebulous" to indicate that what's about to happen is hard to interpret. Impossible, in fact, if you take into account the "blackness" that surrounds them. And because the actual act of the rape is left out (or "elided" to use the literary critical expression), we're left grasping at straws. There's "absolutely nothing" to interpret – but even that, as you can see from these lines, can mean something.

Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Twelve
Tess Durbeyfield

"Why didn't you tell me there was danger? Why didn't you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way, and you did not help me!" (12.81)

What's interesting about Tess's complaint to her mother is what she assumes about the purpose of reading novels. After all, we're reading a novel right now. What does Hardy want us to get out of it? Are we just supposed to learn what "tricks" to "guard against"? Perhaps this passage is partly a defense against those contemporary critics who accused Tess of the D'Urbervilles of being immoral – Hardy seems to suggest that reading novels, even novels with sex parts, is important for women, because too much innocence can be dangerous, like it was for Tess.

Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Eighteen

The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells – weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made blood-red stains on her skin. (19.11)

If you're thinking that this description of Tess in the garden is disturbingly provocative, you're absolutely right. She's getting pollen smeared all over her. You know what pollen is, biologically? Yeah, so did Hardy.

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Twenty-Seven

She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake's. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the presentation. (27.4)

See, this is the kind of description that Hardy's contemporary critics described as overly "succulent." Tess is snake-like: it's not just that her mouth is wide open, but her hair is "coiled" like a snake. Her beauty is more human, and less ethereal or other-worldly, than ever: she's all "flesh" and "sex."

Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Thirty-Four

He then told her of that time of his life to which allusion has been made when, tossed about by doubts and difficulties like a cork on the waves, he went to London and plunged into eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger. (34.83)

Angel confesses his sexual "crimes" to Tess on their wedding night, just before she tells him about what had happened with Alec. Angel's reaction is obviously unjust, given what he's just confessed, but the sexual double-standard was pretty well engrained in the society at this point. It takes Angel more than a year, and a brush with death to overcome that convention, and realize just how wrong he was.

Phase V: "The Woman Pays," Chapter Thirty-Five

He was pale, even tremulous; but, as before, she was appalled by the determination revealed in the depths of this gentle being she had married – the will to subdue the grosser to the subtler emotion, the substance to the conception, the flesh to the spirit. Propensities, tendencies, habits, were as dead leaves upon the tyrannous wind of his imaginative ascendancy. (35.25)

The whole problem with Angel, Tess is now realizing, is that he is too intellectual. He wants things to be ideal, and not real. He values the spiritual over the material, instead of looking for a balance or harmony between the two. And when he realizes that Tess has a material, physical history, and isn't just an ethereal, other-worldly being, he freaks.

Phase VI: "The Convert," Chapter Forty-Six
Alec D'Urberville

"I say in all earnestness that it is a shame for parents to bring up their girls in such dangerous ignorance of the gins and nets that the wicked may set for them, whether their motive be a good one or the result of simple indifference." (46.14)

Here, Hardy voices his argument for simple sex education through the converted Alec D'Urberville – hardly a likely mouthpiece for the opinions of the author, but still, it's hard not to think that this is an opinion held by Hardy himself. Tess expresses the same frustration about her lack of education to her mother back in 12.81 – if she had known about sex, she would have been better able to defend herself against Alec's advances. This is a controversial opinion, though – in the late 19th century, it wasn't just a debate about whether or not to teach children about contraception as opposed to "abstinence only" – the general practice was not to explain sex to girls at all. People thought that the mere knowledge of sex would somehow make girls less pure and virginal. Through this whole novel, Hardy seems to be arguing that such a practice is short-sighted.

[…] her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. […] Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.

Tess's beauty is sometimes described as ethereal, or other-worldly, and at times, as totally human. Which is it? She's both a goddess, and a human woman – both a kind of "every woman," and totally unique.