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Tess of The D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Gender Expectations in The Victorian Era

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Literature is a reflection of society and writers test and investigate the beliefs of their time, highlighting their flaws in society. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891, Thomas Hardy challenges the superiority of men, present in the Victorian Era. Hardy presents the protagonist as weak and shows how her low social status and lack of voice allows dominant men such as Alec and Angel to manipulate and control her. The expectations from women in society is highlighted through the tragedies and battles Tess endures. Hardy’s narrative perspective shows his deep sympathy for victimized women in society, particularly those from a lower social class. Hardy’s purpose is to demonstrate to the audience the struggles of women during the Victorian era.

Hardy criticizes male dominance in the novel and emphasizes on sexual hypocrisy to challenge the argumentative views of society. Alec, a wealthy manipulative man uses his gender and social class to lure innocent Tess into loving him. In the “Maiden” phase, Alec, an affluent man forcefully feeds Tess to eat a strawberry. The vulnerability of Tess is depicted when “he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in”. The foreshadowing of Tess’s inability to say “no” establishes her powerless position and demonstrates that she is easily dominated by men. This gives Alec a sense of superiority over Tess and shows his sovereignty. The strawberry symbolizes fertility and passion which hints at the future assault. The redness of the strawberry comes as a motif, enhancing the mood of danger and evil, highlighting on Tess’s fate at the end of the novel. Hardy incorporates a range of techniques to hint Tess’s foreseeable future and to set the tone of danger and vulnerability early on in the novel. This creates tension early and adds anticipation for the reader. The way that Alec’s male dominance controls Tess, highlights the lack of voice within Tess and shows the vulnerability of Women during the Victorian Era.

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The lack of power from the lower class proves how certain decisions are unwantedly made in order to change or control their lives. Tess comes from a low class family where financial restraints restrict her from living a free independent life. In the “Maiden no more” faze, Tess’s mother is so frustrated at Tess for refusing to Marry Alec that she is “ready to burst into tears of vexation.” Her desperation of power and class is demonstrated when she is venting to Tess “why didn’t ye think of doing some good for your family instead of thinking only of yourself?” The rhetorical question asked by Tess’s mother is aimed to make Tess feel guilty. It’s a way of manipulating Tess to marry Alec with the use of persuasion. It shows how Tess’s mum will go through all lengths for the purpose of wealth and social class. Tess did not despise Alec “but he was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name’s sake she scarcely wished to marry him.” The metaphorical way Hardy describes Alec as “dust and ashes” dictates great disappointment. It shows the hatred and complete disgust she has for Alec. Although she dislikes him, she considers marrying him for the sake of her family. This demonstrates how the lack of power and wealth will drive individuals to any length.

Gender expectations for women were distinctively different compared to men in the Victorian Era. When Tess becomes pregnant without marring Alec, she automatically becomes judged by society. In faze the fifth “the women pays”, Tess is being shamed for being pregnant without marriage. Tess’s desperation for love is show when “I thought, Angel, that you loved me-me, my very self! If it is I you do love, O how can it be that you look and speak so? It frightens me!” this shows how quickly Angels opinion is changed of Tess once she breaches societies “rules”. It shows how once women go against their gender expectations, they are automatically shamed by society. When angel says “the women I have been loving is not you, but a woman in your shape” it metaphorically degrades Tess and makes a comparison showing what Angel thought Tess was compared to what she is. The expectations of society have changed the way Angel sees Tess and have made her seem impure for becoming pregnant before marriage. The expectations of society were so rigid, that, anyone who breached societies rules was automatically shamed and looked down on.

To conclude, Hardy’s purpose in the novel was to criticize the flaws of the Victorian Era through the life of an innocent young women. The Victorian Era was a rigid time where everything had strict rules. Tess’s life was an ongoing battle of tragedy after tragedy to demonstrate the flaws of society.

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Tess of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Gender Expectations in The Victorian Era. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“Tess of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Gender Expectations in The Victorian Era.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
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