Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, can be read as a cautionary tale that explores women as objects of male consumption. For instance, Hardy introduces Tess at the May-Day dance, or Cerealia festival of harvest and fertility. Soon after, this innocent pastoral image is upset by a young man, later identified as Angel Clare. While Angel’s intentions are harmless, his intrusion and subsequent assessment of Tess as a commodity makes her vulnerable to the male gaze. Thus, the qualities innocently commodified by Angel Clare, Tess’s innocence and purity, set her apart and attract other male buyers.
While Angel’s gaze is seemingly innocuous, it situates Tess on a symbolic altar where she is subjected to the male gaze. Tess, therefore, is already in a vulnerable position when Alec d’Urberville enters the novel. In The Chase scene, d’Urberville takes advantage of Tess’s innocence. Hardy emphasizes the contrast of the scene with the previous Cerealia festival.
In this scene, the night shrouds Tess’ gleaming white figure as she sleeps on a metaphoric altar of dead leaves. The girl’s white figure symbolizes purity and innocence, which lies on the dead leaves waiting to be sacrificed to d’Urberville’s desire. The narrator interposes at this point, questioning, “Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive.” In asking this question, and siding with the feminine heroine, Hardy challenges the dominant discourse of the time, which viewed women as a commodity. In stating that Tess’s body was “doomed to receive” the ensuing rape, Hardy suggests that she is blameless. Additionally, he calls for her innocence, arguing that her character is “practically blank as snow.” This sacrifice strips Tess of her innocence. However, as noted in the subtitle of the novel, Hardy adamantly suggests the maiden’s purity of character.
In the final section of Hardy’s novel, appropriately titled, “Phase the Seventh. Fulfilment,” Hardy reinvents The Chase scene, placing Tess on another type of altar. Tess and Angel approach the Stonehenge formation and Tess, tired from walking, lies “upon an oblong slab,” which Angel correctly identifies as an altar. Earlier in the novel, on a bed of dead leaves, Tess sacrificed her innocence but retained the purity of her character. After a long struggle, Tess arrives at Stonehenge to fulfill a more important sacrifice. Superficially, Tess’s capture can be read as an instance of patriarchal law reigning in unleashed femininity. However, Hardy shows readers another layer. Tess is taken on her terms. Ultimately, she murders d’Urberville in order to free herself from the symbolic male buyer. Here, lying on the heathen altar of the sun gods, Tess sacrifices her mortal life for eternal freedom.
The sacrifice occurs at daybreak, a moment of rebirth and renewal that symbolically restores the maiden’s virginity and innocence. Thus, superficially this final scene appears to support the patriarchal hierarchy. At the end, Tess is still subjected to the male gaze, the officers stand at attention watching Tess rise from the altar, and she is subject to the laws of the patriarchal law. However, Tess subverts these structures in her sacrifice, ultimately reclaiming the innocence and purity that characterize her femininity.
I would argue that the central theme of this excellent novel, which you just can't ignore and seems to be a prevalent theme in Hardy's work as a whole, is the truth that life is not fair.
Clearly, the forces of unfairness are focused on the character of Tess in this novel. Note how nearly every aspect of her tragedy seems to be beyond her control. She does not mean to kill Prince, yet in spite of this she is punished for it anyway, just as when she is raped by Alec, she is punished for that too, even though she was not to blame. The focus of the novel is not on Christianity and justice and the hope that sinners may receive in the afterlife, but on the pagan injustice that seems to rule the world of this novel. Hardy paints a world with impersonal forces that often seem opposed to us, and the inclusion of Stonehenge and references to pre-Christian practices in the novel highlight the way in which such gods are not well-disposed to humans, but are actually rather uncaring and capricious in their affections for humans. The famous quote at the end of the novel seems to question the entire concept of justice:
"Justice" was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.
Note the way that the speech (quotation) marks ironically denote this through suggesting that justice is not actually justice as we know it, but perhaps is more related to the way in which Tess's life seems to have been a plaything for the gods.