The Only Thing Between Me and Tragedy: Day 1

Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy

. . . he now began to discredit the old appraisements of morality. He thought they wanted readjusting. Who was the moral man? Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman? The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.


This week we turn our attention to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  It is difficult for us to fully appreciate the jolting impact of this novel on its Victorian readers.  Little shocks us today.  Its open treatment of sexuality was brazen itself, but more so was the central premise that its protagonist Tess was a chaste woman beyond (and in spite of) the loss of her virginity.

As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:

That perspective was rooted in a world in which the sexual double standard was as alive and well as ever it has been. For the Victorians, virtue and virginity were synonymous: a woman who lost her virginity outside of marriage—regardless of the circumstances surrounding that loss—was ruined. For all intents and purposes, a woman’s virtue resided in her hymen. Will—a woman’s will at least—played little or no part in the business. The Victorians, certainly not the first or the last to do so, had confused virginity, a physical state, with virtue, a metaphysical condition.

Unlike virginity, virtue is located not in the hymen but in the soul: in one’s spirit, one’s desires, in one’s thoughts, one’s will.

The virtue of the soul is expressed through the willful acts of the body. It involves one’s whole being and thus is not surrendered by means of brute force or by singular acts. This understanding is the basis for Hardy’s insistence upon Tess’s purity.

Writing at the end of the 19th century, Thomas Hardy explored the double standard of sexual morality that prevailed during that time.

How much has that double standard changed today?

John 4: 1-26

Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. But He needed to go through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”


Dig Deeper

Literature, Liturgy & The Arts


Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

The eldest of four children growing up in Dorset in the 1840s, Thomas Hardy apprenticed to a local architect in 1856 and worked as a draftsman in London in 1862. While visiting a church in Cornwall in 1870, he met and fell in love with his future wife, immortalized in his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes as well as in the poem “Beeny Cliff”: “O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, / And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free.” Hardy published Jude the Obscure in 1895.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

First published serially in bowdlerized form in the Graphic (July–December 1891) and in its entirety in book form (three volumes) the same year. It was subtitled A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented because Hardy felt that its heroine was a virtuous victim of a rigid Victorian moral code. Now considered Hardy’s masterwork, it departed from conventional Victorian fiction in its focus on the rural lower class and in its open treatment of sexuality and religion.

After her impoverished family learns of its noble lineage, naive Tess Durbeyfield is sent by her slothful father and ignorant mother to make an appeal to a nearby wealthy family who bear the ancestral name d’Urberville. Tess, attractive and innocent, is seduced by dissolute Alec d’Urberville and secretly bears a child, Sorrow, who dies in infancy. Later working as a dairymaid, she meets and marries Angel Clare, an idealistic gentleman who rejects Tess after learning of her past on their wedding night. Emotionally bereft and financially impoverished, Tess is trapped by necessity into giving in once again to d’Urberville, but she murders him when Angel returns.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

 

Karen Swallow Prior

 

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.