Hardy was intensely aware of the problem of
women in Victorian society and the wide disparity between practice and conventional
notions about purity and chastity. In Tess
of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy gives an account of Victorian women’s predicament
by overstepping the moral and social conventions of his age and recognizing the
vast discrepancies between acceptable cultural images of women and what he
recognizes as the rigid gender system of his society and the social and moral
double standards. But projecting Tess as a pure woman, Hardy had defied the
Victorian code of morality by making a woman with a past, the heroine of his
novel. He was denounced as a corruptor of public morality. H.C. Duffin remarks:


            “Among Hardy’s women, Tess claims
attention, first,

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            not only by reason of her popularity,
but because the

            novelist has distinguished her by
the appellation of a

            pure women.”(218)


Hardy argues
that though Tess had fallen, she should not be judged by her fall alone, but by
her own intensions, nature and circumstances that compelled her to be in this
positions. Tess was too young when her sexual molestation took place and there
was no particular intention or even romantic attachment to Alec. Hardy also
sympathize with Tess because he presents her as a victim of the Victorian society
in her family life, she is forced to take on the parental role when her own
parents need to be brought back home after staying too long at the local pub,
and her parents clearly state that the hope of social advancement rides solely
on Tess’s ability to marry well. Tess’s victimization at the hands of Alec is
obvious because he takes advantage of the innocent and naive girl lodging away
from her parents. When Angel feels he must leave Tess after her confession, the
rejected wife again appears wronged. Angel had previously confessed a similar
past sexual experience, so the pair appear to be nearly equal in their
indiscretions, unfortunately, Angel does not see it that way and forces Tess to
return to her parents. Society’s judgmental attitude toward shaping the
character of women is clearly evident in this novel. Hardy continually comments
on how Tess’s life would be different if society did not have its prejudices
and opinions about sexual encounters, and he makes a clear distinction between
social laws and natural laws. Tess was seduced. Yet she was victimized and
punished twice. The society had no law to help innocent girl like Tess. The
social set-up was absolutely responsible for her exploitation and suppression.
The cruel moral code of Victorian society considered her a sinner. Alec’s
taunting about Clare whom she still loved, provoked Tess to take the extreme
step of killing him. Such action was due to frustration and the pain inflicted
on a female by the male dominating society. Angel Clare with whom Tess was
involved in a genuine romantic relationship was also equally responsible for
her oppression and exploitation. Hardy brings to light, one more idea of social
injustice for women through Angel Clare. He is a self-consciously modern
thinker, who shows considerable indifference to social norms and observances,
but he is deeply rooted in conventions in his attitude to women. He is a slave
to customs and conventionally patriarchal social order. He himself is
faithless, but expects faithfulness from his wife. In the novel Tess refuses to
bow down to the hostility of her environment. On the contrary she wages a
fierce struggle to keep up her dignity in that society with callous
conventional attitudes. Hardy is not contended in merely projecting this
struggle, he also evaluated it in its social and spiritual context. H.C. Duffin
is very emphatic on this point when he says :


of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the
Obscure are

            great objective stories, but they
would be

            incomprehensible to a reader who did
not understand

            the social assumptions upon which
their action is

            based : the assumption that a girl
who has been raped

            is thereby rendered unfit for
marriage with another

            man; and the double assumption that
a man and

            woman must not live together unless
they are married,

            and that once being married they
must not come unmarried.”(240)


The other major social issues highlighted by
Hardy, include the institution of marriage, husband and wife relations and
extramarital relations in Victorian society. It was a man domination social
system in which the position of women was very poor and they had no freedom in
marital relationship. The poor working class had social evils like booze
snobbery, unemployment, which were responsible for the disintegration of family
life. In Hardy’s times the relations between husband and wife were not in good
condition being a man dominated, the women were a big sufferers in the family.
Moreover, man in the social set-up did not bear much responsibility and
sincerity to the family and children. The moral and social set-up of Victorian
age was very rigid for women. That was why due to the exploitation and
suppression of fair sex, the families did not have much harmony. It is a fact
that in every society, the early marriages, unemployment and financial
difficulties brings frustration and disharmony in the institution of marriage.
There are factors like alcohol, unemployment and poverty responsible for the
extra marital relations and disharmony in the family. Moreover, in the age of
Hardy, the society had given a very unjust sanction to human feelings and
liberty. The most important such convention was connected with chastity,
integrity of a woman and social marriage system. Hardy, in his several novels
had attacked the marriage institution as it existed in Victorian age. He did
not favour the traditional marriage system in which no due regard is made to
the psychological factors. Mere physical contact does not bring harmony in
family life. In Hardy’s age the rigid social and religious code had a direct
effect on the married life.

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