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Tess Of The D'Urbervilles: Heroine or Whore

Looking deeper into Thomas Hardy's famous novel and the big question: is the lead character really a hero?

Thomas Hardy was already established as a writer by the time he wrote his thirteenth novel. Yet this work was the first one that was met with public outrage, mainly because of his portrayal of a fallen woman as being ?pure.? This cry out from the public and critics were what caused Tess of the D?Urbervilless to become a great work that has sparked discussion among scholars for generations. I will look at the issue of whether Tess Durbeyfield is a heroine or a scrub of society. Tess went through some struggles and issues in the book that make it tough to claim that either case is completely right or wrong.
First, before looking at the heroism and evil of Tess to show how Hardy had her character meant to teach us, I must give some meaningful thoughts of what heroism is. Lee Edwards said that: ?Heroism, like a weed, need not be cultivated. It roots in borderlands, not garden plots(brainyquotes.com).? African American Tennis Player Arthur Ashe said that: ?True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but to serve others at whatever cost(brainyquotes.com).?
Creating Tess in a certain way to show his talent for writing may have been the chief reason Tess is the way that she is, she remains such a likeable mystery girl after a hundred and fifty years. The real question readers have wondered is whether or not to see Tess as a hero or a tramp. To look at the place and time the novel was written, the Victorian Age, it becomes likely that Hardy was attacking society through Tess. Tess leaves her home at the Durbeyfield residence, betraying her family duties in order to move up in the world at the royal D?Urberville residence. Hardy?s book is not a typical heroine novel of the time, in the sense that Tess isn?t an ?Angel in the House.?
Through the novel I noticed she becomes a prominent figure who can evolve into a great person in the public sphere even though she is a young female. Looking at Tess as a hero is the main argument by most critics, First I will lay out this ?heroic Tess? belief and the main arguments of it. Tess has a stature that makes her own sufferings touching and personal to the reader. Tess has dignity because she is loved by the author, Hardy himself. He jumps right into her experience of the world, her feelings are in return for him, and are made to give us an intense reality. For the argument that Tess is a real solid example of a heroine the case is that Hardy builds her into a simple style of leader.
Bernard J. Paris very much believes that Tess is a heroine, he considers Tess of the D?Urbervilles? to be Hardy?s ?greatest work of fiction.? Paris believes it?s Hardy?s compassionate treatment, as well as the depth of Tess? character that combine with her innate personality to make her the true hero that she is(Sprechman, 78; Paris, ?Experiences of Thomas Hardy? in The Victorian Experience: The Novelists).
Another author, Irving Howe, takes the viewpoint that Hardy makes Tess a hero by making her a strong and independent female surrounded by passive male characters. This is evidenced in the book as I read along, as in the lack of leadership shown by Tess? father Sir John Durbeyfield and the unmotivated lifestyle of her friend Alec D?Urberville. Howe also states that ?in Tess [Hardy] states everything on his sensuous apprehension of a young woman?s life, a girl who is at once a simple milkmaid and an archetype of feminine strength?(Sprechman, 79; Howe, ?A Distinctly Modern Novel?). Howe finds Tess to be a hero, but he gives all of the credit to Hardy for taking a cultural stereotype of a young woman, and through the intensity of his writing make the issue morally enlightening to the sexist reader.
As I wonder deeper into the question of Tess? heroine, or if she is just a rebellious girl, I find it necessary to look into her family life. Tess is in a kind of typical, modern day 21st century hectic family, even though the story is based in the 1800?s. Her father is for the most part a lazy drunkard and her mom has trouble with her seven other children. Tess is often forced to be the substitute mother and save the day while her parents are off drinking and frolicking(Sprechman, 88). I remember one part of the novel that right before Tess left to go to the D?Urberville residence, her younger brother came to her and gave her a hug as if he was losing his mother(chapter 7, Tess of the D?Urbervilles).
Those who consider Tess to be more of a loser than a hero try to look at what Hardy was trying to do with the book, as if it is a tragedy. Lance St. John Butler considers the end of the novel evidence enough that Tess is made to be a depressing character: she gets hanged. When Tess sleeps with Angel Clare she is shunned by the community as a whore and she walks somberly into the church then to where the hanging takes place outside the Vicarage. Butler compares Tess of the D?Urbervilles to the Shakespearean work ?King Lear?, in other words Butler sees the book as a tragedy with Tess as the main victim(Butler, 107). The character Gloucester?s statement in ?King Lear? may also ring true for Tess, Gloucester?s statement in ?King Lear? is:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
In the above excerpt there is a harsh resemblence to when Angel quotes ?King Lear? before Tess is hanged, he admits that Tess being seduced was more her being ?sinned against than sinning.? In chapter forty-seven of Tess of the D?Urbervilles, Tess cries out to the heavens to punish her for her wrong doings, saying that she is ?once victim, always victim, - that?s the law.? It is a good point to acknowledge the fallen nature in Tess and a strong argument is that Tess cannot be a hero, but a sinner in a tragedy.
Dorothy Van Ghent gives us insight to her opinion that Tess is a lonely girl in a bleak situation, unknowing and just an average person. Van Ghent describes the part of the book when a flock of winter birds come upon Tess while she is out in the woods, Van Ghent sees the reality of the birds having the same sense of local reality and disaster of situation as Tess(Guerard, 81). At the same time Van Ghent refuses to see Tess as a down and out tramp who is in the middle of a giant tragedy. She considers Tess? final judgement hanging as an incident in a blind waste of time and biological repitition(Guerard, 80). All in all Van Ghent considers Tess to be a common girl who encounters every day struggles, certainly not a heroine. She constantly judges Hardy on his meanings and doesn?t believe that he wrote the book in a heroic fashion.
Tess Durbeyfield stands as the symbol of all of Hardy?s most cherished beliefs and concerns that culminate in this novel. His concerns are of various issues such as disintegration of agricultural society and the hypocrisy of Victorian social molds. His concerns shape themselves in the character of Tess, adding to her depth and significance as a woman of strength and complexity. What must be left up to the reader is the question of whether Tess is a great person or a lousy tramp, and I think that?s how Hardy would have it be, left up to the reader.

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