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Rape Culture in Tess of the D'urbervilles

Victims, Villains, and Victorian Society: Rape Culture in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

*I wrote this for a class a couple of years ago and I'm kind of proud of it and I'm trying to be more brave about sharing things I write.  Also, I just really like to talk about Thomas Hardy. 

Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the last part of the Nineteenth century. The character of Tess is portrayed as a particularly innocent young woman who finds herself the victim of sexual assault. Her story was, while a fictional account in a long-ago time, not all that unlike recent stories of female victims in a world that embraces and encourages male aggression and villainy. In the winter of 2012, a 14-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a 17-year-old boy who gave her alcohol to the point of blacking out and then dropped her off in her yard in the middle of the night, leaving her barely conscious in the snow. The charges against the 17-year-old were dropped once he agreed to apologize to the girl. In the summer of the same year, a 16-year-old girl was raped by multiple members of the local, popular football team. She was unconscious to the point of having to be dragged by her feet and ankles by the teens who raped her multiple times. Fellow students not only stood by as this happened, but distributed photographs, videos and other social networking statements in which they laughed about her rape. Within a year one of her rapists was back on the football field. In both cases, the victims were verbally attacked in person and online where many people called them whores and sluts and blamed the girls for their rapes. Young girls are often taught to not go out alone, to wear clothes that cover as much skin as possible, and to be careful how much they drink, because these mistakes might bring upon their rape. Not being extra careful is often equated with asking for assault. In video games, players often joke about “getting raped” or threaten to “rape” each other. Popular songs talk about “blurred lines” between wanting it and not wanting it. Rapes go unreported because women are afraid of being judged, or worse. These are all examples of rape culture, a culture that breeds, supports, and protects sexual harassment and rape.

Rape culture, or rape-supportive culture, is a term coined in the 1970’s and has recently become a commonly heard phrase because of events like those previously mentioned being shared on social media. Rape myths, gender inequality, objectification of women, desensitization of sexual assault, and peer support for rapists are the core aspects of rape culture (Argiero et al 28). The term is relatively young, and it has even more recently become a mainstream, well-known phrase, but the ideas and practices that create a rape culture are hardly modern. Tess Durbeyfield, Hardy’s tragic, Victorian heroine, has her life changed after a sexual encounter. Using a New Historic approach, and a feminist view, I will use evidence from actual Victorian court cases to support the existence of rape culture in 19th century England and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Though Tess walked the fictional streets of rural, Victorian England over a century and a half ago, I will argue in this essay that she too was a victim of not just rape but a rape-supportive culture that existed in her time.

Whether or not Tess is actually raped is an interesting study of rape education and perception. Hardy never plainly says whether or not Alec actually rapes Tess and readers are divided on what happens in The Chase, but I argue that she is actually raped. In his 1997 article, “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law and the Case for Sexual Assault,” William Davis Jr. explains how Hardy leads the reader to the scene with Alec and Tess. He says, “The inevitable encounter between Tess and Alec is foreshadowed and anticipated from the earliest chapter of Phase the First” (222), and points to “parallel scenes of penetration and violence” (222), like Alec feeding Tess the strawberries and Prince’s death by impalement. These are not just foreshadowing scenes of sexual intercourse, but of force and violence. Hardy is deliberately leading the reader to a scene of sexual assault. Hardy makes it very clear that Tess is asleep when Alec approaches her physically, pointing out that “[s]he was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears” (Hardy 94). During the actual sexual encounter, the narrator reflects, “[d]oubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” (94). Furthering the idea that Tess is actually raped, Tess’s mother, who isn’t the most progressive woman, even says that what happened was not Tess’s fault when she writes her a letter after Tess thinks about confessing her secret, her rape and subsequent child, to Angel (200). While these bits of evidence are from the text itself, there is evidence in Hardy’s own life that support the claim that Tess is indeed raped.

Hardy was no stranger to Victorian laws concerning sexual assault. Not only was he a justice of the peace, he also kept notes on Victorian sexual assault cases in a notebook entitled, “Literary Notes” (Davis 225). Hardy was clearly aware of what constituted rape in 19th century England and his notebook is evidence that he intended to include it in a piece of literature. By looking at examples of Victorian laws and court cases concerning sexual assault, we can see how rape supportive culture existed in Hardy’s times and how the character of Tess is also a victim of the social constructs that outline rape culture.

The following cases and information are from Victorian Kent County, England. In Carolyn Conley’s “Rape and Justice in Victorian England,” she explains why Kent is a good source of insight into Victorian England rape cases. Conley says:

The records used are those for Kent County between 1859 and 1880, primarily because they are more complete and accessible than those for other counties. Kent in its diversity is also a good source for studying local social attitudes. In the nineteenth century, Kent included part of the London slums, agricultural areas which used both local and migrant labor, several military installations and ports, a number of tourist centers, and an interesting mix of ancient towns and rapidly developing London suburbs. Kent was atypical, however, in its lack of heavy industry. The overall crime statistics for Kent seldom deviate from the averages for England as a whole (520).

This information from Kent can be used as an effective example and comparison of what types of legal support a rape victim like Tess might have access to as well as what kind of conditions of rape culture she might be up against. If anything, Kent’s proximity to a city, London, might allow us to assume that Kent was even more progressive than a more rural area would have been. Though, the laws in Kent were hardly favorable to women, especially poor, working women like Tess. These laws reflect a rape-supportive culture.

Possibly the biggest part of rape culture is rape myths. Rape myths are ideas that people have about rape that are not true. One of the most prevalent rape myths is that rape is only rape when it is committed by a stranger and includes violent force. This way of thinking causes many to discredit claims of rape where the victim knows the assailant, or claims where the victim was coerced by methods other than violence. The modern definition of rape, according to Merriam-Webster, is the “the crime of forcing someone to have sex by using violence or threat of violence” (“Rape”). In Victorian England, rape was defined as, “the carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will” (Conley 520). The problem with these definitions, and the reason that they contribute to rape myths and rape culture, is that they emphasize violence and force as a necessary component to rape. There was no mention of much violence when Tess was raped, so had she actually tried to take legal action against Alec, it is very unlikely that he would have been charged with anything. Examples of Victorian rape cases and their results are strong evidence that Tess would have no legal leg to stand on.

            In Victorian Kent, Conley says, the definition of rape “left a great deal open to interpretation” (520). It was up to the judge and jury to decide what levels of force and resistance used by the assailant and victim equaled a rape verdict. Judges were more concerned with “false and malicious” witnesses (521), than they were with finding justice for victims. It was more concerning that a man’s reputation might be ruined by a dishonest woman than it was that a woman might be violated by an aggressive man. Compared to other felonies in the area convicted at a rate of 85%, rape trials resulted in conviction only 40% of the time. Even less encouraging to rape victims was the fact that only 21% of men accused of rape ever saw a trial. This was often due to a judge’s claim that there was a lack of evidence, usually because no third-party witness was available or a lack of obvious force (524). Tess and Alec are alone during their sexual encounter. There are no third-party witness. We do not even know how much force Alec uses against Tess. We know that she is asleep when approached by Alec and still asleep when he is close enough that her “breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers” (Hardy, 94). All we know of Tess’s reaction is that it is possible that she cries out. While observing Tess nursing her baby, a fellow farm worker says, “A little more than persuading had to do wi’ the coming o’t, I reckon. There were they that heard a sobbing one night last year in The Chase; and it mid ha’ gone hard wi’ a certain party if folks had come along” (109). So, maybe she cries while she is being raped or maybe she is left sobbing afterward, but there is no evidence that she is able to forcefully resist, or that she chooses to, and there is no physical evidence spoken of that Alec is violent to the point of leaving marks on Tess. Even if Tess decided to report her rape to the authorities, she would likely have little success in getting past the popular myth that rape must include violent force and a complete stranger. That would not be her only obstacle, however.

If Tess tried to have Alec held legally accountable for rape, it is likely that the judge would hesitate to ruin Alec’s image. Character played a large part in 19th century rape cases. Judges were often unconvinced that a man of “respectable” character could commit rape. Respectability was a highly regarded characteristic in Victorian times. As Conley explains:

Respectability is the quintessential Victorian ideal and yet the most difficult to define. While the literature is abundant, the definition remains obscure. Geoffrey Best’s list of “hall-marks of respectability that were absolutely standard” is a list of ‘does and don’ts’: “Respectable people did not get drunk or behave wildly; they maintained a certain propriety of speech and a decorum of bearing…That they were independent and law-abiding goes without saying.” While behavior may have been the basis for one’s original designation as ‘respectable,’ the evidence from Kent indicates that respectability was perceived as a constant characteristic. In newspapers defendants are identified as respectable in the manner used to indicate gender, age, or employment (527 – 528).

In other words, if a man were considered respectable before the rape occurred, it would likely be judged impossible for him to commit such an unrespectable crime. Evidence of this way of thinking can be found in the Victorian Kent cases. The cases of Benjamin Watson, a constable, is especially enlightening. Watson was accused of raping a teenage girl. When the girl admitted that she had previously accused someone of rape, Watson was acquitted. A few years later, Watson was charged with another sexual assault. Because the judge saw Watson as “a respectably dressed young man with an excellent character” (528), the case was dismissed. Only 4% of men who went to trial for rape but were said to be “respectable” in description were actually convicted. Alec is a relatively wealthy man who is well dressed and well-spoken. Tess was his poor employee, a “cottage girl” (Hardy 76). Tess’s status as a domestic worker would make her case even more difficult because working women were considered by some to be more promiscuous and “merely biological females who hardly deserved being called women at all” (Conley 530). Only 43% of rape cases where the victim was a domestic worker ended in a conviction. The percentage dropped even lower if the victim was said to be a drunkard or a prostitute (531).

The victim’s character, or perceived character, often played a large role in case outcomes. Cases were often dropped when any negatively perceived aspect of the victim’s character was brought forward. In one case, charges were dropped against a man who raped a married woman because her pre-married character was said to be “shameful” (531). In another case, a case was dismissed against a man who raped a woman because the woman had previous arrests for “drunkenness,” regardless of the presence of surgical and eye-witness testimony that the man had raped the woman. Social status was part of a victim’s defense. If her social status was not high enough to be considered a lady, winning a case, especially against a man considered “respectable,” was unlikely. In one newspaper article about a string of local assaults it is merely mentioned that three of the attacked were “respectable” working women (531). However, the article went into more detail about a “lady” who was attacked. “But in one instance, very lamentable consequences have ensued. A lady was going to tea at the house of a friend when a fellow suddenly sprang out upon her and most shamefully assaulted her” (532). The lady was said to be in “hysterics” after the attack. There was no mention of the working women after the attacks. As Conley says, “Since the ideal image of a lady called for sexual ignorance, hysteria was the only possible response. Working women, however, were expected to cope with reality” (531). Tess is the poor, female, domestic employee of a man who would probably be called respectable by a judge. She is also the daughter of a drunkard. Her chances of legal vindication would be slim to nonexistent.

 It is possible that Tess would be aware of the potential outcome of attempting a case against Alec, but it’s even more likely that she would never even think of trying. A woman of Tess’s status would probably not have a lot of legal know-how to even begin to make a case out of her experience. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was passed to give women and girls beyond the general reach of the law. Davis brings this up in his article about Tess’s rape as evidence that women were seen as needing extra protection because of their lack of knowledge about the law (Davis 227). Angel Clare even remarks on Tess’s lack of legal knowledge after she confesses her secret. He says, “O Tess – you are too, too – childish – uninformed – crude, I suppose! I don’t know what you are. You don’t understand the law – you don’t understand!” (Hardy 241). Tess never shows any indication of wanting to have Alec judged legally for his assault on her.

Even if Tess had filed charges against Alec, and had she not been a working woman, the daughter of a drunkard, and the employee of a respectable man, there is another trait she bore that would have been the most damaging to her character. Tess is female. Gender bias against women played a big part in Victorian legal cases but it also played a part in general life. For the most part, women were considered to be the property of men. A woman belonged to her father until she married and then became the property of her husband. Often, the charges of rape against a man who assaulted a woman could be taken care of successfully according to male parties, if the assailant paid the man that “owned” the woman. Even in the late Nineteenth century, “the custody of a wife’s person belongs to her husband” (Conley 533). The extent to which women were seen as property can be seen in this court case from 1859:

A young man had secretly married his landlord’s daughter, but she had continued to live at home. When her father learned of the marriage, he had the young man arrested and charged with taking his daughter from his possession … the issue was custody of the girl herself. The defense argued that since the girl still lived at home she had not been taken from her father’s possession. Justice Samuel Martin heard the case and gave the following explanation to the jury: “The court considered that it was impossible to say that the girl was in her father’s possession though she was in his house, because she was in the lawful possession of her husband and her father never could have possession of her in the same sense as before” (534).

Women of nineteenth century England were not their own person, but objects possessed by the men in their lives. This objectification of women is yet another aspect of rape culture. Men who see women as objects, or lesser beings, are allowing themselves to be removed from femininity, thus furthering their male superiority (Argiero et al. 29). Alec is, obviously, a good example of a male who uses hyper-masculine tactics, including aggression, to coerce an objectified female. This is evident in his first meeting of Tess when he does not take no for an answer while trying to feed Tess strawberries. She plainly says, “No – No! I would rather take it in my own hand” and Alec’s reply is to insist, “Nonsense!” and put them in her mouth (Hardy 63). Later, on their second encounter, when Tess is to move to Trantridge, he becomes even more aggressive, asserting more control over Tess. He drives fast and carelessly and remarks of the danger of the horse but follows it with another example of his masculine control. He says, “If any living man can manage this horse I can: -- I won’t say any living man can do it – but if such has the power, I am he” (74). Tess is terrified, but Alec will only slow down if Tess lets him kiss her, after several objections. When Tess makes it very clear that she doesn’t want to be kissed, Alec kisses her anyway, insulting her after she wipes it away. “You are mighty sensitive for a cottage girl” (76). Because Tess is, to Alec, less than he, she should be appreciative of his forced physical interactions. Much later Alec again clarifies his intentions to control and own Tess, when he has given up his religious ways, because of Tess, and says to her, “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man’s wife you are mine” (325). While this declaration, from a rapist to his victim, that he is her master and intends to marry and own her may seem shocking, remember that her own mother expects Tess to marry even after hearing about what happened. Rape culture is not just supported and created by actual rapists. It is also perpetuated by society.

 Alec is easily considered the villain of Hardy’s tale, but what of the other characters who affect Tess throughout her story? Tess’s own parents send her off to marry a stranger, in hopes of bettering their own lot. Her father hopes that his “young friend will like such a comely sample of his own blood. And tell’n, Tess, that being sunk, quite, from our former grandeur, I’ll sell him the title – yes, sell it – and at no onreasonable figure” (71). Joan, her own mother, chimes in, “Not for less than a thousand pound!” and John agrees, but then dwindles the price down to twenty pound, because “family honour is family honour” (71). A price is put on Tess for marriage as one might price a cow for beef or any other object belonging to the male head of household. Tess is after all, willing to travel to Trantridge, regardless of her uncomfortable feelings for Alec. She agrees to return due to her guilt over Prince as if she and the horse are of equal importance.

While under d’Urberville’s employ, Tess is arguably victim to another part of rape-supportive culture. Slut-shaming and victim-blaming are part of a culture that demean women, telling them that their bodies are not their own, but they are wrong to use them or have them used by others. Tess’s peers lash out at her because she is favored by Alec, and they had once had his attention. They laugh at her when she rides off with Alec, “out of the frying-pan into the fire” (89). On her way home from Trantridge, she encounters the sign painter who decides that one wall needs a message for “dangerous young females” like Tess. The sign reads an unfinished commandment, “Thou, Shalt, Not, Commit,” but Tess knows that “adultery” finishes the sentence (100). When she returns home and tells her mother what has happened, Joan is immediately upset that she didn’t make Alec marry her, seeing her not as a victim but as someone who failed to wed, which was the Durbeyfields’ plan after all. She “ought to have been more careful if [she] didn’t mean to get him to make her his wife” (102). The same farmer who mentions that crying was heard in The Chase, gives a great example of victim-blaming in rape culture. While watching Tess feed Sorrow, he says that it is “a thousand pities that it should have happened to she, of all others. But ‘tis always the comeliest! The plain ones be as safe as churches – hey, Jenny?” (109). He is perpetuating the rape-myth that rape is about attraction and at the same time, putting the responsibility of her rape on Tess because she’s attractive. Even Tess has a moment of victim-blaming when she shaves off her eyebrows in order to insure “against aggressive admiration” (278).

Tess doesn’t want to marry her Rapist, a decision for which she suffers further. Once Tess presumably begins to show, her lot in life becomes more depressing as she is considered a “ruined” woman, having been impregnated out of wedlock (103). Men would hardly be subject to the same scrutiny then or now. A woman was considered ruined because she was then less desirable by respectable men. Angel himself can also be mentioned in the case of female objectification, for he saw Tess not as a real person at first, but a figure of sex. To Angel, “[s]he was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman – a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them” (146). Angel also takes part in his own brand of victim blaming when he cannot handle Tess’s truth, even though he himself had sex with a woman before Tess. Tess assumes that they are even, both having had sexual encounters before their marriage to one another, but Angel is of another mind. In response to her confession and her idea that they are equal, he says, “O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God – how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque – prestidigitation as that!” (232). Tess forgave Angel for purposefully having sex with a woman before their marriage. Angel leaves Tess because she was raped and had a child before marriage. This is evidence that women were not seen as equal in a marriage or in matters of sex and personhood. Angel furthers his unhuman descriptions of Tess even here when he says that there is “Another woman in [her] shape” (233). In the end, after Tess kills Alec, Angel still cannot accept Tess as a person capable of murder and falls into protector-mode. While this is arguably a noble gesture, Angel’s willingness to run away with Tess after the crime is evident still of his view of Tess as a lesser being. To Angel, “[i]t was very terrible if true; if a temporary hallucination, sad. But, anyhow, here was this deserted wife of his, this passionately-fond woman, clinging to him without a suspicion that he would be anything to her but a protector. He saw that for him to be otherwise was not, in her mind, within the region of the possible” (373).

In the end, Tess dies for her sins but who else is to blame for her sacrifice? While Alec may have committed the only crime upon her body, Tess was also a victim of a culture created by the shared idea that women were not equal to men, and the symptoms of a rape culture, an antiquated version of a social construct that still exists today. Looking at Victorian sexual assault cases and other cases involving the treatment of women, gives us a glimpse back in time at what Tess might have been up against. Rape-culture might just recently be a media buzzword and controversial topic, but the reasoning for the outcry, a society that objectifies women and belittles claims of sexual assault, is an old story. Tess’s ending lay at Hardy’s pen, but Hardy wrote Tess’s story in a society that shaped her fate.



                                                            Works Cited

Argiero, Sara, et al. “A Cultural Perspective for Understanding How Campus Environments Perpetuate Rape-Supportive Culture.” Journal of the Indiana University Student Personnel Association 2010. 26-39. PDF file.

Conley, Carolyn A. “Rape and Justice in Victorian England.” Victorian Studies 29.4 1986. 519–536. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Davis, William A. “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law, and the Case for Sexual Assault”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 52.2 (1997): 221–231. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Print.

“Rape.” Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 14. Dec. 2015.