Ask a Scholar: Rape or Seduction in Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

Carol Iannone

Dear Ask a Scholar, 

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles, is the encounter between Tess and Alec in the forest rape or seduction?  Why didn't the author tell us one way or another?

Answered by Dr. Carol Iannone, independent scholar and editor-at-large of our journal Academic Questions. Dr. Iannone received her Ph.D. in English literature from SUNY, Stony Brook, and has written widely on cultural and intellectual issues. She has served on the faculty of the Gallitan School of New York University and most recently was the recipient of the National Association of Scholars’ Barry R. Gross Memorial Award. 

This is one of those questions that has kept critics arguing for decades, and it goes to the heart of Hardy’s story, for what happens in the primeval wood called the Chase that fateful night alters the course not only of Tess’s life but also that of Alec and of Tess’s future husband, Angel Clare. Critics describe the encounter as rape or seduction or both, sometimes vacillating between the two in the same article and even in the same sentence. Some have concluded that the issue is unresolvable because they believe Hardy made it deliberately ambiguous.

The novel’s sexual content, though exceedingly mild by our standards, was surprisingly, even scandalously frank for its time. Hardy had to censor some passages for magazine serialization in 1891, but the book was published in its entirety in three volumes later that year, and in one volume in 1892. It then went through several more editions, the last in 1920, for each of which Hardy made additional changes, refining various elements, among them how to represent what happens in the Chase.      

The story takes place in the 1880s in the area of southwest England which is the setting for much of Hardy’s fiction and which he calls by the old Anglo-Saxon name of Wessex. Teresa Durbeyfield is a lovely and spirited 16-going-on-17-year old, the eldest child of a large family headed by poor, unindustrious parents who live in a rural village called Marlott. One momentous day her tippling father John learns from a local parson and amateur genealogist that Durbeyfield is a corruption of a more illustrious name. Indeed, “Sir John,” as the parson drolly calls him, is the direct descendant of Sir Pagan d’Urberville, a knight of William the Conqueror who founded a family line that flourished for centuries, but is now virtually extinct.     

While her father typically boasts and blusters about his newly discovered lineage, Tess’s more practical if at times equally heedless mother sends her to a wealthy lady by the name of d’Urberville who lives some twenty miles away in Trantridge to “claim kin” and ask for help. They don’t know that this family became wealthy in trade and only bought or “annexed” the ancient name; their real name is not d’Urberville, but Stoke. Alec, the tall, handsome, dashing, bad-boy son of the widowed lady of the estate, is immediately attracted to Tess and gets her a post tending his mother’s pet fowl farm. Tess’s departure from her home and journey to the d’Urbervilles is marked by a raucous, semi-comical yet ominous episode in which the reckless Alec drives his spiffy horse-drawn gig downhill at a gallop as Tess clings to him in fright and reluctantly allows him to kiss her as the price of slowing down.

After a dance one night in a nearby market town, a jealous former favorite of Alec's picks a quarrel with Tess. Like a knight of old, young d’Urberville swoops onto the scene to rescue her on horseback.  He has already extended help to her family and has been persistently trying for several months to win her affections but she has not really reciprocated. He is determined, however, and to prolong their time together on this beautiful night he rides to the Chase. Tess is disturbed at the detour and demands that they stop. While the genuinely lost Alec gets his bearings, an exhausted Tess lies down and falls asleep. He comes upon her again as he gropes through the blackness, and soon Tess is “maiden no more,” as the next section of the book is titled.   

The narrator/author relates the scene only indirectly and gives no specifics, but indulges instead in broad philosophical speculation on the vicissitudes of fortune and the absence of Tess’s guardian angel and the weight of her Norman past. Hardy’s own explanation of the situation in a letter to a correspondent was that it is “a seduction, pure and simple,” but that has not satisfied critics and readers, perhaps because he overlaid the event with so many comments throughout the story as to give rise to different impressions in different places. From the totality of what we learn, however, it is in my view as Hardy described it—“a seduction, pure and simple.” This can account for all the evidence and detail that accumulates over the course of the novel, and it fits the author’s intentions as well.

What most definitively demonstrates that it is not rape is that we learn, again indirectly, that Tess continues on at Trantridge for a few weeks afterward as d’Urberville’s mistress and accepts some gifts of “finery” from him. Granted, she is not fully comfortable with this arrangement, for she is truly the “pure woman” of Hardy’s subtitle (“a pure woman faithfully presented”), or at least she is what Hardy means by a pure woman—a woman who does not use sex and who knows instinctively that it is wrong without love—in contrast to the more literal definition of female purity fiercely held by his society. This kind of awareness may also explain why Tess doesn’t even think of wangling Alec into marriage, as her mother was hoping. (At the same time, confusion over what the novel means by “pure” is also the reason some readers believe the act has to be rape.) Be that as it may, it’s hard to imagine a young woman voluntarily remaining with a man in this fashion if she had truly been assaulted by him against her will. Indeed, the most recent and rather dreadful BBC adaptation of the novel portrays the fateful encounter as a straightforward rape (at the hands of a short, slight, goth-looking Alec, by the way), but to pull this off they must completely eliminate Tess’s staying at Trantridge for several weeks after the incident. 

Other details that support seduction come from Tess herself. As Alec drives her back to her village, she is as hard on herself as she is reproachful of him. She “loathe[s] and hate[s]” herself for her “weakness,” and laments that her “eyes were dazed by you for a little.” Once back home, she reflects how she was “stirred to confused surrender” because of “his ardent manners” despite not loving him.       

However, the narrator also puts certain other remarks into the mix that to some readers suggest something closer to rape. In his non-description of the act, Hardy invokes Tess’s knightly ancestors who centuries before likely imposed themselves on peasant girls “even more ruthlessly,” implying some degree of ruthlessness on Alec’s part. But if he is ruthless it is in the insistently masculine way he was that day in the gig, when he was “inexorable” and Tess submits to his “kiss of mastery.” Or, for that matter, when he feeds her a strawberry from his own hand at their first meeting, and “in a slight distress, she parted her lips and took it in.” 

Another detail that suggests rape to some is that we learn later in the narrative that “sobbing” was heard that night in the Chase. But weeping would be an entirely expected response from an innocent young girl overcome by the realization that an “immeasurable social chasm” has opened in her life and there is no crossing back over it. Similarly, later talk of Tess having been tricked, trapped, deceived could suggest rape, but can better be explained as seduction, starting with the way Alec goes along for a while with the pretense that they are related, and gets her to live on his mother’s estate and near himself.     

“Tess is tractable at bottom,” her sometimes inadvertently perceptive mother says, and she also possesses “a slight incautiousness of character” inherited from her Norman forebears—Hardy’s effort at a Darwinian explanation for parts of his tale—and both characteristics figure in her yielding to Alec. Interestingly, in the serialized version of the novel, Hardy has d’Urberville tricking Tess into believing they are married. Aside from giving a hint of the broad melodrama that the author refined through his subsequent revisions, the mock-marriage detail conspicuously suggests that he wanted to establish a degree of complicity on her part. One of Hardy's themes is that even a pure woman has a sexual nature, a physical nature with a life of its own that may not obey the highest of spiritual ideals. Yes, there is “danger in men,” as Tess sorrowfully learns, men can be seductive, but there is also danger in women, that they might respond. 

None of this lets Alec off the hook, however. He did wrong in seducing her, and he knows it, and he admits it repeatedly as he drives Tess back to Marlott, and again and again later in the novel when he tries to take responsibility for what he did. She is but 16 or 17 to his 23 or 24 (although her fully developed figure may mislead on that score), and was dependent on him and obliged to him for his help to her family. This is why a judgmental Angel Clare will later condemn her but still concede that she was “more sinned against than sinning.” Alec soon realizes that she is not a “cottage girl” of the type he is used to, that she possesses refinement and integrity. And it becomes quite obvious that seducer or no, he comes genuinely to love her, may even have loved her from the first, if without fully realizing it. 

There is some disagreement on just how repulsive Hardy wants d’Urberville to be. For most readers probably, he is a Victorian villain from central casting, complete with mustache—a predatory cad and bounder. He is insinuating, merciless, relentless in his pursuit of her, claiming her for himself from the moment he lays eyes on her. Yet he is also attractive, ebullient, and forceful, with a kind of bold, roguish, proto-Rhett Butler quality that will eventually contrast with the fair, gentlemanly but ultimately weak and priggish Ashley Wilkes of Angel Clare.  

And ironically, with all his pursuit of Tess, the consummation in the Chase was probably not Alec’s original intention in taking her there. He is rather gallant to her that evening after he rescues her from her female assailant, if also too presumptuous, and he appears to have every intention of getting her home safely. He seems quietly content just having her close to him on horseback for a time. But when he gropes his way back and comes upon her again lying on a bed of leaves he is overcome with longing and, in the chance manner that Hardy loves to project, succumbs to his desire. When the narrator curiously breaks at this point into the third person to speak of the “coarse pattern” that Tess is “doomed to receive,” we can somehow believe that this pattern is to be fatalistically imprinted upon them both.

* * *

As for the second part of this question, why does Hardy not tell us clearly whether the act is seduction or rape—now that we’ve considered the matter carefully, we might feel that he makes it plain enough. But there is more to say about why the argument persists, and that will be addressed in a future post. 

 * * * 

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Once upon a time, scholars were among the best sources of odd bits of knowledge. If you wanted to know which species of bees are native to Newfoundland, how many vice presidential candidates wore glasses, or whether Gilgamesh had a first name, you might well find an answer from a scholar who had a Xerxes-like command of a multitudinous army of facts. 

 Alas, Xerxes’ army came to grief and so did the idea of the professor as keeper of the archive of not-quite-lost knowledge. Today we have Google. And within the vast universe of Google, we have the endless corridors of Wikipedia. True, some of those corridors are blind alleys, but with a little patience, you can usually find what you need on the Internet and avoid having to move from your chair or speak to a person. Whether it is the Internet Movie Data Base or North American Bird Sounds, almost every domain of knowledge has its own easily-accessed reference tools. 

As a source of esoteric facts, the role of scholars has eroded. Fortunately, we still have questions that call for confidently rendered and dressed up opinions. “Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars who either have the answers or interesting ways of obscuring their ignorance. We invite readers to submit questions.  

Questions submitted for consideration should call more for educated judgment than for facts. “In 1492, who sailed the ocean blue?” for example, is a question of limited interest, since biographies of Leif Ericson are widely available, including on Wikipedia. We especially welcome questions that provide professors the occasion to draw erudite distinctions and incorporate mention of matters you had no idea were connected to the topic at hand. 

Image: Max Gate, Arlington Avenue, Dorchester, Dorset by Glen Bowman // CC BY

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