Tess of the D’urbervilles: rape or seduction?

Over Christmas I managed to catch ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ having not read the book I was unaware how sad and harrowing the first episode was. The 2008 production stars the excellent Gemma Arterton as Tess and Hans Matheson as womanising arch cad Alec.

In the first episode the fog causes Alec to lose his way, and the moonlight comes out when he returns to Tess sleeping. Tess is in a deep sleep as slowly wakes and appears to return his affection ‘sort of’ and when the fog clears she is clearly in shock and has tears in her eyes.

Alec clearly takes sexual advantage of her but is it rape or seduction is a question that has been asked since Hardy published the novel in 1891.

Hardy discusses its inevitability, cruelty, and arbitrariness on page 73

           Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissues, sensitive as gossamer and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousands years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.

I’m not sure but whatever it was a cruel act by a gentleman praying upon the lower classes.

The consequences for Tess, the loss of of virginity has caused her to be cut her off from her family and community to which she belonged in the beginning. This may seem cruel looking at it through today’s eye but shame and scorn would be poured upon the family by some.

Tess the virgin is very different from Tess the virgin no more, but it is only the society at the time and Tess’s acceptance of it’s judgment make it a sin and her a fallen woman.

In reality she has done nothing wrong and has had something so heinous inflicted upon her. Her perceived guilt is at breaking the era’s conventions and religion’s prohibitions that isolates her.

This is a great production with a great cast.