The Question of Rape in Tess of the D’Urbervilles
In chapter XI and XII of Phase the Second in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy introduces an interesting question concerning the course of the plot: does the text allude to a rape of Tess Durbeyfield by Alec D’Urberville? The evidence in the text of chapter XII seems to preclude the occurrence of rape, but the question is not so easily resolved and dismissed. There are a number of points in the text that indicate that, while a rape did not occur, Tess and Alec did have sexual intercourse at The Chase.
Before the events that occurred in chapter XI can be clearly illuminated, a distinction must be made between modern conceptions of rape and those that are contemporaries of the story. While the current delineation between rape and consensual intercourse depends solely on clear verbal consent, the prevailing notions in the time of the novel were somewhat different. It would seem logical to the modern reader that consent would comprise the only relevant issue, but in contemporary time, a quiet acquiescence would presumably have indicated that the intercourse was consensual. This discussion of consent, however, is not useful in determining whether a rape is committed, in this case, because the text does not afford the reader the luxury of omniscience during the scene in question. The behavior of Alec and Tess, along with Hardy’s narrative after the fact, are the only windows through which the truth can be observed.
The question of intercourse is quickly resolved at the beginning of chapter XII, which is subtitled “Maiden No More” (presumably a reference to Tess’ newfound condition), and later in the novel, when Tess becomes noticeably pregnant and has a child. The question of rape, however, remains. “…She had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sang, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by her lesson” (pp. 58-59). In this line, the narrative begins to shed light on the events of the previous chapter. Hardy clearly indicates that she has gained experience through the events at The Chase, but he more subtly reveals that Alec was not the sole transgressor. By using the imagery of the snake, Hardy conjures the notion of temptation. His depiction of the event as a “lesson” also supports the idea that Tess had been seduced by Alec, and intercourse, while regrettable, was the result of a mutual lapse in moral fortitude.
“‘…If I loved you still, I should not so loathe and hate myself for my weakness as I do now! …My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all” (p. 59). These lines seem to indicate that Tess believes that intercourse was, at least in part, a result of her own weakness. It seems that, because she was dazed or charmed by Alec at that moment, she allowed his advances until the deed was done or at least until it was too late to stop him and the course of his passion. The latter, if not consensual, would be considered rape today, but it would probably be considered understandable, if not acceptable, in the time of the novel: she gave into temptation by allowing his advances, and their passion ran its natural course.
Alec also admits that he did wrong, but he is less concerned with the righteousness of the act than he is with Tess’ continuing indifference. It may be that Alec had forced himself upon Tess without consent in the final moments before intercourse, but it does not seem as though Hardy or Alec’s contemporaries would view his actions as rape. More subtle evidence also supports the idea that a rape did not occur, such as Tess’ reaction to the text-painter, and Joan’s seemingly mild reaction to her daughter’s account. These factors culminate in the overwhelming mood of the text, which suggests that, through the narrative voice and through the events in chapter XII, Hardy seems to indicate that both Tess and Alec succumb to temptation and thus both are responsible for the consequences.