In Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ the concept of male
domination is first explored in the Tess’ relationship with her father, John
Durbeyfield. Whilst he does not directly exert any dominance onto her his role
as the ‘shiftless head of the house’ is what predominantly controls Tess’ fate.
Due to the patriarchal society of the Victorian era all of John’s actions
inadvertently reflect upon the rest of his family, especially Tess due to her
being the oldest female. As a result of this it becomes Tess’ duty to make up
for her fathers shortcomings as his ‘shiftless’ nature implies that he is
unable to properly provide for his family. John’s indolence indirectly harms
the character of Tess, as it is what forces her to find work in a society where
she should not be relied on as the main breadwinner. This demonstrates how the male oriented
society of the Victorian era was harmful towards females as they were often
coerced into situations that they did not want to be involved in order to
please male figures. It can also be argued that her father’s reliance on her to
provide for the household is a catalyst for Tess’ eventual downfall due to the
fact that if she did not have to find work she would’ve never experienced the
events that caused her fate. The inherent dominance that Tess’ father has over
her also strips her of what little independence that a Victorian woman would
have, thus causing her to live a life that puts her parents needs before her
own forcing her to abandon aspirations of socially rising and living a better
life. Whilst Tess accepts the notion of not being independent the titular
character of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Thetis’ spends the majority of the poem
trying to maintain the little independence that she has. In the poem she is
unable to live without being in the constant fear of being attacked by an
unnamed male figure that is constantly trying to dominate her. The concept of
the antagonistic character of the poem being unnamed could be implying that
they are a representation of men in general and even though we have progressed
from the male dominated society present in ‘Tess’ society is for the most part
still patriarchal. In contrast to how the character of Tess conforms to the
abuse and dominance that is placed upon her, Thetis incessantly tries to escape
the harsh reality of abuse that the male figure tries to place upon her. In the
first stanza Thetis is initially portrayed as a sweet ‘bird in the hand of a man’.
The imagery of a bird suggests freedom and independence, as a bird is able to
roam the sky as freely as they wish. However, this idea is juxtaposed by the
fact that she is ‘in the hand of a man’ which implies any freedom is dependent
on whether he allows he to be free or not. The false security of freedom that
Thetis believes she has is quickly stripped by her dominator who
abuses his power and “squeeze(s)”
her with his “fist”. This initial demonstration of violence makes it obvious
that she is not in control as much as she believes to be and makes her aware of
the posing threat of violence and dominance that men pose towards her.
Similarly in ‘Tess’ the initial, sexual, violations of Alec towards her is what
causes the character to become more wary and uneasy in the presence of men.
Whilst Thetis does not initially accept the thought of being controlled by a
man and giving up her freedom the character of Tess never truly has any form of
freedom with her decisions constantly being manipulated to suit the needs of
the male characters in her life (i.e. her father, Alec, Angel).
Throughout Hardy’s novel it is reinforced that Tess is a ‘pure woman’
and is often described in a way that depicts her as innocent such as her first
introduction at the May Day dance where she is in a company of girls wearing a
white dress. The white implying purity, innocence and chastity that she is
supposed to represent. However the purity of the white is offset by the red
ribbon in her hair, red being a colour typically associated with sin, sexuality
and danger. She is described as “the only one of the white company who
could boast of such a pronounced adornment” suggesting that out of the entire
company of girls it is her fate to be tainted with the sexual violation that
she will have to face at the hands of Alec, thus the ribbon being a physical
representation the eventual ruining of her innocence. Alec first exercises his
dominance over Tess when he coerces her to eat a strawberry from his hand,
something that she clearly did not find comfortable “in a slight distress she
parted her lips and took it in”. The red colour of the strawberry
reiterates the fact that she is in a dangerous position which is also sexually
charged. Not only is Alec abusing his power over Tess in this situation he is
also foreshadowing the sexual dominance that he will eventually have over her,
as strawberry’s can be considered to be symbolic of passion and sexual desires.
The verb “distress” displays that she didn’t want to eat the
strawberry but because of his position in society as a rich, white, powerful
male she felt obligated to follow his instructions as it is what was expected
of her in a Victorian society.
Alec holds over Tess is when he rapes her on the way home from a dance.
Tess finds herself in a struggle with her co-workers and Alec ironically rides
in on a white horse, which Tess could interpret as Alec coming to protect her.
However, the reader knows by this point how manipulative Alec really is and we
know he has no intention of protecting her so we are suspicious of his actions.
The rape is the ultimate way to show Tess who holds the power in their
relationship. The reader is given clues as to what is going to happen to Tess
when Hardy writes “He touched her with his fingers” and “He
plunged into the webs of vapour.” These create erotic images in the
readers mind and we sense he is about to rape her, but we are left with an air
or uncertainty. The reader is finally led to believe Alec rapes Tess when Hardy
writes “He knelt and bent lower, until her breath warmed his face, and in
a moment, his cheek was in contact with hers.” Phrases such as “Upon
her eyelashes there lingered tears” and “Where was Tess’s guardian
angel?” I think all these phrases show that he is raping her and the tears
show she is objecting to it but she cannot physically stop him, she can only
show him her emotions. This is complete injustice for Tess as she didn’t want
for the rape to occur, however she understands that because of male dominance
and power, nobody would believe she objected; everyone would have believed she
gave her full consent to Alec. This makes the modern reader further sympathise
with Tess as, being modern women we understand that it is illegal to rape
anyone, so we could fight for justice unlike Tess.