Hardy added the subtitle, A Pure Woman, at the last moment. It has created problems for readers and critics ever since the novel's appearance. The title offends many on moral grounds, for whom Tess is a "ruined," immoral woman. Others are puzzled intellectually; what is Hardy's basis for calling her pure? Hardy defended the subtitle in an 1892 interview with Raymond Blathwayt:
... I still maintain that her innate purity remained intact to the very last; though I frankly own that a certain outward purity left her on her last fall. I regarded her then as being in the hands of circumstances, not morally responsible, a mere corpse drifting with the current to her end.
The subtitle has been defended in various ways. One of the most common defenses is the suggestion that Hardy is showing that the traditional Christian view equating virtue and purity with virginity is wrong. Another common explanation of the subtitle is that Hardy distinguishes between the act and the intention,. This is a distinction Angel Clare finally makes in the novel. Or is it possible that Tess is pure in her character as Apostolic Charity, that her soul remains unstained regardless of what happens to her body? Irving Howe offers a more subtle explanation:
in her incomparable vibrancy and lovingness, she comes to represent a spiritualized transcendence of chastity. She dies three times, to live again:--first with Alec D'Urberville, then with Angel Clare, and lastly with Alec again. Absolute victim of her wretched circumstances, she is ultimately beyond their stain. She embodies a feeling for the inviolability of the person, as it brings the absolute of charity nearer to the warming Christian virtue of charity. Through a dialectic of negation, Tess reaches purity of spirit even as she fails to satisfy the standards of the world.
Howe goes on to suggest that our compassion for Tess weakens our judgement, so that finally "we do not care to judge Tess at all." This interpretation dismisses the whole question of her purity. For F.B. Pinton, her purity derives from her victimization:
... she is the victim of chance--of heredity, physical and temperamental; of the position she was born into, and all the other factors that impinge on her life. She could not be held responsible for them; she was, in Hardy's words, "a pure woman."


For Angel, Tess's purity, which he equates with virginity, is the crucial issue. After her confession, Tess looks so "absolutely pure" that a stupefied Angel urges her to lie, to tell him her confession is not true (page 238). He is able, at this point, to see only the external, not her soul. Ironically, the passage about the virtuous woman which his father reads from Proverbs makes no reference to virginity; instead, it identifies qualities and behavior which would fit Tess. To make this point, Hardy omits some of the text, though the Reverend Clare would certainly have read the passage in its entirety. Hardy comments on Angel's judgment of Tess's purity:
No prophet had told him, and he was not prophet enough to tell himself, that essentially this young wife of his was as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman endowed with the same dislike of evil, her moral value having to be reckoned not by achievement but by tendency.... In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire. (page 267)
A well-traveled, open-minded stranger persuades Angel that he judged Tess too harshly and that his concept of purity was too rigid. How convincing is Angel's change, which is summarized in a page or so? Are other influences than the stranger working to change Angel? After his rejection of Tess on their honeymoon, he wonders briefly whether he has judged and treated her unfairly. Would his disappointment in Brazil and the suffering he experienced and observed there throw a softer light on Tess's confession? Would their long separation give his love for her the opportunity to assert itself? And so he returns to England and to Tess.


Ironically it is the fleshly sensualist Alec, not the intellectual, spiritual Angel, who never doubts Tess's purity, "I never despised you; if I had I should not love you now! Why I did not despise you was on account of your being unsmirched in spite of all; you withdrew yourself from me so quickly and resolutely when you saw the situation; you did not remain at my pleasure..." (pages 326-7). Does Alec's appreciation of her virtue implicitly criticize Angel's view of her?


Phase the First: The Maiden
  Chapters 1-11, pages 1-73
Overview of Hardy
The Opening
Tess's Personal Traits
Tess and Alec
Phase the Second: Maiden No More
  Chapters 12-15, pages 74-100
Rape or Seduction?
Phase the Third: The Rally
  Chapters 16-24, pages 101-152
Nature and the Froom Valley
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence
  Chapters 25-34, pages 153-227
Tess and Angel
Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays
  Chapters 35-44, pages 228-307
Tess and Angel Part
Phase the Sixth: The Convert
  Chapters 45-52, pages 308-372
Alec Again
A Pure Woman
Phase the Seventh: Fulfillment
  Chapters 53-59, pages 373-405
The Ending
May 14, 2009