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:
PHASE THE SIXTH: THE CONVERT
A PURE WOMAN
... 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
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?
DISCUSSION OF TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES