In Tess of The D’Urbervilles Hardy uses the theme of power to explore the different relationships within his society especially that of men and women . He illustrates how in a predominantly male dominated society , men hold economic and social power over women in different forms whether consciously or not. Hardy also considers how desire can play an important part in influencing power, considering a that a person’s desire , such as Alec’s , can drive them to exert or even force their power on others . The relationship of Alec and Tess best exemplifies the themes of power and desire.
From the beginning of their meeting Hardy hint’s at Alec’s desire for Tess and how he uses his well off position to establish his power over her. Alec is described as having a ”swarthy complexion” , to a Victorian reader his darker skin not only underlined a barbaric nature but also a demanding sexual appetite. Tess’s ” luxuriance of aspect” and ” fullness of growth” cause Alec’s eyes to ”rivet themselves on her”’, Hardy choice of words distinctly signal that Alec’s attraction is of a physical and sensual kind.
Additionally the image of him feeding her a strawberry has sexual undertones, he insists doing so even when at first Tess refuses, immediately he establishes his power over her. He uses his wealth and by showering Tess with fruits he puts her in a compromising position where she feels obliged to accept the strawberry. Tess in her naivety and politeness allows herself to be placed under his influence. Thus Alec’s unstoppable desire for Tess leads him to assert his position as the dominating male in their relationship.
Alec employ’s different methods to attract Tess from offering her gifts to frightening her. During their ride to Tantridge Alec’s desire to kiss Tess provokes him to recklessly unleash the horse to Tess’s dismay. Alec is determined to have her or have his way with her on his own terms, “Let me put one little kiss on those holmberry lips, Tess, or even on that warmed cheek, and I’ll stop” . He effectively tries cornering her and succeeds. Yet despite him having complete control over the situation , he doesn’t have power over Tess, that is he cannot directly affect her thinking in his favour.
Tess doesn’t receive his advances passively , she actively tries to reject them and even cleverly manages to fool him ”there was left him no power to prevent her manoeuvre” . Once Alec realises that he has aggravated Tess and she threatens to go back , he relinquishes control ” I’ll never do it anymore against your will” . This is a result of his desire to retain her, because he wishes to keep her , he obliges and considers her wishes.
Tess could use his desire to her advantage and gain the upper hand , however it is not within her noble and inexperienced personality to do so. In this way Hardy indicates out the correlation between power and desire in a relationship. Once Tess begins to work at the D’Urberville estate she effectively comes under Alec’s authority. Mrs D’Urberville in her invalid state, as well as Tess in her position as a servant find themselves ”unavoidably dependant ” on Alec, the patriarch of the house. Hardy uses subtle image of the poultry cottage to suggest Tess’s new position.
The cottage had the ”aspect of a ruined tower” , this conjures ideas of imprisonment or the image of the fair maiden locked in a tower. This sense of confinement if further enhanced by the high walls that surround the garden and the use of the word ”regime” to describe her new post, which suggest a form of rule or government. Hardy is subtly implying that Tess is a prisoner in Alec’s kingdom, where he possesses power over her and others. This image creates an ominous and foreboding tone that marks Tess as a possible victim and highlights her precarious situation.
The event at The Chase epitomises the triumph of Alec’s power and fulfilment of his desire , whether through rape or seduction he manages to dominate Tess and in a way break her spirit. Hardy exposes the existence of a double standard in his society between men and women. Alec’s position as a man and a wealthy landowner puts him out of reach of social stigma , meanwhile Tess as a woman and the victim has to suffer the consequences and social prejudice for the loss of her virginity. Hardy’s use of third person narrative allows him to inject his thoughts and convey his sympathy towards Tess highlighting her as the victim.
The image of her “feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow” along with the contrast of the “coarse pattern” that it receives stresses Tess’s defensiveness ,her delicacy and her role as a victim . However Victorian critics, notably Mrs Oliphant, blame Tess for not having withstood or prevent her loss of innocence. Here the theme of desire is important to defining Tess as pure or not. The ”obscurity ” and ”nebulousness” of the scene makes it hard to shed light on Tess’s thoughts during the event.
If she was seduced, and even in a small measure allowed her own sexual desires to take over , it would imply that she isn’t pure in the strict Victorian notion . Yet this ambiguity accentuates Hardy’s purpose , to question his society’s concept of virginal ”purity” and broaden it to a more spiritual sense of the word. Hardy’s comparison of Alec and Angel brings out their different effects over Tess. Alec’s blatant and acknowledged abuse of his position and power is the obvious however Angel exerts a considerable power over Tess too, even though his is less forceful and his love gentle.
Angel has an idealised image of Tess as a virginal creature, which blinds him to the real Tess. Angel ironically refers to Tess as “virginal Daughter of Nature” and “Artemis,” immediately simplifying her character and concluding that her pessimistic view of life is not the result of experience but has been merely instilled in her ”there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity , and not as to duration”. The complete irony highlights the fact that he is denying her true self in favor of a mental image that he prefers. Thus, her identity and experiences are suppressed, albeit unknowingly by his idealisation of her.
This idea of male power and authority is also exemplified in the Durbeyfield house hold. Tess’s mother asks John to assert his control as head of the family ”Durbeyfield, you can settle it”. He as Tess’s father has the power to prevent the catastrophe yet, apart from a slight objection founded on his pride and not on the concern for his daughter , he takes on a passive role becoming partially responsible for his daughter’s misery. It seems Hardy whishes to point out that power is not always held by those who can put it to good use, which is the case of Alec and to a lesser extent Angel.
Hardy illustrates how power can be used in varying degrees to influence or force others whether done knowingly or not . Un checked desire can fuel the wish to control and overpower, like in Alec’s case, and mislead impressions can result in the imposition of one’s ideas on other , as Angel does. With the visible consequences of these errors in Tess , Hardy brings out the importance of how power is exerted and that ideally it should be used for good. Through the theme of desire Hardy also conveys that sexual desire should not define the purity of a personality or person, as in the case of Tess.