The rejection of Tess Durbeyfield by Angel Clare is the turning point of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Despite promises of undying love to Tess, Angel is disgusted by Tess’s sexual past, and abandons his new wife in order to travel to Brazil. While this event is central to Hardy’s story, it also reveals key underlying themes such as misogyny and the unpitying nature of fate.
A reader is alarmed and shocked when, soon after revealing that he has had a period of “dissolution” with an older woman in London, Angel Clare is quick to condemn his wife for being the victim of a rape. He rounds on her and says, “You were one woman, you are now another”. In Angel’s eyes, Tess has been transformed into something he cannot recognise. The insult is a bitter indication of rampant misogyny in Victorian society, where it was acceptable for men to make mistakes sexually, whereas a woman ran the risk of having her reputation ruined for the same crime. This is compounded when Tess suggests that her husband may divorce her, and he scolds her: “how can you be so simple!” By Victorian law, divorce was only possible in the event of infidelity, but that does not apply here – Tess has not cheated on him. Despite an absence of “sin”, Tess is condemned by her husband. Finally, the separation is all the more appalling after Angel had sworn that he was not influenced by society’s atitudes, yet at the first instance that Tess’s name would not “bear investigation”, he abandons her.
This latter point underlines the unfair society Tess found herself in, and this imbalance is the reason she found herself exploited by Alec d’Urberville in the first place. Facing economic ruin, Tess was obliged to find work at the d’Urberville estate. We are forewarned that “the d’Urberville knights” had a long history of rape “ruthlessly upon peasant girls of their time”, and this is the fray into which Tess walks: men of a higher social status were able to force themselves on poorer women. Dutifully trying to save her family, Tess meets Alec, whose first words to Tess are, “Well, my big beauty.” From the off, Alec’s sexually predatory attitude to Tess is clear, and being from a lower class, she is unable to evade his advances. In this sense, she is doomed by fate to suffer at Alec’s hands. As she explains to her brother Abe, she lives on a “blighted” star.
Following Angel’s rejection, Tess puts herself through psychological punishment at Flintcombe Ash, working in impossibly bleak conditions. This is because she still trusts Angel to be right. She has previously told him, “Of course, I accept the conditions”, indicating that she would allow him to decide on her punishment. This acquiescence is continued as she works through the bitter winter, feeling she deserves this treatment for the crime she has committed against her husband. This is a telling example of the scale of misogyny in this period: not only is the woman punished for a non-crime, she feels she deserves this punishment, that it is fair. Her pathetic state is made clear through the scene where she must kill the wounded pheasants to put them out of their misery. She “killed the birds tenderly”. The metaphor is clear: the only way out of this world for Tess is if she dies.
However, by the end of the novel, Tess has rebelled against Angel’s rejection. She comes to see that his treatment of her has been hypocritical and cruel, and finally she is able to assert herself. She wrote to her estranged husband, “Angel, why have you treated me so monstrously!” The adverb here confirms Tess’s sense of injustice, while the exclamation mark underlines her anger and assertiveness. From this point in the novel, Tess is able to take some control of her life, and for the first time refuses to be dictated by the social conventions which have ruled her life so far. She stops waiting for her temperamental husband and returns to the economic safety of Alec d’Urberville.
The rejection of Tess by Angel Clare is the event on which Hardy’s tale hinges. It reveals the hypocrisy of Angel Clare, the misogyny of Victorian society and the impossibility of Tess’s situation as a working class woman. Ultimately, her own rejection (of Angel’s rejection) spurs the novel into its final section, which ultimately leads to the heroine’s death.