The Old Double Standard

I’m sure you have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s a classic and I am reading it for a second time to see the things I missed the first time through. The book centers around a truly awful example of the double standard that was as much in place during Hardy’s Victorian era as it is in ours. You may remember it.

Tess, the heroine of the novel is a poor girl who is seduced/raped (it’s not clear. Victorian novels rely on the reader to use his imagination and mine has faded with increased television viewing) by a truly despicable womanizer early in the novel and has his illegitimate child. Fortunately for Tess, the child dies within a few months leaving her unencumbered by little else than her lively conscience. She is convinced she is rotten to the core because of her “weakness,” and swears to herself never to marry. She leaves home and goes to work at a dairy where she attempts to fit in with the other dairy maids and lose herself in her daily chores.

As it happens (and it always happens, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story!) a young man by the name of Angel Clare happens to be at the dairy learning the trade so he can eventually run his own farm. He is from a “better” family, even though Tess’ ancestors, we are told, have considerable blue blood in their veins. The color of her blood matters not because Tess and her family are dirt poor and she views herself as inferior to Angel with whom, predictably, she falls in love. Madly. Since she is beautiful and bright and even fairly well educated, Angel falls in love with her as well. To be honest, he falls in love with the woman he thinks he can make of her, with improved knowledge and further polish gladly provided by Angel himself.

The problem is that Tess spends considerable time worrying about her pledge not to marry while falling deeper and deeper in love. A letter from her mother in response to her request for advice urges her to keep quiet and plunge ahead. From her mother’s perspective, it is a very “good” marriage. But Tess continues to waiver on the issue until after a wedding filled with all manner of portents of impending doom, including a rooster who crows three times in the afternoon, when she determines to tell her new husband all — after he tells her his secrets. This was Angel’s idea since he, too, has a past that he is not terribly proud of: he has spent a brief, but wild period in London in his youth with an older woman of questionable virtue (!) and in an effort to bare his soul he confesses to Tess on their wedding night. Instead of being angry or upset, she is delighted at his confession because, as she says, “I have a confession too — remember, I said so.” He replies that her sin “can hardly be more serious” than his, to which she replies “It cannot — O no, it cannot be more serious, certainly, because ’tis just the same! I will tell you now.”

Upon revealing her hidden past to her husband she is stunned by his sudden anger and resentment. His response to her is to lose all respect and even find his love fading. He will not, he cannot, become intimate with her. And here we have the nub of the double standard. Given the limitations of the Victorian novels, we are led to believe that, indeed, Tess and Angel have had the same sorts of sexual experience, albeit the consequences of Tess’ weakness, if it be such, were quite different from her husband’s. The point is that he turns a blind eye to his own past while he cannot deal with the mistakes of the woman he loves. Hardy has provided us with what he apparently believes is a critique of Victorian values — the wealthy and supposedly well-bred young man who cannot bear to live with the mistakes made by a poor young women — even though he made the same mistakes himself.  One could even make the case that his “sin” (if it be such) was greater than Tess’ since he engaged in the activity voluntarily whereas hers was forced upon her. In any event, what Hardy is pointing to in fact, is the age-old double standard whereby men and women are measured differently for (more or less) the same mistakes. Needless to say, the outcome, for Tess, is tragic. But the real tragedy is that we read about such things and yet we still go on measuring men and women by two different standards, one more forgiving than the other.

Martina Navratilova reminded us of this some years ago when Magic Johnson confessed that he had sex with a great number of women  and was never censured for it while, as Martina pointed out, if a women had said such a thing she would have been labelled a “whore.” This is apparently what Angel was convinced his new bride was, because she had succumbed to the lures of a womanizer and was unable to avoid the snares he so carefully laid out for her. The double standard is hypocritical at its core. Some of us live in glass houses and still persist in throwing stones.

9 thoughts on “The Old Double Standard

  1. Excellent, Hugh! “Tess” is my favorite of Hardy’s novels and you’ve done a terrific job explaining it, and Hardy’s critique of his own society but, as you said, a double-standard that persists. You mention that things end tragically for Tess. Conversely, of course, the way the novel ends for Angel Clare makes him not only a survivor of that double-standard but a prize winner! It is an ending that makes me gag in anger, and very strongly makes Hardy’s point of the injustice of societies in which that double-standard is accepted.

  2. This is one of my favorite books. I have read and reread it and find something new each time. Tess, easily the best and most moral of the whole bunch, is so well characterized that she seems real to me. I love to hate Alec, who becomes a Methodist minister, then forsakes even that in his lust for poor Tess. There is no doubt in my mind that he raped her in the woods that night. I despise weak and fickle Angel and Tess’s parents. I think the only person in the book worthy of her is her friend Izz, who would, nonetheless, have run off with Angel. But who could blame her in such a time as that, when male protection was the only way out of a shitty existence. I actual cry reading this book, which hardly ever happens. I might go read it yet again, thank you!

  3. Hugh, the double standard continues today with the rape crisis in our military and college campuses. I read today an editorial that appropriately vilifies George Will for his editorial that the rape crisis on college campuses in more borne out of the promiscuity on college campuses and there will be more false rape accusations because of it. This is a dressed up version of she was asking for it, so it must not be rape.

    Navratilova is dead on accurate in her statement about Johnson, but it need not be as many lovers to be labeled a whore. Tess is like Fantine in Les Miserables. Here is a woman who made mistake of passion, gets left cold and dry by the jerk, and is trying to earn money to pay for her daughter’s care. Her reward is she is “sacked.”

    Great post on a great book on a sober topic. BTG

  4. Tess is one of my favourite novels. I think Hardy’s a genius. Each time I’ve read the book I tend to find more evidence that Tess was raped, not seduced, but I agree that Hardy’s style is coy; relying on on his reader to decipher their own moral code as well as his own! You’re spot on with the double standards too. I enjoyed reading your blog.

    • Given Tess’ hatred of Alec, rape seems the only possible interpretation. And he is certainly depicted as the type — even after his “conversion.”

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