When we first meet Tess, we are introduced to a fine and handsome girl not handsomer than some others, but a girl whose mobile and peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to her colour and shape (14). Hardly a vision of beauty, Tess, however, becomes a contender for the equality of man and woman despite her inescapable misfortune as a fallen woman. Thomas Hardys critique of society exposes a tension surrounding Victorian social mores, and, more specifically, creates a freer definition of a woman, one whose identity is not solely predicated upon her purity or innocence.
Tesss unfortunate circumstances lead her down a road of misadventure resulting in the development of her role enduring both ironic and heroic tragedies. According to The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms, tragedy, in its heroic phase, is an acceptance for a measure of responsibility for a destructive action and asserts against it a quality of heroic suffering and knowledge. However, in its ironic phase, it emphasizes the arbitrariness of evil, rather than simply its disproportion to human action.
In Tess, the arbitrariness of evil is designed to play to Tesss downfall as a woman. This in turn, leads to the tragedy of Angel Clare, who cannot see past Tesss unprovoked victimhood. Ultimately, Tess plays both heroic and ironic tragedies to emphasize the arbitrariness of evil and the destruction this can have on an individual.
Tesss rape proves to be the first tragedy of the novel and emphasizes the ironic nature and effects of evil. The social mores of the time emphasized that the virtues of a woman surrounded purity and innocence. Ironically, the rape of Tess by Alec is the first instance in which the novel presents evil as a tragedy and ultimately the first instance in which Tess is seen without her purity. It created a chasm that divided Tesss personality thereafter from that previous self of hers (74). From the start of the novel, Alec is deemed to be an honest individual, virtuous by nature, and who treats people generously. It was that honest integrity that garnered him Tesss affection. However, his decision to rape Tess comes from an arbitrary decision unforeseen in the novels preceding chapters. Thereafter, Tess begins to live with a dualistic perspective of self. Her external self is characterized by her purity, whereas her internal self is aware of her impurity in relation to the social judgements of the time. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms states that, Tragedy is a dramatization of an individuals sense of life and society as constantly under threat from the arbitrary chances of fate and humanitys own innate savagery. Tesss sense of self is diluted after the rape and her identity is splintered into two different perspectives.
The second tragedy the book presents is Angels inability to accept Clare for her past and the inability to see past her victimhood. Angels strict adherence to the societal norms of the time, disallowed him to accept Tess, a fallen woman, as a wife. Tess tells Angel, I was afraid that it might cause a scandal to your name the unexpected quality of this confession, wrung from her, and not volunteered, shook him indescribably (239). From Clares perspective, he cannot see beyond his own disapproval, to the truth, that Tess was only a victim of circumstance. Clare sees Tess as impure, due to the nature of her past and childbirth, however, that perspective is drawn from the cultural perception and understanding of what it means to be pure.