The Role of Women in Tess Of The d’Urbervilles

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Gillian Beer’s article, “Descent and Sexual Selection: Women in Narrative” extenuates the implications of Darwin’s theories on the relationships, roles and dispensation of men and women in society. The concepts of succession and inheritance and succession are described as having a hidden bond that joins the past, present and future species, and subsequently, determining the natural order. Beer emphasizes that according to Darwin, “Variations in nature are not within the control of will. They are random and unwilled and may happen to advantage or disadvantage an individual” (Beer 446).

Particularly, Beer argues that the relationship between sociology and biology are integrated in the concept of sexual selection through querying the values, emotions and actions that contribute towards a race’s survival. Hence, the question of whether inherited attributes define the character of the various cultures and races. Beer attempts to explicate that role of women in society, since they have the physical power of transmitting the race. She asserts that the relationship in men and women is a consequence of natural selection where “love intrigues” play a critical role in determining the future of the human race.

Evidently, different men are attracted to a different kind of woman depending on social, physical and psychological attributes of the women. The selection of women is attributed to their beauty and social status such that the men tend to choose women, who fall into their social class. In essence, the selection of partners is described as dominated by the men, who make all the choices depending on the attributes that they believe will perpetuate their social position and produce offspring that are fit to survive. Beer argues that, even through women have significant leeway in selecting their partners, social position and wealth of the men becomes a determining factor in the selection process.

Therefore, “man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in savage state he keeps her in far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal” (Beer 447). Man is described as subjugating the women. Women are considered as objects of beauty to be admired and objects of procreation as far as the men are concerned. However, Beer paints women as possessing individuality and capable of playing significant roles in society.

 The consequences of the sexual selection perception have inherently relegated the women to a weaker and more subjective position. Hence, they are not favored by inherited circumstances that place them at a significantly disadvantaged position. Therefore, women are perceived on the basis of their beauty, and social class. Beer considers Hardy’s description of Tess of the d’Urberville’s “an almost standard woman” a reference to her appearance and physical features that fail to consider her capacity to play critical roles that can impact society and as a result mankind.

Beer describes the various descriptions brought forwards by sociologists, biologists and psychologists in an attempt to define the role and place of a woman in society. Particularly, she emphasizes the views presented by Darwin in his various works, especially The Descent where the relationship between human emotions, love and marriage are considered as nature’s way of ensuring that the species is perpetuated. However, scholar’s such as Hardy and Elliot are described as attempting to identify the inherent distinction between “a women’s individuality and progenerative role” (Beer 449).

The author argues that while the concept of sexual selection has been significantly influenced through men’s domination of women, the presentation of beauty in a woman in not a factor of sexual selection since it does not follow preselected lineages of the nobles. This view is asserted by the characterization of Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a beautiful woman in spite of the fact that her beauty “comes from her mother’s peasant stock and thus from those who survive outside the park gates” (Beer 449). However, sexual selection is a factor of social norms that have characterized the upper classes as superior stock that has the ability and potential to influence society. However, the revelation that Tess’s father, a rather poor man is of noble descent, it is illustrated that the ability of the men determines social position. Therefore, it is argued that social status should not be the standard within which sexual selection is premised but it should be based on a standard measure defined by “beauty of body and disposition, as exemplified in Tess” (Beer 449).

Hardy emphasizes that the sexual selection should take a natural course that is not influenced by social norms and rules aimed at benefiting the nobles while the peasants are subjected to social laws that they have no contribution in their creation. Therefore, Beer agrees with Hardy’s assertion that sexual selection should be “undistorted by social pressures and the male dominance” (Beer 449). Evidently, this is not the case since women are expected to live according to predefined social norms that are predicated towards the benefit of the upper social classes that do not wish to be tainted by the stock of the peasants in society.

Relevance of the article to Tess Of The d’Urbervilles

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles the Durbeyfield’s are illustrated as belonging to the lower classes characterized by poverty and a routine life where they struggle to make ends meet. However, Tess is described as a beautiful woman, who has been born in poor family. According to the assertions presented in Beer’s article Tess is an embodiments of beauty that should have been a product of sexual selection is society that emphasized on the purity among the bloodlines. An individual’s ancestry and lineage in society is perceived as the basis within which people are classified as low or high class. In the case of Tess, she is born in family that is not only poor but it is described as having partial nobility on the basis of the discovery that her father is of an aristocratic lineage (Gao 519).  

However, though her father is taken be the revelation that the family is of noble lineage, Tess is not wavered in attending to her routine duties. However, her father is immersed in the illusion of nobility to the extent of inducing himself in drunken stupor. The fact that he losses himself in the illusion of being an aristocrat illustrates Beer’s assertion that male domination of the women in sexual selection matters involved the men’s ability to sustain their position in the nobility class (Beer 447). This offered such men an opportunity to engage in matters that influenced society to the extent of defining classes and social status.

Nobility represented power and Tess’s father recognized its implications especially in assuring a future for his daughters and social recognition on his part. In his perspective, the concept of nobility was a means within which sexual selection through noble match making and ensuring that his Daughter’s married into nobility, would ensure the survival of his lineage as a noble man. However, the reality is that his family is poor and has ceased being noble on the basis of its inability of preserve the economic and social position associated with nobility.  

Evidently, the women as represented by Tess are not taken by the assertions of nobility, to them nobility was another term men used to assert their dominance on women. Though her father is elated and even attempts to act in a noble manner when he buries the dead horse whose carcass would have fetched some money for the poor family, she only perceives such a revelation as an added burden given her father’s disillusionment with the newly found social status. More importantly, Tess does not consider her status or position changed by the revelation of her family’s background. She continues being subjected to male domination, subjective social norms and her family’s expectations of her to act as the adult in the family.

In her effort to repay the family for the death of the horse which she perceives as her fault, Tess seeks employment by visiting the d’Urbervilles, an aristocrat family. It is evident by the attitudes of Mrs. d’Urbervilles that she is indifferent to Tess given her social background and the stigma it carries as perceived by the aristocrats in society. Beer’s distinction of nobility and peasants is effectively illustrated by the manner in which Tess relates to Mrs. d’Urbervilles and her son Alec.

Essentially, Alec is the embodiment of the dominating male aristocrat and he considers Tess as an object for his amusement, please and use as he wishes. As such, he expects to manipulate and goad her into doing what he wants on the basis of his superior social and economic position. Alec’s actions alludes to Beer’s assertion that while women in free societies have the freedom to choose their sexual partners, factors such as social position and wealth are contributing factors in the selection of a partner for marriage. In this case, Alec perceives that his superior social position, class and wealth would be adequate to convince Tess to do as her pleases.

Evidently, Tess rejects Alec’s sexual advances but his superior physical strength enables him to subdue her and take advantage of her. In the play’s contemporary society, social norms prohibits indulge in carnal activities before marriage. Particularly, society abhors and prohibits young women from engaging in sexual activities before marriage. Alec’s actions rob Tess her dignity and sense of identify while placing her in catastrophic social position given the conservative nature of prevalent social norms in society. The idea of an unmarried women being intimate with married is looked down upon; however, since Alec’s actions led to her pregnancy, Tess is considered as a social deviant and an outcast. However, since society is taught to challenge the woman irrespective of the circumstances that led to her predicament, she is considered as a bad influence, and a bad seed.

Alec’s actions can be equated to Beer’s assertions that women were perceived as objects of beauty which once men used them and satisfied their needs, were discarded in social obscurity since they had served their purpose. However, Beers representation of Hardy’s and Eliot’s arguments that there should be a distinction between women’s individuality and their roles in society is evident in Tess’s actions. Initially, she takes care of her family and is concerned on the well-being of her family while her father, the purported provider delves in alcoholism and day dreams.

Tess is described as a hardworking woman seeking to provide not only for herself but her family since her father has proven to be incapable of doing so. Contrary to other girls her age who are concerned with finding a suitable man to marry them, Tess is concerned with issues relating her family’s health and survival. She is presented as a resilient young woman, beautiful and morally upright in contrast to Alec who is a representation of what society considers as the pure stock, whose actions are inherently impure in all aspects.

It is evident that nobility is a misconstrued concept that seeks to place the rich and upper classes above others through subjecting them to social norms that only benefit the rich. In essence, the revelation of her father’s lineage places Tess in harm’s way. Particularly, her father and mother are significantly taken by the idea of becoming aristocrats that they neglect their immediate duties and responsibilities of proving for their family. Consequently, Tess is forced to take matters into her own hands and seeks employment on the basis of her mother’s arguments that the new found status of the family would place Tess at an advantage in making the acquaintance of Mrs. d’Urbervilles. In essence, her mother’s actions conform to Beers assertion that  sexual selection in humans was premised on men selecting women to marry in their social circles; hence perpetuating their noble stock with the aim of perpetual control of society through preservation of their holdings in the various economic holdings. Though Tess was not fully informed of the behavior, attitudes and actions of the male nobles, she expected them to act in a more moral and civil manner.

However, Alec’s perception on seeing Tess was that of person seeing a beautiful object to play with given her social status. It is evident that had Tess belonged to a noble and rich family, Alec would not have defiled, impregnated and discarded her as he did. The conceived child dies and Tess opts to leave her family behind and seek a new life. Consequently, she finds employment in a dairy farm where she meets and meets Angel, a man she falls in love with irrespective of her misgivings given her past. Tess and Angel are attracted to each other and feel that their relationship can endure not because it has been arranged in accordance with expected social norms but because it has occurred naturally.

According to Beer’s essay, sexual selection is society was predicated on adherence to social norms that demanded marriages be arranged according to social arrangements aimed at perpetuating certain ideals identifiable in each side of the family. In the case of Tess and Angel such social ideals and associated pressures do not take precedence over their choosing each other. Tess feels reluctant to accept Angels offer of marriage on the basis of her past experiences since she believes herself to be a blemished woman whom society would look down upon if she became his wife.

Therefore, she perceives herself as unsuitable on the basis of existing social norms and expectations that are restrictive, discriminative and oppressive. Ideally, society does not wish to see a situation where young men and women can love and marry whomever they choose since this would cause a dilution of the set social order. The preservation of pure nobility is critical factor that influences relationships since rich people are not allowed to socialize with poor people let alone marry them.

In spite of her misgivings, it is evident that they both left behind a social system that would have discriminated against their feelings towards each other, and would have chosen a “suitable” wife for Angel and a husband for Tess (Nishimura 213). Beer’s arguments that the preservation of sexual selection in accordance with established social order where the nobility were allowed to perpetuate their hold on society would have eventually led to the extinction of human kind is warranted (Beer 450). However, freedom of choice has been significantly limited given the psychological implications of choice. The fact that women continue to choose men who are in rich, wealthy and in the upper class indicated that choice is still a relative term that is yet to be realized. Evidently, men still dominate choice in sexual selection given their ability to provide wealth and status to particularly materialistic women.


The concept of sexual selection as presented in Beer’s essay is evidently still in contention given the various interpretations of the role of women is society. Significant social and evolutionary changes have occurred overtime, with women taking control of their individual, social and economic wellbeing. However, male dominance in sexual selection continues to be a factor since most woman prefer the wealthy men capable of alleviating their social status. Hence, marriages are significantly predicated on quasi agreements of social status and security in contrast to relationships based love, mediocrity and possibly poverty.

Works Cited

Gao, Haiyan. The inevitability of Tess’s Tragedy. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 3.3 (2013): 515-520.

Beer, Gillian. “Descent in sexual selection: Women in narrative.” In Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Chapter 7. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Madison: Cricket House Books, 2013. Print.

Nishimura, Satoshi. Language, violence, and Irrevocability: Speech acts in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Studies in the Novel, 37.2 (2005): 208-222. Print.

June 07, 2022
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