The Fallen Woman

In the Victorian era, fallen women or prostitutes were caused because of class, social conditions and essentially wanton men, who were rarely ever brought to justice. In Tess of D’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy, we gain an insight into Victorian literature that spoke out about these gender and social norms, causing serious controversy within the Victorian Era. Tess of the D’Urbevilles is about a young virtuous woman corrupted by a man and failed by society, who tries her hardest to support her family with integrity, but ultimately becomes a prostitute after she marries for love and her husband denies her because of her past. Utilizing Hardy’s piece of literature and William Rathbone Greg’s 1850 (reprinted in 1853) article entitled Prostitution, we will see how a pure woman, worn down by societal structures can become a fallen woman. Each piece is a social commentary on the Victorian Era; one is based around a fictitious protagonist and the other, around witnessed facts of that era.

Failed by her drunken father and selfish mother, Tess is forced into the arms of the lascivious, wealthy Alec D’Urbeville who takes advantage of her innocence and essentially rapes her while she sleeps. The Victorian era is infamous for its ‘prudery, denial, and avoidance of anything sexual’ (Shea & Whitla 2015), so for a girl like Tess, sex and sexuality were never discussed. As a result, a female in that era could easily become prey to the charms or ploys of a man. Specifically, Tess explains this to her mother after the ordeal she has suffered at the hands of Alec:

Tess is a peasant, not a ‘lady.’ It is this fact of lower class status that allows her to come by this injustice. In an upper class society, a lone female would have a male figure to chaperone her to prevent such an occurrence. Likewise, a middle class man is more inclined to disrespect a lower class woman rather than a lady, or as Shane Armstrong suggests:

When out of their element, the women become more of an economic pawn for the men with whom they are involved. Away from their homes and the men with whom they are familiar, lower-class women are placed in more unstable economic situations. The added strain and unfamiliarity makes the women more susceptible to men treating them as commodities. (Armstrong 1995)

Tess is essentially given up as a commodity by her parents who hope that Tess’s good looks will secure them financially with a marriage to Alec. It was common place in the Victorian era to marry for financial or social gain and ‘many marriages were considered a business deal,’ which ‘few started with love’ (Avictorian 1997). Due to Tess’s lower class status, an open proposal is improper, so instead Joan Durbeyfield indiscreetly promotes Tess; ‘if she plays her trump card aright. And if he don’t marry her afore he will after’ (Hardy 53).

It is interesting to note that in Hardy’s unedited version of these events, Tess tells the story of how Alec sleeps with her, asks her to marry him and then goes on to create a mock wedding, employing one of his friends to mimic a registrar. A few weeks after, Tess becomes aware that the marriage was an illusion and she departs (Dolin 1998). This unedited version fits into Hardy’s timeline quite neatly as after Tess is taken advantage of sexually while she slept, she still stays with Alec for around two months, obviously under the pretense of marriage. This enforces William Rathbone Greg’s theory that, ‘their (fallen women) desire of recovering a social position, and their horror of the probable alternative, were generally strong enough to induce them to welcome all the terrors of an unhappy marriage’ (Greg 1853). This does not lessen Tess’s virtuous nature, but rather, further exemplifies her character. As she previously stated she was ‘just a child’ when she left home, ill-informed and naive. But when she finally leaves Alec, she is enlightened, ‘I cannot! I should be your creature to go on doing that, and I won’t!’ (Hardy 77). And again, ‘never, never! I made up my mind as soon as I saw – what I ought to have seen sooner, and I won’t come’ (Hardy 78).

Her suffering is brought to a climax in the second phase of the book when the reader is introduced to Tess’s son, obviously a result of their relationship, who dies not long after from sickness. ‘In the nineteenth century being regarded as either pure or fallen was considered an appropriate cultural ideal by the middle class. Moreover, women regarded as fallen were subjected to virtually permanent societal ostracism’ (Greb 1996). As a result, Tess is shunned from society in her home town of Marlott and moves to the Talbothays Farm where she unknown.

The reader is then properly introduced to the free-thinking and modern gentleman, Angel Clare, whom is briefly glimpsed earlier in the novel. They fall in love and despite Tess’s obvious shame for her past and initial rejection of Angel’s proposal, his free thinking mind allows her to believe that he will might accept her history and still love her. ‘Society is hopelessly snobbish’ (Hardy 189), Angel declares, clearly drawing a line between them and society. Encouraging her to believe he does not hold those societal values, she accepts. On their wedding night Angel admits to his sexual indiscretions and Tess wholeheartedly forgives her husband. Angel, however, loses all sense of modernity and his sense of propriety completely takes over when he finds out about Tess. Angel’s initial character is a symbol for what Victorian society should be, uninterested in social and class norms and one that is free-thinking and non-judgmental. His reaction afterwards is symbolic of the way things really are and that Victorian society, however much on the verge of revolution, is still trapped in those set of ideals. He leaves her with a small amount of money to survive and disappears. This is the most deplorable state to leave a new wife in the nineteenth century and as William Rathbone comments:

It is by no means rare to see married women, widowed, or deserted by their husbands, and in consequence deprived of all support, become prostitutes with the sole object of saving their family from dying from hunger. It is still more common to find young girls, unable to procure from their honest occupations an adequate provision for their aged and infirm parents, reduced to prostitute themselves in order to eke out their livelihood. (William Rathbone Greg 1853)

Which, after almost a year of being estranged from Angel, is what Tess is reduced to. In that time, Tess’s father dies, her mother becomes fatally ill, they lose the family home and the income Tess is receiving is not enough to support her mother and her 6 siblings. So when Alec D’Urbeville is once again introduced in the novel as pursuing her and playing to her every weakness (her family and duty), it is at her lowest and after many rejections on her part that she finally succumbs and becomes his mistress. Her family is safe, housed, well-fed and well looked after, but she has sold her body to purchase these things, she has become a prostitute.

In the Nineteenth Century prostitutes were ‘outcasts, Pariahs, lepers. Their touch even in the extremity of suffering,’ were ‘shaken off as if it were pollution’ or ‘disease’ (Greg 1853), regardless of how they came to be that way. It is no surprise then when looking at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, that our protagonist caused so much controversy. In Hardy’s autobiography it is ‘reported that the Duchess of Abercorn’s dinner guests had been ‘almost fighting across her dinner-table over Tess’s character’. Those who thought the ‘little harlot’ deserved hanging were put in one group; those who pitied her as a ‘poor wronged innocent’ sat in another together with the Duchess’ (Higonnet 1998). What is most telling of this society, is that never once is Alec and Angel’s indiscretions ever eluded to being a problem.  ‘The norms of sexual behavior were elastic and inconsistent. The double standard, allowing men to keep a mistress or visit prostitutes, remained the accepted but invisible underside of the dominant norm’ (Shea & Whitla 2015). Like all women in Victorian Society, ‘Tess is judged by that double standard of morality which does not allow for any sexual impropriety on her part as the woman, whether willed or otherwise, while the sexual pasts of Alec and Angel are not judged at all’ (Jekel via Armstrong 1995). As previously mentioned, the ‘little harlot’ is hanged, not due to her sexual indiscretions, but because she fatally stabs Alec with a carving knife after Angel returns to her. Her execution is symbolic of how nineteenth century upper and middle class people saw a fallen woman’s rightful place in society.

Through the combination of work by William Rathbone Greg’s Prostitution and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbeville, it is easy to imagine how societal structures of that age could ruin a pure woman. Lack of sexual knowledge and poverty are key aspects in creating a prostitute, as is an immoral man.  In Tess of the D’Urbevilles, we see an innocent virtuous woman wronged by two men, failed by society, class structures and her family and turned into a prostitute. Hardy’s social commentary of that era is explicit when used in conjunction with Greg’s Prostitution. The Victorian era saw no hypocrisy in these double standards of sexual indiscretion and there was no recovery for a fallen woman, unless she ensnared her assailant into matrimony. For Tess, like most fallen women in the Victorian era, it is her sense of duty to her family and her consciousness of their wellbeing that allows her to go down that dark path.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Shane. The Relationship Between Gender and Economics in Three of Thomas Hardy’s Major Novels. Thesis. University of Louisville, 1995. Web.

Dolin, Tim, ed. Tess of the D’Urbevilles. By Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin, 1998. Print

Greg, William R. The Great Sin of Great Cities.: Being a Reprint, by Request, of an Article, Entitled “Prostitution” From the Westminister And Foreign Quarterly Review. London: John Chapman, July 1853.

Greb, Mary C. Tragedy Transformed: The Fallen Woman in the Novels of Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser. Diss. University of Kansas. 1996. Web. 1 Sept 2016.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbevilles. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Landow, George P. The Victorian Web, Brown University, 1987,

Nazir, Farkhanda. “Impact of Class on Life: A Marxist Study of Thomas Hardy’s Novel Tess of the D’Urbevilles.” English Literature Scholar, vol. 13, 6 June 2013.

Shea, Victor. Whitla, William. Victorian Literature: An Anthology. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Print.

“Victorian Love, Courtship & Marriage.” Avictorian, 1997,


4 thoughts on “The Fallen Woman

  1. What a wonderful essay! First, I always get excited when I see a blog post with citations :). I am a big fan of research and writing myself so I get super happy whenever I see an example of that. Second, and more importantly, you did an excellent job of outlining both the sexual double standard for men and women in the Victorian Age as well as the real-life causes that force someone into a life of prostitution. In so doing, this isn’t just an important essay for understanding those topics in the Victorian Age but it’s important for understanding our own age as well. While we’ve certainly made progress in some areas, we still live with major sexual double standards for women and for men in most cultures. And the fact that destitution pulls women into prostitution of sex slavery is tragically as true today as it was then. In opening our eyes to this important history lesson you’ve opened our hearts to what’s happening in the world around us too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you so much Michael! I’m so glad you liked it. I adore the Victorian age, but have never been a fan of these situations and how often and easily it happened. I quite enjoyed researching this topic and you are completely right, it is all around us today. Even growing up in my Indian culture in the 20th and 21st century these double standards stuck out like a sore thumb. Perhaps that is why it interests me so much. Thanks for reading and appreciating 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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