Thomas Hardy’s Women: Feminist Perspective

Feminist Prospective is an attempt to explore and analyze the agonizing condition of woman living in their traditional oppressive milieu of male-dominated society. The main objective of this analysis is to trace the journey of a sensitive soul from conventionalism to unconventionalism, attachment to detachment, suffering to solace, imprisonment to liberation, illusion to reality, thence from a static role to a dynamic role.

Thomas Hardy’s (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) presentation of the pathetic plight of woman in Victorian society offers a feminist perspective of viewing the centuries old exploitation of woman at the hands of men, whether at home or outside .Hardy presents both the extremes-of the domestic woman and of a working (professional) woman, to specify that everywhere the position of woman is endangered and that she is not secure, anywhere. Tess and her mother present the extremes of the domestic woman, subjected to the menial household tasks, living their lives for family, subduing their own passions for being conventionally bound to live under patriarchal authority as their only security for living; while Sue Bridehead and Arabella in Jude the Obscure present the second extreme of professionally working women outside their home trying to establish a rapport with men.

MV5BNDZmZGNhYjQtMWQzMy00NDU1LWFiMzctNjIwNTM2NDE1OTZlL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc4MzI2NQ@@._V1_This paper also observes another level of polarities in the nature of women protagonists—the accepting and non-accepting. Tess, Izz, Marian, Ratty, Tess’s Mother, Mrs. Edlin, accept their traditional submissive role-to suppress their passion and to accept their destiny without raising any question; while Arabella, Sue Bridehead are non-accepting ones, the believers in detachment as the only way to survive. However, the exploration of their lives brings all the polarities of domestic accepting women and the professional non –accepting ones at the same level of suffering their lives of negation the ignorant and rigid patriarchal mindset, getting tortured to the extent of reaching at the brink of chaos.

The feminists hold that man is always flirateous by nature. He always plays tricks on the woman. He treats woman as a toy and never bothers about her feelings, always tries to impose his authority over woman and makes her life hellish. If a woman answers him in the same coin, if she rejects him because of his worthlessness, what is wrong here? Man-woman has been given equal rights then how a man regards himself superior, how could he dominate a woman? If he flirts with her, he should also feel the same pain on his person.Thus, all the protagonists are portrayed in terrible crises of existence—the crises arising as a result of acknowledging the truth of illusion they had been living in. The vanity of their long wait for understanding, communionship and companionship turns their emotional world topsy-turvy and creates a psychic turmoil unbearable to cope with. This harsh reality of wasted life full of nostalgia with no meaning left and no one around to live for and live with, inflict such wounds that, though concealed , burn their soul inside. She is forced to live with such an unbearable pain in utter silence. She is committed to her love for her husband and resolves to lead her life in the manner of self-negation. She never minds to be looking ugly, rather she says:“But I don’t care!” “O no –I don’t care! I will always be ugly now, because Angel is not here, I have nobody to take care of me. My husband that was gone away, and never will love me anymore; But I love him just the same, and hate all other men, and like to make ‘em think scornfully of me!”(p.146)This sense of utter loneliness alienates her from society- the first step in the later efforts of woman to live independently.

Hardy reflects the same transformation of woman from sensitive, caring creature to a ‘lost soul’ voicing out the agonies of her heart in one way or the other but she fills her with an unconscious strength–probably the strength of–womanhood. Like an injured lioness and wounded she-snake, she becomes vindictive. She could not bear the insult of her womanhood, that too by the man who is actually born to a woman. She acknowledges her rightful position and sets to justify her life. The voice of agony becomes a call for struggle, a revolution to protect her dignity. Finding no other “saviour,” she becomes self-protective and self-involved, ignoring and discharging all her conventional duties and responsibilities. She rejects the hostile male-world and sets to re-discover her own identity through the dense fog of hostility and humiliation of male world, earlier crushed and crumpled by man. She turns to life.

The observation sees the painful shriek of the tortured and emotionally injured woman not as depicting her weakness, rather as depicting a hidden volcano of passions, love and desires in a constant effort to burst out, and thus finally bursting and bringing “purgation.” Thomas Hardy’s portrayal is not an effort of a woman to list out the sufferings of a woman to draw any sympathy from the man’s world. Rather, he empowers his woman by first making her a protagonist, shadowing all men characters and then speaking their problems and predicaments, showing her wise enough to be aware of her neglect and exploitation by men. He gives her power at times and saint-like vision to observe her weaknesses and strengths to rectify the wrong done to her by the patriarchal society. Hardy gives power to his women characters to be “awakened women” and making them aware of their rights in the rigid Victorian Society.

Several critics see this quest of woman for identity, as portrayed by Hardy and the feminist critics as futile. They point out the hollowness of this superficial attempt for empowerment as the patriarchal authoritative and hostile world never accepts and allows this new image of woman as it indicates the threat to their position. Man never accepts the superiority of woman. He gives utmost importance to his male ego and treats woman as subordinate and keeps her at the secondary position. He feels jealous of the progress of a woman. The same futility is also seen in the characters of Hardy. Tess, ‘a pure woman,’ is seduced in the prime of her life, and finding solace in love of her husband becomes prone to illusions is obvious but she lives with Alec (her seducer) as his mistress for the sake of her family and at the end stabs him to get her husband back into her life. This reveal a contradiction between her conventional heart, longing for relations and their security, and her tragic and pathetic end.

Sue Bridehead, a wavering mind intellectual and a ‘revolutionary,’ professional woman faces a darkness , a doom over her early spirits and finds herself utterly defeated in love and life; first she enters into a mismatched marriage, rejects her lawful, husband to live illegitimately with her lover, gives birth to his children and goes back again to her husband after the tragic death of her children.This reveal the contradiction between conventional heart and her unconventional way of living a liberal life. It brings out the same futility of her long struggle for emancipation when she remembers the death of her children, although a freedom loving woman and critical of other women being “caged” and living “behind bars,” she herself is forced to live the same life of passivity and silence sans love.

But Hardy’s woman is a rebel, involved in a self-revolution. Her being a rebel is enough to show her already awakened self. She is awakened enough to be strong in the male dominated world. Hardy’s woman is strong enough to endure what cannot be cured. Tess suffers and suffers terribly, but she endures to live on for she accepts her sufferings in a calm resignation. This passive acceptance may seem cowardly but it has always been a source of great strength. Her spirit of ‘acceptance’ unmatched. But Hardy gives power to her women characters at time; Tess being a submissive and fatalist becomes a rebel when she stabs Alec.A submissive, tender, and traditional Tess becomes a ‘killer’ and thus proves her identity. Her volcanic passions burst out and she becomes vindictive to take revenge upon the person who has ruined her.

Sue Bridehead is a rebel who dares to challenge the social norms and resolves to live illegitimately with her lover and gives birth to his children. She is aware of her status as a ‘new woman’ in the beginning. She dares to violate the traditional setup of the society. People call it ‘sham togetherness’ and raise their brows at this live-in relationship. Victorian society, being a rigid society, has imposed certain ‘taboos’ on the women and treated them as a second sex. But Sue shuns her traditional place and she establishes her identity as an “independent woman” denying all the superfluous restrictions upon her person by the conventional and rigorous Victorian society.

Hardy’s woman is thus an “emergent woman” and her voice is that of an empowered soul. Her quest for identity has made her reach, at least, ‘somewhere’ from ‘nowhere’; to ‘something from ‘nothing’ and as ‘someone’ from ‘no-one’. Moreover the revolutionary Feminist identity proved by Thomas Hardy along with the other feminist critics, have proved productive as far as woman in the contemporary society is concerned, who no longer walks behind man. Rather, she has created a place for herself and identifies herself–secure and independent However I would like to mention here that woman, portrayed by Thomas Hardy, is not a rival to man. She does not want to grab his space but hers is the plea for a new social order where she is not solely dependent on man but could find sources of satisfaction beyond the stereotyped parameters. It is her ‘identity’ where her interests are not subservient to man but sustaining her new ‘self ‘as a companion. Her prowess is no longer doubted but has been proved. She is being counted now.

Thomas Hardy. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1994, pg.146)
……………. Jude the Obscure (London: Penguin Classics, 1978)
Anita Desai Cry, the Peacock (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 2000)
Anita Desai, Voices in the City (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 2005)
Butcher, trans. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (New Delhi: Kalyani Publishers, 2000)
Lionel Trilling, “Freud and Literature,” The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Viking, 1951)
Rajalakshmi Gopalan, “The Paradigmatic Shift: From Subordination to Empowerment in Rajan Krishan’s Lamps in the Whirlpool and Asha Purn Debi’s Subarnalatha”, Contemporary Indian Women Writwers in English, A Feminist Perspective, ed. Surya Nath Pandey ( New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1999)



Categories: Feminism, Gender Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Research Papers

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