Postmodern Tess: Recent Readings of 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles'

Jennifer Gribble


No Hardy heroine has divided critical opinion more radically than Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Hardy's defiant sub-title, ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’, challenges the moral preconceptions of his Victorian readership, insisting that Tess's sexual violation is no bar to her moral purity. The history of the novel's rewritings reflects not only Hardy's negotiation with contemporary sexual mores, but also his own compex feelings about Tess: ‘I have not been able to put on paper all that she is, or was, to me.’ ‘In the light of a critical practice that demands a stable and coherent consolidation of character’, Penny Boumelha writes, Tess can only be read as ‘complex and contradictory.’ Peter Widdowson, postmodernizing Tess, has left behind him any such critical practice, and even perhaps his own modernist reading in which juxtaposed multiple registers of Tess’s character fracture, in Cubist mode, the plane of vision. His up-to-the-minute Tess is one whose inconsistencies make her ‘unknowable’ in a way that explodes the whole notion of character as ‘a humanist-realist mystification’. Instability of meaning, as Terry Eagleton remarks, is the doctrinal obsession of postmodernism.

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