Tess in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is portrayed as a victim of the society she lives in. Tess is at a disadvantage because of her gender, due to the patriarchal society she lives in - puritanical Victorian England.
Male dominance and its counterpart female passiveness are explicit in Tess’s relationship with Alec. In one of the novel’s most iconic episodes, Hardy uses diction choice to imply Tess’ sexual passiveness. The strawberries are shown to Tess in a ‘green-house’ – they are not naturally ripe yet, much like how Tess is not sexually ‘ripe’ and is not ready for Alec’s advances. The strawberries, in this case, are a metaphor for Tess’s sexuality – Alec asks her if she likes strawberries, and she replies ‘Yes, when they come.’ Alec then insists that the strawberries are ‘already here’. It’s obvious that Alec is trying to metaphorically coerce Tess into losing her virginity prematurely – however, Hardy also makes it clear that Tess, his female Victorian protagonist, is not averse to expressing her sexuality, ‘when (it) comes’ - when the time is right and she has matured. This idea is incongruous to the context Hardy is writing in – in Victorian society, female sexuality was suppressed and made to seem dirty, and vulgar. Hardy is often said to have written ‘before his time’, - he portrays Tess as a woman ahead in her thinking and morals of the society she lives in, but this forward thinking is also what ruins her.
When Alec feeds her the strawberry, Tess protests that she would ‘rather take it in (her) own hand’, then Alec ‘insist(s)’ and ‘in a slight distress, she parted her lips and took it in’. This is the first example of the repeating cycle of Tess not wanting to do something, Alec coercing her, then her consenting reluctantly. The strawberry episode is obvious foreshadowing on Hardy’s part, of Tess’s imminent loss of virginity. Alec’s dominance over Tess is obvious from his ‘insist(ing)’ – Hardy’s diction choice makes Alec appear forceful and assertive. The fact that Hardy writes that Tess ‘took it in’ is interesting; Tess is active in this situation, she ‘took’ it – this implies that she is willing, at this point, and in control. However, the pre-modifying adverbial phrase ‘in slight distress’ minimises the validity of this suggestion – Tess’s reluctance is made clear. The juxtaposition between her being an active subject and the reluctance she shows implies a power struggle, obviously between her and Alec, but also within Tess herself. Hardy is fairly ambiguous about Tess’ feelings towards Alec, but it is clear that there is some sort of attraction there – an attraction that would (and eventually does) ruin Tess if she gives into it. The internal struggle Tess faces is a direct result of the society she lives in – a society that victimises her for expressing or acting on her sexuality.
However, Hardy never goes as far as to portray Tess as sexually liberated – when her sexuality is expressed, she is often objectified. Hardy devotes long passages to Tess’ appearance. As well as the description of the ‘parting of ‘Tess’s lips’ in the strawberry scene, Hardy also includes lots of allusions to Tess’s lips in his initial description of her. The lips are a part of the female body that already bears sexual connotations, especially to a sex-sensitive Victorian readership. Hardy describes Tess’s ‘mobile peony mouth’ – his diction choice here alludes to Tess as a sexual object. The word ‘mobile’ bears connotations of free and easy movement – Hardy, and therefore the reader, is picturing Tess’s lips moving. A ‘peony’ is a large, luscious, pink flower which bears connotations of blossomed womanliness. Hardy also describes Tess lips as ‘pouted-up’ and ‘red’ (a colour motif that continues throughout the novel), and continues to describe them in great detail. The detail, and the time in which Hardy devotes to describing Tess’s lips seems hyperbolic, and almost serves as an objectification of her itself. It could be suggested that Hardy, as a male in Victorian society himself, inflicts the ‘male gaze’ on his female protagonist –Hardy, in his efforts to portray Tess as a pure woman, inadvertently sexualises her.