Thomas Hardy’s views on Marriage and Sex Relations: Should Tess Get a Fair Deal at the Hands of Victorian Society?

"No one has written worse English than Mr Hardy in some of his novels...but at the same time so strangely expressive of something attractive...that we would not change it for the perfection of Sterne at his best."

Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941)

Hardy believed that a marriage should not be the result of momentary impulse or a passing fancy. He was thus against a marriage based on love at first sight. A marriage to be successful, to be most candid to the happiness of the married couple, should be based on a harmonic of taste and temperaments. Angel Clare wants to marry a dairymaid because she is likely to be a true helpmate to him in his vocation of farming. He feels, and he reflects the views of Hardy that a fashionable woman of high society would not be a good wife for him, for she would not be of help him any way in the vocation that he has chosen for himself. He therefore prefers Tess to Mercy Chant. Tess is a novel by Thomas Hardy a young woman from a farm family who has two unhappy love affairs, Tess falls in love with a nobleman , becomes pregnant, and returns home in disgrace. She soon falls in love and marries Angel Clare , but when he learns of her sordid past, he rejects her. Later, Clare has a change of heart, and the two men vie for her affections.

Hardy felt that early imprudent marriages lead to the frustration of promising youth’s high aims and hopes and the ruin of his career. In his preface to Jude the Obscure, Hardy states “A marriage should be known as it becomes a cruelly to either of the parties— being then essentially and morally no marriage.”

The aim of a marriage is not only sexual gratification or the increase of relations, but also the happiness of the individual. If the husband and wife hot find pleasure in each other’s company or if the marriage makes them happy, then it should be dissolved and the couple should find “quick in parting.” Hardy calls such marriages “social nooses and gins” to hold back the unwilling.

Hardy was vehemently criticized for his views and was called the breaker of marriage and the corrupter of public morals. But Hardy was nothing of the lied. For he did not advocate promiscuity or sexual license, he only wanted liberalization of the marriage laws in favour of the weaker sex. He believed and rightly, too, that the ‘purity’ is of the mind and the spirit and not of the body. He, therefore, advocated that women like, Tess, who are sinned against than sinning, should not be treated as outcasts. They essentially are pure, for their attitude, the whole tendency of their life is sin. Therefore, Hardy, like Angel Clare, elevates “Hellenic Paganism the expense of Christianity”, for in that civilization an illegal surrender was not certain disesteem. Surely then he might have regarded that abhorrence of the un-intact state, which he had inherited with the creed of mysticism, “as at least open to correction when the result was due to treachery”.  

 Thus Hardy’s views on marriage and sex relations are essentially humane. He abhors the Christian double standards of morality, one standard of judgment for women and another for men. He has no sympathy for hardhearted and self-centered people like Angel Clare who are not ready to pardon another exactly for the same sin for which they themselves have been forgiven a moment before. He advocated, “a closer interaction of the social machinery”, a reform of the marriage laws more just to the weaker sex, so that essentially ‘pure’ woman like Tess may get a fair deal at the hands of society. Modem divorce laws clearly prove the correctness of Hardy’s position.