Ruskins Definition Of The Ideal Woman English Literature Essay
John Ruskin, a noted Victorian art critic and social commentator, wrote extensively on a number of subjects during his career (Harrison 1). Perhaps unusually for his time, Ruskin advocated the importance of education for women, but limited this to insist that women’s place was in the home, as Romantic and early-Victorian notions of the ‘Angel in the House’ endorsed. Ruskin felt that women should be well read and educated in order to enhance their relationships with men, and that they exerted an almost regal influence that was crucial to maintaining the social and economic status quo (Sesame and Lilies 98). Lillian Craton argues that while "Ruskin endows the domestic role with royal status," he "nonetheless designates women as helpmates for men’s more active endeavours" (89). Whilst this "rankles twenty first century sensibilities," we should, as Craton warns, "note that Ruskin creates space for the middle-class woman to serve as a shaper of national culture through philanthropy," which "carves out space for domestic ideology in the public sphere" (89).
Elizabeth Langland, too, notes the significance of "the intersection of class and gender ideologies" in reference to the traditional Victorian "icon - the "Angel in the House,"" arguing that the social myth of the "presiding hearth angel … performed a more significant and extensive economic and political function than is usually perceived" (290). In line with Ruskin’s thinking, the lady of the house did more than maintain the haven of the home for her husband and children; rather, she "served as a significant adjunct to a man's business endeavours ... Whereas husbands earned the money, wives had the important task of administering the funds to acquire or maintain social and political status" (290). Thus, Victorian middle-class women were performing the important roles that Ruskin envisaged, but it is critical to recognise class as governing a woman’s ability and desire to enact this role. Focusing on the representations of femininity and masculinity in line with social class in Victorian fiction, this essay will explore Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to demonstrate how these nineteenth century novelists represented women in line with Victorian social codes, and how these fictions both endorse and challenge Ruskin’s ideology.
North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s fourth novel, was written in 1855. The protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a bright and wilful young woman who has been raised in the affluent south of England by her housewife mother, reverend father, and the housemaid. Margaret’s brother is away in the royal navy (he is later shown to have been exiled for his part in a mutiny). The novel is set in the fictional town of Milton in the urban north west of England, which is undergoing rapid industrialisation. The novel follows the Hale family as they move to Milton, where Margaret is touched by the plight of the cotton mill workers employed by a local mill owner, John Thornton. Attraction and tension develops between Margaret and Thornton as Margaret sides with the workers over a strike, deals with the deaths of her parents, and inherits a large sum of money from her guardian, Mr Bell, which allows her to return Thornton to prosperity after his business collapses. Through this tale, the novel deals with themes of class division, modernity, nationhood and the roles of Victorian men and women in their prescribed realms of public and private life. These issues are also pertinent to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (‘Tess’), which was written in 1891.
Tess’s young female protagonist, Tess Durbeyfield, comes from a large peasant family who discover that they are descended from a now-extinct noble family, the d’Urbervilles. Tess is persuaded by her father to visit Mrs d’Urberville and "claim kin" (28). Although Tess does not meet Mrs d’Urberville, she does meet Alec d’Urberville, who offers her a job. Later, an incident takes place that has divided critics, with some arguing that Alec rapes Tess, while others maintain that the incident is a seduction in which Tess is complicit (McEathron 89). Tess remains with Alec for some weeks after this, before returning home and giving birth to a son, Sorrow, who dies and is baptised and secretly buried by Tess.
Unable to live with her shame, Tess leaves the family home to work on a dairy farm, where she meets Angel Clare, the son of a local reverend. Tess and Angel fall in love, and Tess frets over whether or not to confess her past to Angel ahead of their marriage. Tess confesses all on their wedding night after Angel confesses to a past sexual transgression of his own. In a reflection of the prevailing double standard of the time, Angel is unable to forgive Tess, and he leaves England. Tess resumes her relationship with Alec, becoming a kept woman. Angel returns to England to seek Tess’s forgiveness but she tells him it is too late, before murdering Alec and going on the run with Angel. They hide for a few days before Tess is arrested at Stonehenge and executed for her crime. Thus, through representations of masculinity and femininity linked to class, Tess criticises the sexual and social codes governing Victorian society, and suggests that the traditional angel/whore dichotomy has dangerous consequences for Victorian women. North and South, meanwhile, challenges Ruskin’s view that women’s influence should be restricted to the domestic sphere.
Ruskin’s version of the ideal woman was an overtly feminine one: compliant, soft, and nurturing; all qualities of the Victorian Angel in the House, with the caveat that she should be educated and well-read in order to enhance her relationships with men. Thus, Ruskin’s ideal could only apply to women of a certain social standing, since only middle- and upper class women had the means to access the education that Ruskin advocated. At first glance, Gaskell’s Margaret Hale aligns with Ruskin’s view: she is well-read, educated and polite, able to hold her own in discourse with people of all classes, and she demonstrates the domestic aptitude of a good Victorian homemaker. Gaskell, however, develops Margaret into more than a domestic angel by subverting the traditional signifiers of Victorian femininity and turning Margaret into a sexually desirable and desiring woman. This is most obvious in comparisons of Margaret with her cousin, Edith, who embodies the traditional Victorian Angel. Margaret is described as possessing a vivid, almost masculine beauty: "The fine-grained skin, the oval cheek, the rich outline of her mouth, its corners set deep in dimples…" (180). Edith, by comparison, is described as a "soft ball of muslin and ribbon, and silken curls" (5), and "a spoiled child…too careless and idle to have a very strong will of her own" (6). Physical attractiveness is thus held up as a reflection of moral character, and Margaret’s strength and vivacity are portrayed as the more admirable qualities.
Edith is shown to take after her mother, Margaret’s aunt, who, "after deliberately marrying General Shaw with no warmer feeling than respect for his character and establishment, was constantly though quietly bemoaning her hard lot" (7). Edith’s inability to assert herself in the simplest of ways denotes the failure of the Victorian angel to make an effectual wife, mother or human being. In contrast to her meek cousin, the description of Margaret as possessing a "wide mouth" (16) attests to her ability to speak her mind on an equal footing with men and women, regardless of social standing. Thus, Margaret represents the Victorian preoccupation with femininity and femaleness. As Nancy Armstrong clarifies, "Victorian novelists placed traditional femininity in an agonistic struggle with female nature. If eighteenth-century fiction invented "femininity," then it is fair to say that Victorian fiction invented "femaleness" " (109). It is important, however, to reassert the significance of class, since only middle class women of Western Europe were expected to be feminine (Armstrong 112). The same limits were not imposed upon working class women such as North and South’s Bess Higgins, and this distinction represents the ‘othering’ of the working classes by Victorian society.
Thornton’s sister Fanny is also shown to be weak and shallow, complaining of headaches and wondering aloud how the Hales can cope without a piano, which seems to Fanny to be "a necessity of life" (91). Margaret demonstrates an ability to see beyond class that differentiates her from the likes of Edith Shaw and Fanny Thornton, who exist within the confines of Victorian femininity and are used as narrative vehicles to expose the snobbery and emptiness of the social structure. Thus, Margaret is the embodiment of a new model of femaleness, one that operates in the public sphere and enhances the lives of its inhabitants in ways that would likely have made Ruskin proud. Thornton observes the shallowness of his sibling and dismisses Fanny as someone who "never…[has] weighty reasons for anything," and who requires protection from others, drawing a comparison between Fanny and Margaret: "Other people must guard her. I believe Miss Hale is a guardian to herself" (289).
The novel makes it necessary for Margaret to be a "guardian to herself," since her parental role models fail to provide a suitable example for her to follow. Mrs Hale, in particular, is depicted as weak and shallow, and her failure to provide an adequate example of womanhood results in her banishment from the text. Mrs Hale takes no ownership of her life to the extent that Mr Hale consults Margaret rather than his wife about the move to Milton. Furthermore, Margaret has to comfort her mother like a child, in addition to the care that Mrs Hale receives from the maid:
The life in Milton was so different from what Mrs Hale had been accustomed to…the domestic worries pressed so very closely, and in so new and sordid a form, upon all the women in the family, that there was good reason to fear that her mother’s health might be becoming seriously affected. (83)
Though she thrived in pastoral, middle class Helstone, the move to the industrial, masculine North proves too much for Mrs Hale’s feminine sensibilities, and she gradually weakens and dies. Thus, Mrs Hale’s middle class dependence on others and her death suggest the failure of the traditional Victorian model of femininity, and highlights the complex interplay of class and gender in the novel. Margaret, on the other hand, embodies the new model of femaleness that results in successful, equal relationships with men, including her father, Thornton, and Nicholas Higgins. As Young contends, "…the concept of woman as a symbol and the ideal of the domestic woman have limited meaning when considered in isolation from the idea of the gentleman, arguably the most pervasive, important, and unstable symbol in Victorian culture" (4).
In order for Gaskell’s suggested model of femaleness to become established, new models of masculinity are required by the text. These are presented in the characters of Mr Hale, Nicholas Higgins, and John Thornton. Mr Hale is presented as a gentle but weak man, embodying traditional feminine qualities of compassion and empathy. The scene in which Mrs Hale dies compares Mr Hale to a mother, suggesting the reversal of traditional roles in which Margaret is forced, despite her own loss, to be the stronger one:
But he sat by the bed quite quietly; only, from time to time, he uncovered the face, and stroked it gently, making a kind of soft inarticulate noise, like that of some mother-animal caressing her young … Margaret rose from her trembling and despondency, and became a strong angel of comfort to her father and brother. (231)
The reference to Margaret as an angel is reminiscent of Ruskin’s ideology of women as ‘incorruptibly good’. In providing comfort to the men, Margaret fulfils the role of the Victorian Angel in the House, but Gaskell subverts the traditional imagery by adding ‘strong’ to the description. Margaret’s strength, then, is compared with the weakness of her male counterparts. Since Mr Hale’s lack of masculinity renders him a failed Victorian patriarch, he too is banished from the text when he dies later in the novel. Mr Hale’s inability to demonstrate an adequate balance of masculine and feminine qualities makes him an ineffectual role model, and so he is removed from the narrative to make space for the new model of masculinity that is embodied by the narrative’s working class male, Nicholas Higgins.
Higgins is the breadwinner and main carer for his family. He and his eldest daughter, Bess, work at the cotton mill owned by Thornton, and Bess suffers from consumption, a disease caused by inhaling the cotton fluff in the factory, which causes her death. Margaret befriends the family, visiting them to nurse Bess, a move that is at first suspicious to the proud Higgins patriarch:
‘I'm none so fond of having strange folk in my house.’ But then relenting, as he saw her heightened colour, he added, 'Yo're a foreigner, as one may say, and maybe don't know many folk here, and yo've given my wench here flowers out of yo'r own hand;—yo may come if yo like.’ (69)
The idiolect used by working class characters emphasises their difference from the Hales and Thorntons of society, and denotes their position as ‘other’ to the educated middle class who govern them. Higgins is also the catalyst for the strike action in the novel, and acts as the voice of the working class in confrontations with Thornton. As Patsy Stoneman points out, "Nicholas Higgins … sees the strike as a responsible action because every striker has those who depend on him for nourishment and life. In this sense the men are feminized, and work together with their womenfolk rather than seeing the care of children as a separate sphere" (138). Higgins’s empathy with his fellow workers and with women in the novel is rewarded when Thornton offers him employment after the riot. Thus, a balance of feminine and masculine values is presented as the ideal basis of moral character, regardless of class. It is only when the wealthy, arrogant Thornton is ruined that he is able to empathise with his workers, and only then does the novel deem him a suitable match for Margaret.
Through Thornton’s character, the novel suggests a link between emotional lack and economic failure. Thornton’s failure to empathise with others results in the destruction of his business, and it is only when he experiences this failure and begins to treat the workers as more than mere "hands" (112) that Margaret begins to warm to him. Through Thornton, Gaskell identifies the age-old roots of the term ‘hands,’ suggesting that the dismissive treatment of the working class by middle class masters is perpetuated by the established patriarchal system governing Victorian society:
‘Miss Hale, I know, does not like to hear men called 'hands,' so I won't use that word, though it comes most readily to my lips as the technical term, whose origin, whatever it was, dates before my time.’ (112)
Thus, Gaskell exposes the fallacy of the social codes in place, demonstrating that "the competitive masculinity required for economic success is not all that "agreeable" to women" (Armstrong 106). Thornton’s failures are only rectified when he demonstrates empathy and compassion, and when his financial ruin brings him into the realm of the working class. Only then does he become a potential romantic partner to Margaret, who in turn demonstrates traditional masculine values when she intervenes in the public sphere of work.
Endorsing Ruskin’s ideology of the importance of a woman’s influence over men, Margaret demonstrates the ability to exert such influence in her intervention in the riot at Thornton’s mill. Faced with an angry mob of workers, Margaret adopts the role of male protector and demonstrates masculine strength when she lifts "the great iron bar of the door with imperious force" (166), metaphorically lifting the divide between the classes and paving the way for negotiation between Thornton and the workers. Thornton attempts to dominate at this point, telling Margaret to "go away…this is no place for you," to which Margaret boldly asserts, "It is!" (77). This demonstration of physical and emotional capability establishes Margaret in the masculine, public realm, and the novel emphasises her success in this realm. In opening the door, Margaret becomes an agent fighting social injustice, and an effective mediator between the classes.
The novel closes with Margaret’s agreement to marry Thornton but suggests that it will be on her own terms. Thus, Margaret chooses Thornton in a direct subversion of the traditional way in which a Victorian man would choose a wife, promoting the idea that Victorian women could be more than ineffectual housewives or lonely spinsters. Margaret moves within the public and domestic spheres and remains a suitable marriage partner for Thornton, which would have been important to Victorian sensibilities at the time, since novels were mostly read by an educated middle-class audience (Craton 34). Thus, Gaskell adapts and develops Ruskin’s ideology, and offers an improvement on the existing model of femininity. Where a Victorian novel offers women only the age-old choice between angel/whore/feminine/female, without taking into account their agency, the consequences are far less favourable than they are for middle class Margaret Hale. This is the case for Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield, who represents both angel and fallen woman within one narrative, and whose working-class roots contribute to her demise. Like North and South, Tess forms an attack on Victorian notions of femininity and masculinity, and highlights the significant role of class in a character’s experiences.
As a working class girl who attempts to move up the social scale, Tess is presented as a victim of the patriarchal middle class system governing her society. Tess embodies both the ‘incorruptibly good’ Ruskinian angel and the fallen woman, whilst John Durbeyfield, Alec d’Urberville, and Angel Clare represent the various failures of Victorian codes of masculinity. John Durbeyfield, Tess’s father, is a drunk who allows dreams of grandeur to go to his head, Alec d’Urberville is a predatory and sinister man, and Angel Clare is a hypocritical, weak-willed character whose inability to forgive Tess for the same ‘crime’ he is guilty of demonstrates the sexual double standard that prevailed at the time.
The Durbeyfield family’s problems begin when the father, John Durbeyfield, is led to believe that he is descended from a noble bloodline, the d’Urbervilles. Durbeyfield, on hearing this, sends his eldest child Tess to "claim kin" (28) and secure her future through a prosperous marriage into the d’Urberville family. Durbeyfield is then absent from the narrative until his death, suggesting that his inability to provide a sufficient role model must result in his banishment from the text. The other notable male deaths in the novel are that of baby Sorrow, and the murder of Alec by Tess. Sorrow, the illegitimate result of a rape, dies soon after he is born. As Alec’s son, Sorrow’s death reflects the failure of Victorian patriarchy, since the d’Urberville name dies with them. As the only male character to display progressive thinking, albeit too late in the narrative to save Tess, Angel represents the balance of masculine and feminine attributes required for moral character.
Angel Clare is the son of a reverend, and one of three brothers. He is the only one of his siblings who does not follow the familial path into priesthood, instead training to be a farmer. Thus, Angel demonstrates a straddling of social classes that highlights the class tension in Victorian society. Despite his family’s ambitions, Angel spurns the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps, reflecting the undertones of religious doubt in Victorian society (Kucich 213). It is during his time at Talbothay’s farm that Angel meets and falls in love with Tess: "They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily in that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early, here" (114). This passage demonstrates the ethereal aura that is ascribed to Tess’s presence, reflecting the association of Tess with otherworldly imagery that emphasises her purity. In this, Tess embodies the early Victorian preoccupation with femininity, which is contrasted with later descriptions of her desirability:
She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there … She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the presentation. (148)
Through descriptions of Tess as both angelic and sexual, Hardy exposes and offers a critique of the repressive Victorian angel/whore dichotomy. In addition, this passage highlights the role of the male gaze in the sexual objectification of women.
Sexual guilt plays a significant role in the damnation of Tess. As Boumelha contends, "Her sexuality, provocative without intent, seems inherently guilty by virtue of the reactions it arouses in others… She never declares herself as either virginal or sexually available, and yet her experience is bound by the power that both these images exercise" (McEathron 88). Throughout the novel, Tess is presented as a glorious beauty, often appearing in angelic white clothing that becomes stained in a symbolic premonition of the tragedy that will befall her. The earliest example of this involves the death of the family horse, Prince, whose blood covers Tess’s white nightdress shortly before the rape/seduction scene. As McEathron suggests, the consistent choice of white for Tess demonstrates the "… age old patriarchalist obsession with female ‘purity’" (4). It is telling, then, that Tess’s choice of clothing after murdering Alec includes a black veil that denotes her status as impure, and foretells the black flag that flies to mark her execution at the novel’s close. Further underscoring the patriarchal repression of women perpetuated by the angel/whore dichotomy, Hardy uses biblical references to emphasise the age-old origins of female repression, linking Tess’s story to that of the Bible’s Eve:
The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve…Tess seemed to Clare to exhibit … an almost regnant power…He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side. (115)
In the space of this small passage, Tess is compared to both Eve and Mary Magdalene, an alleged prostitute who was a disciple of Jesus. Thus, Angel identifies within Tess the angel and the whore, in addition to the "regnant power" that Tess has over him. This endorses Ruskin’s view of women as possessing the ability to influence men, but exposes the restrictions that such a view places on women. This scene, like others, takes place outside, reinforcing the novel’s consistent association of Tess with nature.
The narrative alignment of Tess with nature, and the use of biblical and pagan terminology in reference to her, demonstrates the traditional patriarchal association of women with nature, and men with culture. Scenes involving the outdoors, particularly gardens, fill Hardy’s narrative to the point of irony; Tess herself questions her identity by asking Angel: "’What’s the use of learning,’ she asks, ‘that I am one of a long row only – finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part?’" (111). The reference here to an ‘old book’ again suggests the Bible and the story of creation, implying that the alignment of women with nature and their subsequent marginalisation in society can be traced back to the origin of the world.
The suggestion, then, is that society has forever been this way, and until it changes, women will continue to be victims of the male gaze and patriarchal ideology. Ironically, it is when she is alone outdoors that Tess is happiest. In the garden scene at Talbothay’s, unseen by Angel but listening to him play the harp, "Tess was conscious of neither time nor space" (108). Free from the constraints of the male gaze, Tess is at ease. In the same scene, references are made to Tess’s mouth, and her lack of education: "And as he looked at the unpractised mouth and lips, he thought that such a daughter of the soil could only have caught up the sentiment by rote" (112). Again, natural imagery depicts Tess as being of the earth, aligning her with the soil to suggest that the association of women with nature is, in fact, natural rather than cultural. Hardy’s novel begins with a paganesque folklore dance and ends in the ultimate pagan sacrificial scenario, when Tess is arrested as she sleeps on a flat slab at Stonehenge. It is not, however, to nature that Tess is sacrificed, but rather to "… the restrictions and punishments of modern society" (McEathron 105).
Through multiple references to Tess as a transcendental being, a "rosy warming apparition;" the "visionary essence of woman" (114, 115), Hardy exposes Angel’s preoccupation with female purity. The terminology reflects Ruskin’s idealisation of women, too, as being beyond culpability. McEathron supports this, noting that "it is [Angel’s] disinclination to see her as a fully subjective individual that leads to Tess’s fall in Angel’s eyes, rather than any real wrong doing on Tess’s part" (35). Upon Tess’s confession, Angel demonstrates the sexual double standard of the time; despite Tess’s plea that their transgressions are "the same" and that she and Angel are "double[s]" (197), Angel demonstrates a startling level of hypocrisy, stating, "I admired spotlessness, even though I could lay no claim to it, and hated impurity … I myself fell… You were one person, now you are another" (197, 200). In failing to live up to Angel’s patriarchal double standards, and thereby failing to meet Ruskin’s expectations of women to be "incorruptibly good," Tess undergoes a transformation from innocent girl-angel to classic fallen woman, and the duality of this identity is too much for Angel’s prudish middle-class outlook to bear.
Tess pleads with Angel to forgive her, citing "several cases" in which the husbands have forgiven the wives for the same thing (203). Angel’s snobbish retort is to insist that "different societies" have "different manners… I cannot help associating your decline as a family with this other fact – your want of firmness" (204). In blaming Tess and other working class families for their situations, Angel’s remarks sit alongside Ruskin’s ideological suggestion that women are responsible for the progress or decline of society. Angel accuses Tess of performing a dual identity: "’The woman I have been loving is not you,’ Angel says in horror" (200). Freeman argues that "[This] denial of Tess’s very existence is the most serious crime committed in Tess," and that the subsequent murder of Alec is "…the expression of Tess’s violated and denied identity" (McEathron 78).
Following her rejection by Angel, Tess moves to a remote farm to work as a labourer. Whilst there, she attempts to remove the physical signifiers of her femininity, working with her face half-covered and cutting off her eyebrows in an effort to avoid attracting the male gaze. The farmhand Marian from Talbothay’s, who is working at the farm, insists that neither Tess nor Angel have "any faults," remarking that any difficulties in their relationship must be the result of "something outside ye both" (248). This acts as a further indictment of Victorian society and its repressive constraints on women. When Angel returns to win Tess back, he tells her that he "did not think rightly" of her – "’I did not see you as you were’" (332), reinforcing the repressive role of the male gaze. Angel’s remorse comes too late, as Tess has reignited her relationship with Alec, in effect selling herself to him in exchange for security. In this, Tess becomes the fallen woman of the angel/whore dichotomy for the second time. Tess murders Alec before going on the run with Angel. The two hide for a few peaceful days in an old stately home, in which the windows are likened to "sightless eyeballs" that "excluded the possibility of watchers" (341). Again, only when she is free from the recriminating masculine gaze of society is Tess at peace.
Endorsing the feminine qualities that Ruskin held in esteem, Irving Howe sees Tess as embodying "… the powers of survival and suffering that a woman can bring to the human enterprise …Though subjected to endless indignities, assaults and defeats, Tess remains a figure of harmony – between her self and her role, between her nature and her culture" (McEathron 66). It is thus the limits of society’s bourgeois notions of femininity that fail Tess. As Poole notes, Ruskin’s determination to present Tess ‘faithfully’ as a ‘pure woman,’ as suggested by novel’s subtitle, "set readers of the time a deliberate conundrum. Tess ‘must’ be one or the other, pure woman or prostitute, she cannot be both" (339). Tess’s story ends with her execution, but it is not the murder for which she is punished, it is her breach of Victorian bourgeois norms of sexuality and femininity, and her lower-class status.
Although Ruskin suggested that it is "foolish…in speaking of the "superiority" of one sex to the other" (98), his essay "serves less to promote women's social activism than to identify their social effectiveness as a symptom of domestic rather than managerial talents, of intrinsic feminine charm rather than practical, applied intelligence" (Langland 293). Gaskell’s Margaret Hale endorses this view, but develops it to produce a wilful and independent protagonist who thrives in and out of the domestic sphere. Hardy’s Tess, meanwhile, reflects the Victorian preoccupation with the feminine/female dichotomy embodied in Ruskin’s work, and highlights the destructive consequences of restricting women to these oppressive identities. Demonstrating the interplay of class and gender issues in Victorian society, Tess’s problems begin when her family are led to believe that they are descended from a noble bloodline. Unlike Margaret Hale, who displays similar physical and moral virtues to Tess but with the agency of one from the middle class, Tess is an example of "the absolute class barrier" making its "dramatic presence felt in the doomed romance of… the pretty little innocent who aspires to be a lady … [and] ends up dead" (Langland 290). Thus, Hardy’s novel acts as a cutting criticism of the social norms and constraints that restrict women, specifically working-class women, and punishes them for any perceived breach of those norms.
As McEathron notes, "Hardy offers us the idea that identifying oneself with the pedigree, or internalising it, may be the true curse of the d’Urbervilles" (4). Both novels represent the working classes as ‘other’ through the use of idiolect, and reinforce the notion that social class governs a woman’s ability and desire to exert the influence that Ruskin advocated. Langland continues this idea, asserting that Ruskin’s ideology makes women culpable for society’s problems: "By attributing … [social] problems to the failure of English feminine nature … [Ruskin] obscures the material and political realities of domestic life ... Th[is] mystifying rhetoric at once justifies the status quo and disguises the class issues as a matter of gender" (297). Thus, North and South endorses but develops Ruskin’s ideology, emphasising the importance of class status as the reigning factor in shaping experience. Tess, meanwhile, challenges Ruskin and the Victorian obsession with female purity, highlighting the restrictive social codes placed upon women and emphasising the role of the patriarchal middle class establishment in the oppression of women and the working classes.
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