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Breaking with the Conventions: Victorian Confession Novels and Tess of the D'Urbervilles Jeanette Shumaker San Diego State University, Imperial Valley VICTORIAN NOVELISTS secularize confessions as rituals of reform , but for the so-called 'Tallen" heroine they involve a romantic peak as well. Obsession with an unattainable confessor is common for "fallen" women in Victorian fiction. Guilty heroines worship and are inspired to sacrifice by their priestly confessors. These painful romances of social distance mask the power the confessor has over the penitent—usually the power of a middle-class man over a working-class woman. In standard confession novels, the confessor convinces the penitent that to redeem herself she must redirect her anger away from the oppression of working-class women and towards her own faults. However, in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), the heroine's redirection of rage away from the unjust hierarchies of gender and class leads to tragedy. My article focuses on Tess as the fin-de-siècle culmination of a line of Victorian confession novels.1 According to Dennis Foster, most narratives use confession to "reestablish the violated law."2 Unlike standard confession novels, Tess doesn't do that. Instead, Tess argues against the convention that confessions which reinscribe the gender and class hierarchies lead to the "fallen" woman's salvation. Tess shows the injustice of the sexual double standard, along with the hypocrisy of gender and class hierarchies that always place the middle-class male confessor above the penitent working woman.3 Before exploring Hardy's novel in depth, we should examine the features of the typical confession novel. In Wilkie Collins's The New Magdalen (1873), George Gissing's The Unclassed (1884), and, to some extent, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), these features appear in 445 ELT 37:4 1994 a form that foreshadows Tess's critique of them. One feature is that the sins and desires which "fallen" women confess have a sexual nature or origin. The term fallen implies how negatively many Victorians felt about women who committed such so-called sins, for there is no equivalent term for men.4 In Victorian fiction, a woman rarely falls through any other route than sex: the so-called fallen woman is usually an adulteress in thought if not in deed.5 Michel Foucault argues that confession of illicit desire is part of the nineteenth-century obsession with sexuality that results in the sexualization of all aspects of life. Victorians require confession because they assume that sexuality reveals the essential truth of human nature. Foucault calls the era's "deployment of sexuality" an attempt to control bodies through the strengthening of conscience rather than through public punishment.6 Conscience monitors even the most minute secrets of desire. Since control is internal, thoughts become at least as important as actions. Even when the "fallen" no longer sin, they remain corrupt by Victorian standards if they entertain improper desires. Freud points out that the reformed forever feel guilty because their wishes can't be renounced.7 Since desires persist because they cannot be fulfilled, conscience demands more and more self-denial, endlessly. Therefore, the "fallen" woman's confession usually stimulates her transformation into a masochistic ascetic. For example, in Collins's The New Magdalen, Mercy Merrick plans to return to a hated refuge for prostitutes to protect the minister/confessor she loves from her allure. In Gissing's The Unclassed, a novel Hardy admired, Ida Starr embraces poverty as a laundress after confessing to the middle-class intellectual whom she loves that she is a prostitute.8 And in Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth renounces high society after confessing to her beloved priest-substitute that she wished to murder her tyrannical husband.9 These novels suggest that romances that express themselves only through confessions fuel the woman's desire for renunciation and make the process pleasurable. Tess revises this convention through its heroine's unrelenting suffering. The novel also revises the convention that the "fallen" woman's confession creates intimacy with the confessor, since Tess's confession drives Angel away. Foucault describes how confession usually creates "spirals of power and pleasure" by transforming desire into discourse.10 Pleasure rewards guilt...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 445-462
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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