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  • Teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles in Kolkata
  • Shanta Dutta (bio)

For Nearly a decade now, I have been teaching Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) to first-year undergraduate students at one of the premier universities in Kolkata, in eastern India. The students are fresh from high school, with an average age of eighteen, which makes them just a couple of years older than the tragic protagonist, Tess. By the time I finish teaching the novel at the end of the first semester, most of the students—including the [End Page 29] young men in the class—have, if not completely identified with Tess, at least empathized sincerely with her sorry predicament.

Some of my friends and colleagues wonder how I approach the sensitive subject of ‘rape / seduction’, which is such an important issue in the novel, given that my audience comprises impressionable freshers. What happened to Tess on that fateful night in the Chase—was she raped or was she seduced? This is a question about which there is no consensus among critics even to this day, although it is vital in deciding Tess’s agency. In class, I outline the arguments for and against rape, with ample textual references to support my discussion, and I have always found that my students behave in a mature, responsible fashion—despite the occasional bashful giggle here and there. I take the students through the various textual revisions made by Hardy, which transform what initially had clearly been a premeditated rape (in early versions, Alec gives Tess a spiked drink) into a grey area that is best described by the term “rape/seduction.”

When I discuss the view put forward by some traditional (usually male) critics that Tess’s violation was probably a seduction because throughout the novel Tess suffers from a terrible sense of guilt—which is seen as proof of her complicity—I openly express my dissatisfaction with such a reading. Usually, my students vigorously nod their heads in agreement when I point out that in a conservative patriarchal society, a girl is made to feel guilty even if she is a victim of rape. The victimized girl is made to feel responsible for her own violation, the suggestion being that either she was inappropriately dressed or something in her manner invited the outrage. In India, even today, we see newspaper reports of incidents where politicians and police officials alike try to shift the burden of blame onto the female victim by pointing an accusing finger at her attire—even in cases where she was wearing a salwar kameez, a dress that literally covers the female body from neck to ankle! However, so overwhelming is the social reproach generated by patriarchal notions, that the girl who has been forcibly violated internalizes this reproach as self-blame. My students agree with me, with deep feeling, when I conclude that Tess’s so-called guilt is neither conclusive nor irrefutable proof of her willing participation in what is seen as her “fall.”

Setting aside the debatable question of consent, what most of my Kolkata students find very hard to believe in is Tess’s extreme innocence, i.e. her ignorance about the physical facts of life. While my students are truly moved by Tess’s heart-rending question to her mother as to why she had not warned her about the “danger in men-folk” (64), they cannot really comprehend how Tess can be so naïve. As one of my students protested, “But, ma’am, after all, Tess lives on a farm and she must have seen ____” (the rest of the sentence was lost in a slightly embarrassed self-censorship). Exposed nowadays to television and books with explicit sexual depictions, a sixteen-year-old in today’s world is much more aware of what Hardy in his essay “Candour in English Fiction” (1890) called the “physiological fact” of life (127). Thus, [End Page 30] modern-day students are unfortunately unable to make this leap of historical imagination and conceive of the genuine innocence of a school-dropout like Tess, who did not have the benefit of biology lessons to guide her conduct with the opposite sex...


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