Rethinking the #MeToo Movement: Lessons from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The unified chant of #MeToo has unsurprisingly become a cacophony of defenders and dissenters. And the clamor of debate has shifted the conversation away from dangers in the workplace and into a defensive loop, softening the movement’s calls for action.

In my frustration, I’ve found myself thinking often of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a novel that, at the time of its publication, was itself controversial. Although written more than a century ago, the story of Tess Durbeyfield miraculously cuts across the din of argument I’ve come to associate with #MeToo, and loudly pronounces some relevant observations about how cultural ideologies of class leave women vulnerable at work. Through the story of Tess, we can understand how economic inequality makes consent difficult to parse, and how hierarchies themselves foment violence in both the bedroom and the workplace.

The #MeToo movement once made work the target of its inquiry and action. Hardy’s novel does as well, and it concludes that sexual exploitation is in fact a form of worker exploitation. Work in the novel, as it was in Hardy’s time — and our own — is erected upon a capitalist structure, and it is this structure that Hardy ultimately indicts.

This economic structure grounds the novel’s world: it creates the divisions of Tess’s society, as well as the cultural ideologies that protect and justify this division. These ideologies calcify into assumptions about identity, and such assumptions often endanger Tess, a poor young woman from an agricultural community. Readers quickly learn that the most insidious image applied to Tess is that of the sexually experienced and desirous farmgirl. While some are offended by Tess’s assumed lasciviousness, others are attracted to it. When Tess fights off her employer’s flirting and touching, he says that she is “mighty sensitive for a farm girl.”

Tess knows of the earth’s biological processes, of animal reproduction and of the harvest’s cycles. The rhythms of the natural world, discordant with the order of the market-place, are dirty according to bourgeois values. In the eyes of her commercially-monied employer, her labor in fields and barns must have resulted in her prurience. Rural communities are, of course, ordered by the class system. But shaded by modern market values, the natural world is denaturalized in a shameful association with stasis and sex, degrading those who work within it.

Her body is materially disempowered by the same system that configures cultural narratives about class and country lust. Tess’s body needn’t be laboring for it to be sexualized; her assumed sexuality is used to both justify and solidify her gender’s subordination. Tess feels that her vulnerability is inescapably tied to her body — she often dreams of freedom from it, and at times disguises her feminine looks for safety. Her employer’s open estimation of her sexuality signifies his desire to gratify his power simultaneously with his lust, the two satisfactions linked through his authority against her class and gender. By projecting cultural ideologies about social class onto Tess, her employer happily reminds them both that he is the partial author of her cultural identity and that her body is not fully her own.

To many men wealthier than she, Tess, and women like her, simply matter less, and the way she is treated is of equally little importance. The fact that Tess lays claim to her body and herself, while society cares so little for both, defies what is expected of someone of her social position. Her boss tells her: “One would think you were a princess from your manner!” By her employer’s lights, resistance is a privilege reserved for princesses — and yet it’s unlikely he’d make so bold with a princess.

These fantasies about agricultural life and femininity, hardened into conventional wisdom, violate Tess’s sense of self and her safety. And the perceived stakes of harming her are lowered, while her vulnerability to harm is raised, because her class and her gender mutually depreciate her cultural value. Surely the farmgirl stereotype of Hardy’s time has been retired, but harmful ideologies that assign identities remain alive and well, having merely adjusted themselves to our current moment. Hardy’s broader observations about cultural ideology should then not be discounted: society’s narratives make their way into the workplace, worsening conditions for women, and even more so for poor ones or for those who are objectified with endangering specificity, like the farmgirls of Tess’s world.

Tess’s defenselessness against her social scripting is a sharp reminder of a central function of #MeToo: to believe women’s stories. Some women are more likely to be violated, and less likely to be believed, because those who stand to gain require that some remain voiceless and hence profitable. Demystifying these dangerous cultural projections will be difficult without approaching the capitalist system that germinated them to sustain itself.

Alongside the novel’s drawing of cultural ideologies as harmful fantasies, Hardy describes the reality of economic disparity that most often ensures Tess’s subjection. Tess shows how economic insecurity casts doubt on the legitimacy of — to use a word now held sacred — consent. The precarity of Tess’s empowerment is aggravated by her family’s increasingly strained financial circumstances. She visits her better-off, and completely unknown, relatives, the D’Urbervilles, to ask for money. Tess is unaware that her ancestral name, D’Urberville, has been bought, and Alec D’Urberville, previously Stokes, does not disabuse her of any familial claim. Once Tess tells him the reason for her visit, he gains a complete sense of his power over her.

Quick to take advantage, Alec insists on feeding Tess with strawberries from his own hand. Tess expresses her wish to “take it in [her] own,” but “in slight distress…parted her lips and took it in.”  She allows Alec to feed her and then to watch her eat, but what motivates her decision is not mutual attraction or hunger, but a sense of economic necessity. To feed her hungry family as Alec feeds her, she consents. The sustenance of survival, symbolized, for her, by the strawberries, is acquired through the sacrifice of her own will to Alec’s sexual desire, inherent in the same symbol for him. The balance between autonomy and self-sacrifice will teeter, resting as it does on the conditions of her labor, and will often lapse into complete asymmetry.

Tess’s fraught consent recalls #MeToo’s own grappling with the word. Many of the personal stories within #MeToo discourse have elicited the complications and nuances of consent from beneath its poster board surface of easy slogans and sayings instilled by sex-ed and safety classes. While still recognizing the importance of consent, these stories show that it is not always or often a measure of commensurate desire and equal power. Some stories suggest that consent does not always indicate willfulness in any erotic or romantic sense; and others tell why willfulness needn’t always be motivated by attraction and can be empowering even when motivated by the potential for gain.

But Tess is trapped between the frailty of her family’s income and the robustness of Alec’s. Hardy, far from critiquing sex work, critiques the economic context of this encounter, which has helped to deprive Tess of choice. Income inequality in Tess’s world, and our own, results in a narrowing of options against the vastness of wealth. Alec’s ability to capitalize on Tess’s poverty, even when she is not his employee, is the result of a system of extreme polarities. But their exchange also mirrors the values of the market and the dynamics of work, hinting at how Alec’s exploitation of Tess’s body will only intensify when he formally becomes her employer.

Once Tess leaves home to work on the D’Urberville estate at Traintridge, Alec’s flirtatious persistence repeatedly triumphs over her hesitance, her acquiescence still compelled by her own and her family’s need. By offering his assistance only through a labor exchange, he exacts Tess’s consent with more confidence, bleeding her of autonomy and securing his control. But when Alec hopes to draw Tess into sex, she resists him: “I don’t know — I wish — how can I say yes or no when…” Refusing might put her employment, and her family’s well-being, at risk. Alec tells that her, “father has a new cob today. Somebody gave it to him.” She understands Alec’s vague meaning — he in fact sent the gift. Even then, Tess is unpersuaded, so Alec hands her a bottle from the druggist, claiming the tincture will warm her up. Once she is unconscious, he rapes her.

Echoing Tess’s unconscious state, the narrator does not describe the rape. He wonders, “why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus” and with sad irony recalls Tess’s hope for help from her wealthy, titled relatives: “Doubtless some of Tess D’Urberville’s mailed ancestors […] had dealt the same wrong even more ruthlessly upon peasant girls.”

The harm done to Tess and previous “peasant girls” is not caused by forced consent, but by the deprivation of autonomy and of self, perhaps, as in the case of Tess, through depriving a body of consciousness. Power not only presents opportunities for exploitation, but also incentivizes the seizing of such opportunities. Tess’s insentience and Alec’s “ruthless” pursuit of his goal mirror the relationship between the exploited worker, robbed of autonomy, and the exploiter, the robbing capitalist. Her unconsciousness and the complete control it gives him symbolically link her rape to the exploitation of the laborer.

In fact, Hardy locates Tess’s saviors in her fellow laborers, further associating her rape with the conditions of the workplace. “Where was Tess’s guardian angel?” the narrator asks. He finds her fellow workmen and women, rising for a day of work, unaware that their “sister [is] in the hands of a spoiler.”  By evoking this sense of missed solidarity between workers, Hardy recalls the event that led to her rape. Tess was attacked by women with whom she works, and Alec, like a heroic prince of an epic, emerged on horseback to carry her off from danger, only to rape her in the woods. But Tess’s rescue was carried out by her tormentor, as the women’s violence was itself motivated by Alec, his sexual favoritism and the competition it inspired. Although “united […] against the common enemy,” her attackers take aim at the wrong figure: Tess is not their problem; their working conditions are so governed by Alec’s favoritism that they have misplaced their trust. Like the women, in accepting Alec’s rescue, Tess mistakenly trusts in the boss’s benevolence, which is as elusive and fictional as the romantic and noble hero he briefly emulates. The narrator suggests that solidarity may have saved Tess, but Alec has ensured an alienating rivalry among his workers.

In his suggestion that labor solidarity might have been Tess’s rescuer, Hardy differs from mainstream #MeToo, which tends to unite women across class differences. Solidarity among women is, of course, both important and effective for creating safer workplaces. But Tess suggests that ignoring class difference in favor of gender unity, particularly when considering the workplace, may disguise the full extent of oppressive power. It makes sense that much of #MeToo subordinates the problem of labor exploitation to the problem of sexual exploitation — #MeToo is, after all, about sexual harassment at work. But in Hardy’s novel, sexual subjugation at work is a problem of class subjugation, and both are contextualized within and conditioned by capitalism; patriarchal power is then supported by capitalism and its outgrowths as cultural values, political structures, religious institutions, and the workplace.

But Hardy makes clear that work can be just as dangerous as sexual exploitation. Tess is taken to the extremes of self-sacrifice at the next farm she works on, Flintcomb-Ash. Here, she is grateful to her employer for being a “man of stone” and therefore mastering her in a way “independent of sex.” But he can, and does, master her nonetheless for his personal gain. And so, she fantasizes about living with Alec and imagines that this life “would have lifted her completely out of subjection, not only to her present oppressive employer, but to a whole world who seemed to despise her.” Her daydream means that work itself can lead to a radical loss of autonomy. Deprived of self and of freedom, Tess’s state here mirrors her unconsciousness during her rape, once again linking her sexual exploitation to her exploitation as a laborer.

She makes good on her fantasy and leaves Flintcomb-Ash for the safety of Alec’s money, where she continues to feel completely subjected to another’s power, to sense that she has given up self and freedom for her family’s sustenance. Living with Alec, as it tragically turns out for Tess, is merely trading one oppressor for another. What work demands of her within a capitalist system, as it so often does, is compliance with her own exploitation, sexual or otherwise.

While the very existence of #MeToo signals progress, the resonance of Tess’s very old story is shocking, but also telling. Hardy’s impulse to lay blame on economics as the root of the problem may not then be misguided. If we’ve pulled at the weeds of certain problems, their roots may have only grown deeper.

Tess’s tragedy is not a relic of a less empathic and enlightened world. We continue to give consent even when consent violates desire, self, and freedom because work and asymmetrical conditions demand it of us. Some of us still matter more than others and some jobs, some bodies, and some classes are objectified with hazardous particularity. While #MeToo has made an effort to include a broad range of voices, we remain a society that offers its sympathies unevenly: the voices of some are overpowering a collective, less protected voice.

And so, the #Metoo movement began with the stories of wealthy, white women. What Hardy’s focus on cultural narrative suggests for #MeToo is that the movement might be strengthened by considering how cultural objectification is a function of systemic disempowerment in a capitalist society. This suggestion does not necessarily urge reclaiming ownership of stories and bodies — self-ownership still hews to capitalist values of property and profit; self-possession likely has the cost of another’s self-dispossession, as it does in Tess’s world. Perhaps then, if Hardy’s bleak novel can say anything for #MeToo, it may be that we require a total reimagination of our world. But more realistically, a reading of Tess suggests that refocusing #MeToo as a labor movement might re-start its pulse. Some are working towards this objective, but they remain in the shadows of a mainstream movement that is as easy on systemic inequality as it is soothing to hear.

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