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The Victorian period has many notable idiosyncrasies for which it has been criticized, analyzed, and explored. One of the most prominent areas of criticism is how the theme of sexuality was treated in Victorian society. Harsh restraints were placed on sexuality, especially on that of women. Repression of sexual desire was seen as a sign of good breeding and was encouraged by popular ideas such as the “cult of true womanhood”, the “code of chivalry” and the Social Purity movement.

Sex was solely for reproductive purposes in the Victorian era, and this played into class structure as well. Upper class families showed how refined they were by not having sex and therefore not having children. Contrary to this class showing their “good breeding”, the lower classes continued to churn out large numbers of children, who were seen as assets to domestic and farm work. However, the concept of abstinence and lack of interest in sex and sexuality remained the dominating quality of refinement and civilized society.

This repression of sex naturally led to its manifestation in the lower classes, where it was more acceptable. Children of poor families were seen as economic commodities, and one common form of work was prostitution. Young virgins were especially in demand, fetching the largest incomes amongst this profession. This resulted in the upper classes taking even a more rigid attitude towards the dynamics of the sexual act, making it all the more “hushed up” and “forbidden”.

The double standards set for men and women, however, were soon apparent. Men were afforded more leeway in sexual practices, on account of their needing outlets for what was considered their natural physical desires. Women were held to a higher, almost impossible, standard of abstinence, and were judged much more harshly for transgressions. Literature written during in this rigid moral atmosphere catered to the tastes of the upper class, with their values in mind, resulting in the topic of sexuality being highly avoided, or merely hinted at, in novels of the Victorian period. This makes it all the more significant that novels dealing with raw human passion and sex, such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, were written.

One wonders how such books fit into the greater moral tapestry of the age, where sexuality was not talked about and which viewed women as paragons of perfection and purity. Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw is the anti-thesis of the conventional Victorian heroine. She is violent, passionate and not afraid to voice her opinions. “Wuthering Heights” is overflowing with sexual imagery that the author could not publicly acknowledge. Catherine’s very persona exudes dark desire, which was a daring literary step for Bronte to take, for it meant violating what it meant to be a “good” woman. Thus Catherine is constantly criticized for not being an ideal to look up to.

“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” was another revolutionary novel, for not only did Hardy present Victorian readers with the atrocious topic of rape, but also with the possibility of life for his heroine after her violation. Hardy makes use of sensual language in descriptions of landscape, most of which stunned his readers but for which he made no apologies. Despite her violation, Tess is “A Pure Woman”, here literally criticizing society’s belief that once a fallen woman, always a fallen woman. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is one woman’s struggle against a whole society which judges her for who she ought to be, not for who she really is.

Victorian Religion
Victorian society was heavily influenced by current religion, which was undergoing many changes itself and facing challenges from new ideologies and ways of living. The issue on which the intensity of Victorian religion first began to turn inward on itself was, not an external challenge of science or criticism, but a felt conflict between the morality, which the evangelicals had cultivated, and the theological doctrines, which they taught. Victorian morality was stern; the evangelicals doubted whether the mass of mankind could be saved. The theology advocated by most evangelicals, and generally accepted by most others, was a sort of unsystematic quasi-Calvinism, positing the Atonement rather than the Incarnation as the central fact of Christianity, and stressing the sterner and harsher Christian doctrines: original sin, reprobation, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment. The unbalanced emphasis of these essentially unattractive themes was bound to come into conflict with the sentimental and humanitarian spirit of the age, itself largely a product of the religious revival.

Female burden of being pure and virtuous
Popular notions regarding the role of the woman in society concentrated on the “submissive wife”, whose whole existence revolved around loving, honoring, obeying and amusing her lord and master, to manage his household and manage his children. The woman’s intellect was for order, arrangement and order. Ruskin argued that in Shakespeare, Scott, Dante and Homer, women are “infallibly faithful and wise counselors” (Haughton 350) and men are redeemed of vice or weakness by female virtue and wisdom.
The moral elevation of man was a feminine duty. The ‘angel of the house’ theory was strong – it was the woman’s duty to preserve the moral idealism that was threatened in a new age of industry and competition. Thus female emancipation was not very encouraged. Lancelot Smith, in “Yeast” is determined to assert his mental superiority over Argemone (the heroine) because he wanted to teach her “where her true kingdom lay, - that the heart, and not the brain, enshrines the priceless pearl of womanhood.” (Yeast, chap 10, pp 143-145). Ordinary society embraced the concept of woman as righting the wrongs that men made.
Sex was something one did not talk about. Children were discouraged from questioning the sexual act, usually done to protect the child, especially the boy, from temptation), but also because of a general moral revulsion. Women had to be seen as pure, almost more like angels than normal humans, an ethereal vision whose purity is to be worshipped.
Sexuality in Victorian times
It was hard for a woman then, to speak up, and maybe admit that she was not perfect or pure. The Victorian ethic made “fidelity the supreme virtue and sexual irregularity the blackest of sins” (Haughton pg 356). The phenomenon of Victorian prudery accompanied this concept of purity. There was strong condemnation of explicit treatment of sex in literature and conversation. Most of this condemnation was simply an excessive need to protect oneself from what was considered shameful and worshipping the code of chastity. With the strong societal enforcement of these beliefs, many Victorians lived with great shame, guilt, and fear of damnation. Passion was deviant, and thoughts of sexuality would cause insanity.
Double Standards for Men and Women
Victorian society held a double standard for men and women. While it was unthinkable that a woman would have any sexual thoughts, it was understood that a man did. Although he was expected to control these urges the best he could, the man was allowed some latitude. Theoretically, he was expected to remain faithful to his wife, but if he occasionally visited a prostitute to "relieve himself of evils," his wife was expected to overlook this and welcome him back. A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence. Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died. On the other hand, partly by counterbalancing thought and instinct, they perceived that the drive to revolution and the sexual urge were somehow linked. Therefore they repressed sexuality; repressed themselves and their literature, while containing it within specific limits in society. Further, they knew that the successful working of the vast industrial machine required a strict, inhuman discipline. The idolatry of respectability was the answer to natural waywardness.

Wuthering Heights (1847)

One of the most daring moves by Bronte in this novel is making the Byronic Heathcliff of the lower classes, or as Polhemus writes in “Erotic Faith”:
“Bronte mongrelizes Heathcliff, gives him a plebian origin, makes him a dirty, degraded boy..” (Pg 80).
Catherine and his love thus defy the status quo, a definite faux pas in the elitist attitude of the Victorian mind. Moreover, theirs is a passion that is all consuming, ravenous, even in death. Heathcliff warns Nelly Dean that he would literally tear Edgar Linton apart, and drink his blood, if the latter did anything to hurt Catherine. He further reiterates that Catherine felt the same way about him.
“If he [Edgar] loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day. And Catherine has a heart as deep as I have…it is not in him to be loved like me.” (Wuthering Heights, Chapter XIV, Pg 147)
Catherine’s proclamations of love for Heathcliff are almost transcendental in their timbre, especially when she claims that they are one and the same person. This seems to suggest that they have (or want) a true sexual relationship, in the manner D.H. Lawrence “envisaged sexual union not as a merging of the partners but a heightening of their distinctness, as a condition of ‘two in one’.” (The Divided Heroine, Pg 34)
Catherine flouts society’s definitions of what is morally appropriate by daring to love two men. However, Edgar Linton lacks the blazing flames that Heathcliff is able to awaken in Catherine, and their violent words, gestures and embraces are testament to the superior feelings in this relationship over her marriage to Linton. Bronte even subtly jabs at society’s ingrained expectations in the title of the book, for Wuthering Heights means the rejection of heaven. From this one deduces that this means rejection of heaven’s forms as well, such as angels, even angels-in-the-house. We see thus that the Christian heaven of Victorian thinking cannot reconcile itself with this romantic/ sexual individualism, and that Catherine would rather cleave to her “heathen” desires than aspire to attain the Victorian vision of redemption.
Bronte also sub-consciously guides the reader into sympathizing more with Catherine and Heathcliff’s traumatic state, by emphasizing Linton’s weaknesses against the strength of the former two individuals. Recurring imagery such as those of windows (that are broken), locked doors and keys reinforce the rejection of institutions. Linton stands for society and what it demands. He is social, ethical, conscious, rational and institutional. Catherine and Heathcliff symbolize the individual, the irrational, the unconscious and the free. Linton tries to tame these primitive energies, just as society tries to annul Catherine and Heathcliff’s pagan and unorthodox relationship.
This brings us to another important symbol in “Wuthering Heights”, which is the contrast between Nature and the indoor world. Catherine’s speeches often contain natural imagery and her desire to be free and happy on the moors. This can be interpreted to show her preference for a world free of social judgments, a world where sexuality and love have free reign. This is on contrast to life at Thrushcross Grange, which “posits an elegant, padded refinement as against the rough, free wilderness of the Heights”. (The Divided Heroine, Pg 27)
Therefore one can imagine Catherine finally finding peace of mind in the wilderness of the moors. She herself is more natural (the image of the oak enforces this), as do the images of the storm, which are set firmly against that of calm. Catherine’s bouts in the rain are indicative of her desire (both sexual and emotional) for Heathcliff (who is described by Nelly Dean as “a bleak, hilly, coal county”). Both are in a desperate struggle to realize this personal need to become one.
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath..” (Wuthering Heights, Chapter 9, Pg 74)
Catherine’s tumultuous energy finds no peace except in death, not under the Linton’s chapel roof, but outside, where Nature gives her a full and honest understanding and acceptance of her relationship with Heathcliff, and what it implies. To accept anything less (i.e. the expectations of society as to what is “correct” or “prudent”) would be a negation and debasement of her, her life force and the libidinous appetite that is part and parcel of her and Heathcliff.
Bronte affords her heroine acceptance when she lays her to rest in the peat-mould, where Catherine exercises a greater power over her two lovers, even more than when she was alive. What she wanted in life was denied to her by a society that deems that women have to live and act a certain way. In death, she finds this freedom. As J. Goodridge says in “The Circumambient Universe”, “Catherine’s spirit, still alive in the earth and on the Heights, draws first Edgar, then Heathcliff, into its own ‘heaven’, which belongs to the world of nature, above and beyond the Kirk…she has passed by Gimmerton Kirk, and found again, with Heathcliff, her ‘heaven’ in the middle of the moor”. (Pg 76, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Wuthering Heights).
“Wuthering Heights” was condemned in a number of reviews when it first came out. Mr. Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte) was labeled as “dogged, brutal and morose”, his work “rude and unfinished”, an “unnatural” lack of “human degradation” in which all the characters were “hateful” and “contemptible”. (Pg 4, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Wuthering Heights). “Wuthering Heights” deals with raw animal passion that finds no home within the walls of institutionalized society. Bronte dared to go outside what Victorian society deemed correct regarding the presentation of female sexual desire, and was harshly judged for it.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)

“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” was one of the most controversial novels of the Victorian age. Hardy gave the Victorian public “a pure woman” whose only taint was how her situation was viewed by a society that held women to higher standards than they did men. Hardy was well aware of the double standards of sexuality that the Victorian era placed on the sexes. As Tess proceeds to grow throughout the novel, Hardy raises important questions such as the objectification of women and the valorization of their sexual control. Women like Tess embodied virtue, and were expected to live up to this ideal. Men such as Alec d’Urberville are excused for not being able to control their inherent sexual desires. It is Tess who is judged, and not the violator of her body and the destroyer of her life.

What strikes the reader immediately is how Tess exudes an unconscious sensuality and sexual fluidity in her most insignificant gestures and behavior. Tess’s sexuality literally lives and breathes within her, and Hardy shows how this innate quality can only be wrested from her by violence.
“The brim-fulness 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.” (Pg 202, Tess of the d’Urbervilles)

Tess’s unorthodox nature is emphasized by Hardy, who endows her with qualities that Victorian culture claimed were alien to a woman’s. Tess’s sexuality was a quality not expected for women to flaunt. Tess reveals “a luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth” that draws people (and Alec) to her. In “The Decline of the Goddess” Stave refutes Dorothy Van Ghent’s argument that Tess is doomed by a “violent potency, that of sexual instinct” (81), by claiming that Tess is not at fault for possessing a sexual instinct, but is “doomed by a culture that cannot accept the sexual” (Pg 103, Decline of the Goddess).

Hardy uses a sensuality of language when writing about Tess. Erotic symbols of penetration and engulfment are utilized to enact the pursuit, violation and persecution of Tess at the hands of the two men in her life. Obvious imagery includes Alec’s insistence in feeding Tess the strawberries, the bloody scratches left on Tess’s arms by the roses he gives her, his driving Tess at full speed down the hill in his gig and Angel watching Tess when she just wakes up from sleep.
“She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s…his [eyes] plumbed the deepness of the ever-varying pupils, with their radiating fibrils of blue, and black, and gray, and violet, while she regarded him as Eve at her second waking might have regarded Adam.” (Pg 202 – 203, Tess of the d’Urbervilles)

There is continuous phallic imagery of pricking, piercing and penetration which seems to enforce the idea that such actions will follow Tess from the death of Prince to her final penetrative act of retribution. The colors white and red are continually interweaved throughout the story, most closely associated with Tess, blood and flesh, sex and death. Tess’s tragic flaw is her unwitting sexuality, which is irresistible to Angel and Alec.

Angel and Alec are almost the alike in their acceptance of the totality of the patriarchal idea that women are at fault for whatever happens to them; they are tainted for having sexual feelings, ostracized for not conforming to the rigid framework that society has constructed for them. Angel and Alec also believe that they are entitled to control Tess, her actions and feelings.
Victorian society’s view of woman as only worth something if she were pure and goddess-like results in Angel idealizing Tess instead of seeing her as a normal human being with human flaws. For him, she is a spiritualized version of her sex, worthy of being compared to Artemis and Demeter. Angel is a product of this society. He is from an educated, religious middle class family, and susceptible to their norms and values even though he does not consciously conform to them himself. Learning the truth of Tess’s violation breaks this ideal mould she is supposed to fit, and results in his leaving her and blaming her for their broken marriage. He is aware of what society deems pure, and this keeps him from accepting Tess for who she really is.
Alec assumes a cultural right, by virtue of class and gender, to possess Tess’s body, time and again, with or without her consent. He makes it clear that he mastered her once, and that he could master her again. Even after his religious “conversion”, Alec calls Tess a temptress and a witch, forgetting that it was he who forced her. It is society that has encouraged this view of women as objects and inculcates in them the belief that they are themselves to blame for whatever misfortune befalls them. Alec holds this ideological sword over Tess’s head throughout the entire novel, and when she dares to finally exact revenge for her debasement, it is she who is punished again.
Like Catherine in “Wuthering Heights”, Tess is constantly equated with Nature. From comparing her to the White Hart in the Chase, to when she becomes a part of the uncultivated garden in her first real encounter with Angel. Hardy takes great pains to parallel her with the Paganistic style of living, which was looked down upon by Victorian society. In engaging in Pagan fertility rituals like the May-walking, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” suggests women have more to gain in retaining this Pagan heritage since it empowers them and allows for the articulation of their sexuality, which Christianity adamantly strove to repress. Hardy’s rhetoric even associates Tess and Angel’s growing attraction with the natural processes of the landscape and climate.
“Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.” (Pg 180, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”)

“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” was initially declined and returned of Hardy on the score of its improper explicitness. Even the scene where Angel carries the four milkmaids across the swollen stream was viewed as scandalous to the Victorian sense of sexual dignity. Tess was viewed as a femme fatale who deserved whatever treatment she received, and there was much moral outrage at Hardy’s sexual innuendos in his literary imagery.

“Read review of ‘Tess’ in ‘The Quarterly’. A smart and amusing article, but it is easy to be smart and amusing if a man will forgo veracity and sincerity…How strange that one may write a book without knowing what one puts into it – or rather, the reader reads into it. Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up and be shot at.”

Both “Wuthering Heights” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” place great emphasis on the inside-outside dichotomy of gender. Society believes a woman’s place is inside, not only in the house, but also within the moral constructs of the Victorian era. What authors such as Bronte and Hardy tried to expose through their novels was that society did not allow women the same freedom allowed men, and in fact, judged the women more harshly for mistakes, for their natural instincts or for violations done to them.

Thus one can see parallels between both novel’s heroines. Both Catherine and Tess cry out for space. In Catherine’s case, one can see that she is at home outside on the moors, indicative of freedom from Victorian laws. The moors symbolize a freedom for Catherine (as a woman) to embrace her violent passions, her sexual desire for Heathcliff, her natural self. Hardy creates Tess as an extension of Nature, which is at odds with the cultural norms impressed on her by a society that refuses to acknowledge a “fallen” woman as having passion, strength and self-worth.

Both novels show the futility of their heroines’ struggle for freedom. The social obsession with sexual purity demonstrated how secondary individual claims (such as female desire) were to the laws of the community, which required that such desire submit itself to rational control. Especially with the growth of the middle classes, the idea of the ideal woman was at odds with the idea of emergent female power. Catherine finds no respite or happiness in her conscious life for her unconventional nature, so deviant from what the traditional ‘angel-in-the-house’ signifies. Tess Durbyfield pays with her life for daring to strike back at society, by punishing her assailant and mental abuser. For these women, there was no justice permitted by society.

Heathcliff and Alec d’Urberville, on the other hand, are not judged for their transgressions and conversions. Even when Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after an absence of three years, one quickly notes that he is “so strongly cast in an original mold that nothing can change its outlines” (Pg 84, The Divided Heroine”). His education and new civilized behavior does not erase the raw passion he feels when he sees Catherine again. Similarly, Alec’s religious conversion all but dissipates when he re-meets Tess. His spiritual rebirth dies when “the corpses of those old fitful passions which had lain inanimate amid the lines of his face ever since his reformation seem to wake and come together as in a resurrection.” (Pg 365, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”). These passions would drive him to pursue and master Tess again, and obtain his sexual gratification. And neither he nor Heathcliff is judged by society for having re-awoken these inherent “male” instincts, for after all, men were presumed to be less able to control such emotions.

Works Cited:

1.Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
2.Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1995.
3.Daleski, H.M. The Divided Heroine. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishing, 1984.
4.Ed. David, Deirdre. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.
5.Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1988.
6.Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870. London: Oxford UP, 1957.
7.Ed. LaValley, Albert J. Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles.' New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1969
8.Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1990.
9.Stave, Shirley A. The Decline of the Goddess. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.
10.Ed. Volger Thomas. Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Wuthering Heights". New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1968.

Works Referenced:
1.Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex: Harvester Press Limited, 1982.
2.Jekel, Pamela L. Thomas Hardy’s Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. New York: Whitston Publishing Company, 1986
3.Mitchell, Judith. The Stone and the Scorpion. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Servitas a Periculum

Servatis a Maleficum


The following comments are for "Victorian Double Standards of Sexual Morality in “Wuthering Heights” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”"
by blightedstar

Interesting and Insightful
I found this article to be interesting and insightful, being forthright and candid, inclusive of the author's point of view when relating the historical beliefs and culture of the victorian society. I have also passed this on to a couple of friend's of mine with interests in this area.

( Posted by: De`esse [Member] On: April 1, 2004 )

i realy enjoyed reading your work. It helped me to understand Catherine's and Tess's desires and how Victorian society restarained them

( Posted by: agdaw [Member] On: April 8, 2004 )

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