The concept of possession makes for an interesting discussion in Phase 3 and 4 of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Specifically, the topic becomes most interesting when considering the differences in the ways that men and women possess responsibility for their intersex relations — especially those sexual. In Phase 3 and 4, we see that Tess has taken full responsibility for Alec d’Urberville’s sexual exploitation of her. In the closing scene of phase 4, when Tess finally reveals to Angel the awful events that unfolded, the narrator states that, “she entered on her story of her acquaintance with Alec d’Urberville and its results,” (231). Here, Tess is doubly possessive, as it is both her story and her acquaintance that she must reveal. How is it that Tess came to solely possess the responsibility for a series of events in which her will and agency were denied? Indeed, Tess even equates her situation to Angel’s, in which he willfully engaged in sexual relations with another woman. Thus, her lack of agency has been erased, as she now possesses the same level of responsibility (or perhaps more) for the event as would a willing man.
Moreover, the sexual exploitation of Tess has further consequences in regards to possession. Not only does Tess possess the responsibility of the event, but the event has caused Tess to be, in some sense, possessed. Having married Angel, the narrator describes Tess’s feelings, stating that, “She was Mrs. Angel Clare, indeed, but had she any moral right to the name? Was she not more truly Mrs. Alexander d’Urberville?” (220). Here, Tess contemplates whether sex, not marriage, should dictate her relation to the world. Thus Tess, having been sexually exploited by Alec d’Urberville prior to her marriage with Angel, wonders if she should instead bear Alec’s name — a permanent marker of his sexual domination/possession over her.
What are the consequences of these aspects of possession with respects to sex? Tess of the D’Urbervilles seems to illustrate a powerful double standard of this era in which women possess full responsibility for sexual relations (willing or otherwise). Meanwhile, men are all but dismissed for their participation in sexual engagements, as shown by Angel Clare’s incredibly dismissive and self-justifying treatment of his sexual endeavors. Furthermore, sex establishes the dominion of men over women, as women effectively become a possession of the man as a result of the moral judgements of society.