The goal of Ellen Rooney’s essay, Tess and the Subject of Sexual Violence: Reading, Rape, Seduction, seems to be to analyze the language that Hardy presents in describing Tess and her feelings, in order to better understand the context for Hardy’s declaration of Tess’s purity. Rooney takes readers through a few critical junctions of interpretation. Perhaps the biggest of these junctions is the controversy of rape versus seduction, wherein Rooney states that, “Hardy’s effort simultaneously to assert Tess’s purity and to revise the meaning of purity itself traps him in the opposition between rape and seduction,” (465). Thus, if we are to understand Hardy’s assertion of Tess’s purity then we must do so through our interpretation of the rape/seduction.
Rooney then discusses the way in which Tess is deemed a ‘seductive woman’ and how her status as such is dependent on how “Tess embodies rather than acts desire, but in the problematic of the seductive woman, all feminine behavior is seductive,” (466). If Tess is seducer, it is because she is, “a ‘sign’ to attract the aggressive admiration of others” (479), a view which entirely ignores her subjectivity. Ultimately, in what Rooney calls ‘the moment of complete purification,’ Tess murders Alec, which, “enables Tess to give over that body to the judges, utterly silenced and purified, not by Hardy’s failure to see that she might speak, but by his unflinching description of the inexorable forces that produce her as the seductive object of the discourses of man,” (481). Thus, Rooney interprets Hardy’s presentation of Tess and her purity as a critique in which Hardy illuminates the ‘inexorable forces’ which reduce women to objects of sexual desire, negating their subjectivity.
My primary question for Rooney is this: Must we trap ourselves in the framework of rape versus seduction if we are attempting to understand Tess’s purity? Might we understand Hardy’s obscuring revisions as an attempt to show that the ambiguity of the rape versus seduction doesn’t matter? That Tess’s purity lies in sources outside the fact of her sexual encounter?