Moral Issues

Although writers often claim they do not wish to be moralistic, almost every work contains a moral issue. To what extent, in what ways and to what effect have the authors of at least two works you have studied explored a moral issue?

[Pride and Prejudice and Tess]

The novels Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy are both social commentaries that critique the moral conventions that governed their respective societies. The idea of moral propriety is a central focus in Pride and Prejudice; Austen challenges her readers to think about what constituted appropriate behaviour in people of different social classes, and good behaviour in men and women. The salient issue in Tess, on the other hand, regards the morality surrounding a woman’s sexual purity; after all, the novel’s subtitle “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” presents an overt challenge to the social conventions of Hardy’s Victorian society. Whilst Austen utilises irony and humour to satirise the hypocritical lack of moral propriety in members of her society, Hardy adopts a much more serious form of writing when dealing with the issues surrounding Tess’ loss of virtue – he writes a tragedy, not a comedy. Despite the stark differences in the way in which the authors explore their respective issues of morality, however, both authors felt the strong need to convey their views on moral conventions in their society.

The importance of having a sense of propriety features very strongly in Pride and Prejudice – even from the start of the novel, Austen uses Mr. Bennet’s humorous comments to reveal that adherence to convention is very important in this society. Mr. Bennet jokingly chides Mrs. Bennet: “Do you consider the forms of introduction, and the stress that is laid on them, as nonsense?” Ironically, it is the Bennet family’s lack of adherence to convention, even more so than their subordinate social status, which repels Darcy from Elizabeth. Darcy was disgusted at the “total want of propriety […] betrayed by [Mrs. Bennet], by [Elizabeth’s] three younger sisters, and occasionally even by [Mr. Bennet].” Evidence of this recurs throughout the play, through Mrs. Bennet’s hilarious pride and hysterical declarations that they “dine with four and twenty families,” and through Mr. Bennet’s public mocking of her. However, it is Lydia’s “wild volatility, assurance and disdain” that can potentially cause the most injurious harm to Elizabeth’s “importance, respectability in the world.” Elizabeth calls Lydia “the most determined flirt that ever made her family ridiculous.” We can see that Lydia’s flirtatious manner and misconduct has severe repercussions on the reputation of their family. In the immediate aftermath of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, Elizabeth mourns that Darcy will no longer connect himself with her and her family, and “became jealous of [Darcy’s] esteem.” Elizabeth knew that Lydia’s elopement and subsequent marriage to Wickham meant that it was unlikely that Darcy would renew his offers of marriage (at this point, Elizabeth does not know of Darcy’s hand in securing Lydia’s marriage to Wickham). Lydia’s ignorance over the moral and social consequences of running away with Wickham and expectation that living with him would lead to marriage shocks her family; through this, Austen clearly conveys that such behaviour could not be condoned as ‘morally good’ or appropriate in her society.

Despite the shortcomings of Elizabeth’s family members, however, it is not only them that lack a sense of propriety. Austen places Lady Catherine de Bourgh as an aristocratic parallel to Mrs. Bennet: although the two clearly belong to different social classes, both stir up hysterics and make a fool of themselves. Lady Catherine’s contemporaries may hold her in higher esteem because of her wealth, but her ill manners are just as boorish as Mrs. Bennet’s. Darcy is even “ashamed of his aunt’s ill breeding” when she says that Mrs. Collins can play on the piano forte for “she would be in nobody’s way in that part of the house.” Lady Catherine is “pride and prejudice” personified: her pride causes her to snub others and as a result embarrass herself, and her hypocritical prejudice is evident in her ill treatment of others. However, society is much more accepting of Lady Catherine out of their respect and fear for her wealth and status. In this manner, Austen shows her readers that standards of moral propriety are not necessarily applied uniformly to different social classes; society is more forgiving over lapses in moral propriety to those in possession of wealth and status.

Like in Pride and Prejudice, the moral issue explored in Tess is also central to the theme of marriage: Tess’ impurity poses an even greater obstacle to her marriage with Angel than Elizabeth’s family’s lack of propriety does to hers with Darcy. When Angel learns of Tess’ sexual past on their wedding night, he is unable to reconcile his image of Tess as an innocent “daughter of Nature” with the defiled woman before him, despite having had an affair with a woman in London himself. Hardy’s use of irony here illustrates the sexual double standards that were placed on women. Tess exclaims before her confession, “No, it cannot be more serious, certainly,” believing that her impurity could be no worse than Angel’s deed, but in striking contrast with Tess’ generous forgiveness, Angel refuses to forgive Tess for her “disgraceful” past. Hardy adds another layer of irony in that Angel’s sexual transgression was a result of his conscious impulses and intentions, whereas Tess’ was an act of violation, arguably against her will. Unlike Angel, Tess was ultimately helpless: that night in the Chase woods “a coarse pattern” was inflicted “upon [her] beautiful feminine tissue … blank as snow.” This implies that Tess was a victim in the act; she is the passive object “upon” which an act of defilement is wrought. Therefore Angel’s inability to accept Tess comes as an even more jarring development in the plot; Tess’ introductory admission that her deed is “the same as [his]” lets him off lightly. Through the Victorian social and moral attitudes embodied in Angel Clare, Hardy makes his readers question their views on morality.

What is even more incongruous, however, is that Angel does not recoil from Tess after she confesses her murder of Alec: he pardoned her for that greater sin but could not face the lesser. In exposing this inconsistency in Angel’s assertion of morality, Hardy highlights the importance of sexual morality in his society. Angel’s inability to cope with Tess’ sexual impurity is a product of society – a society that “loved spotlessness, and hated impurity.” The Victorian era was characterized by rigid societal conventions that enforced a strict sexual morality; it is this morality that Hardy questioned. Through Tess’ tragedy, Hardy challenges the sweeping, inflexible, and indiscriminate morality that governed society’s views on female conduct – a morality that was not concerned with context and had little sympathy even for the victims. Although modern readers may assert Tess’ purity with conviction, contemporary readers in the 19th Century saw Hardy’s portrayal of Tess as a “Pure Woman” as contentious and even outrageous. Contemporary criticisms elucidate precisely Hardy’s message of moral contention; their rejection of Tess’ virtues and dismissal of her helplessness expose the conflicting views on female morality present in their society.

That being said, Hardy also does appear at times ambivalent towards Tess, suggesting that she is, at least in part, at fault. The converted Alec later blames Tess for her sexual appeal, calling her “temptress” and implying that her beauty and attraction at fault. Tess is blamed for something she can arguably do little about, although she does cut off her eyebrows and dress in old clothing to protect herself from lustful men. Later, when she puts up her veil, Alec exclaims “Why don’t you keep it down?” We can see that it is a woman’s responsibility to make herself less attractive, and yet not a man’s responsibility to abstain from immoral thoughts and actions. Again, Hardy criticises the double moral standard in his society. On the other hand, however, Alec later tells Tess that she has an “intrinsic purity in spite of all” and that she is the “one victim in the world for whom [he] had no contempt.” It is ironic that Alec, the “beast” responsible for Tess’ defloration, recognises her “intrinsic purity” and acknowledges her as a “victim”, yet Angel Clare does not. Hardy’s meaning is somewhat ambiguous at points and there are moral judgments in Tess which are indeed inconsistent; but the narrative as a whole implies a complex moral outlook that ultimately deems Tess as pure, assailing the prevailing moral standards regarding women in society.

Similar to Pride and Prejudice, Hardy also shows us that the moral conduct of an individual also has repercussions on the family. “Ever since the occurrence of the event which had cast such a shadow over Tess’s life, the Durbeyfield family had been tacitly looked on as one which would have to go, when their lease ended, if only in the interests of morality.” Her family is also condemned for her sins and apparent lack of morality; they eventually have to leave when Jack Durbeyfield dies, because even the village of Marlott adheres to conventional views on morality for the sake of its “purity.”

In their novels, both Hardy and Austen explore a moral issue that was relevant to their society in order to bring across their respective social commentaries. Austen does this by satirising her characters; by mocking their lack of propriety, she brings across a strong sense of what constitutes moral propriety. Hardy, on the other hand, focuses his moral argument on Tess’ purity and conveys the unfairness of the double moral standard on women, bringing across his distaste with conventional morality by exploring the interactions between his characters. As such, in both novels, the exploration of a moral issue allowed the authors to present their criticisms of prevailing moralities in their respective societies.


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