There seems to me to be two ways of interpreting Tess, as “a pure woman” as the subtitle of the novel so clearly states and Tess as impure. I think that I’ve made up my mind and I will state my case below but I hope you will share your opinions with me in the comments section.
I doubt that Tess can be both “pure” and an adulteress and murderer. The two concepts seem diametrically opposed, even if purity has nothing to do with sexuality, Tess has still murdered a man.
The counter argument is that Tess was driven to the murder by circumstance. She herself says on page 407, “I feared long ago, when I struck him on the mouth with my glove, that I might do it some day for the trap he set for me in my simple youth…” This argument can certainly gain traction for Tess is a tragic character, fate has not treated her well.
Yet, by blaming circumstance we make Tess a bystander in her own life. If she is merely a victim of circumstance then she loses volition. I personally prefer to read Tess as responsible. Margaret Oliphant says in a review from the time period, “Robbed of responsibility, she is deprived of tragic status—reduced throughout to the victim she does indeed become.” I would rather read Tess as tragic and flawed and free to make mistakes than as a feeble woman ruined by circumstance.
So what do you think? Is Tess a pure woman? Why? Or does she, in losing purity, at least gain responsibility for her life?