“Look to her for directions”: The Woman’s Role in Persuasion and Tess of the d’Urbervilles

“Look to her for directions”: The Woman’s Role in Persuasion and Tess of the d’Urbervilles

About the author:

I am a second-year Literature student. I have extensive knowledge of Disney movies, and will talk your ear off whenever given the chance. Passionate about writing, I am excited to spend the next years of my life learning as much as I can. In my eyes, there is no such thing as too many commas.


“Look to her for directions”: The Woman’s Role in Persuasion and Tess of the d’Urbervilles

By Julia Bifulco

for The Novel with Prof. Simon Fanning

            Both Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles feature female protagonists that are restrained by their societal obligations. The women are forced to blindly follow the directions of authority figures despite what they may want for themselves. While Anne and Tess may wish to pursue one course of action, they are influenced by those around them to do what is best for others; the women do not make decisions with their own personal interests in mind. Both Austen and Hardy’s novels demonstrate that a woman’s role in society is to improve the lives of those around her, regardless of what she would like to do.

The women in both novels put their families’ needs before their own, ignoring their own desires. They are not only willing to make small sacrifices for their family, but also alter their lives drastically in order to please their relatives. One major example of this is Anne terminating her engagement to Captain Wentworth based on Lady’s Russell’s disapproval of him. She deems the relationship “indiscreet, improper,” and “hardly capable of success” (Austen 67). Tess takes a similar course of action; after the death of her father and her family’s eviction, she returns to Alec, telling him that the needs of her family are “the things [he] moved [her] by” (Hardy 369). Both of the relationships’ futures are determined based on what the women believe will be more beneficial to their families. In addition to altering their romantic relationships in order to please their families, Anne and Tess also focus intently on maintaining their families’ reputations. The former makes up for her father’s actions when he says goodbye to their neighbours with “condescending bows” (Austen 74) by preparing proper salutations, just as Tess volunteers to deliver the beehives for her father so that he does not feel “ashamed” (Hardy 52) because he is too intoxicated to do so. They make up for the lack of class that their fathers bring to the family name. Furthermore, even when they are in moments of extreme peril, the women put their families’ needs before their own. Anne, for example, eventually returns to Bath with her family despite the bad memories that she associates with it, such as the death of her mother. Likewise, after Angel leaves her, Tess sends her parents a significant amount of the money allocated to her to compensate for the “trouble and expense” (Hardy 272) she puts them through during her own failed marriage. Both women are dealing with their own problems, but still manage to assist their families.

Both Anne and Tess are the designated caretakers for the children in their lives, putting their own feelings aside to aid the young ones. At Uppercross, instead of accompanying her sister to a party, Anne offers to stay behind and take care of Charles Jr. because she knows she is “of the first utility” (Austen 93) to him and the other children. While there may be an ulterior motive to Anne’s “sincerity” (Austen 92) in this moment—such as avoiding Captain Wentworth, when Louisa is injured at Lyme—Anne takes charge again, proving that she feels it is her responsibility to do so. She announces that she can “support” (Austen 138) Louisa on her own, an attitude similar to Tess’s when she takes it upon herself to baptize her ill child. In that moment, her siblings view her as “a divine personage,” (Hardy 114) and “look to her for directions” (Austen 139) in the same way that those at Lyme do with Anne. Due to the women’s constant willingness to take the lead in perilous situations regarding children, others begin to assume that it is their job to do so. Anne and Tess prioritize the children, focusing on stabilizing their behaviour. After the death of Mr. Durbeyfield, and the subsequent eviction of the rest of the family, Tess’s siblings are crying and causing chaos. Despite her own difficulty to “hide her tears,” (Hardy 348) she manages to quiet them down, not wanting the commotion to bother their mother, but feels bad that she must first get past her own sadness to properly calm her siblings. Likewise, when Walter climbs on Anne’s back, she tries to let him down without making a scene, but to no avail; it takes Captain Wentworth to get him off. Anne admits that she has to arrange her feelings “a little better” (Austen 112) going forward in order to properly discipline the children, feeling guilty that she can’t control them effectively. Both women ignore their emotions for the purpose of being proper caretakers.

Anne and Tess are willing to help their friends despite the complications that these actions may bring into their own lives. Anne’s relationship with Mrs. Smith is one example of this: while the rest of her family wants to visit Lady Dalrymple, a woman of much higher social status, Anne rekindles her relationship with an old school friend that she had always “ventured to depend on” (Austen 174). She is scolded by Sir Walter for keeping such “low company,” (Austen 177) adding another reason for Anne to feel inadequate in comparison to her sisters. Anne’s feeling of unsuitability is shared by Tess when the other girls at Talbothay’s learn of her engagement to Angel. Although they congratulate her, she apologizes to her friends for forming a relationship with Angel, claiming that any of them would be “better for him” (Hardy 207) than she. Instead of basking in the fulfillment that comes with positive relationships, Anne and Tess feel guilty for even forming them in the first place. Even in extremely emotional moments, both women continue to prioritize the needs of their friends over their own. After Anne and Captain Wentworth’s marriage, she makes it a priority to “fully requite the services” (Austen 257) Mrs. Smith provides Anne, returning to her what her husband had taken. She helps her friends when she is happy, while Tess takes a similar course of action when she is sad. Following her reencounter with Alec, when she takes up the job at Flintcomb-Ash with Izz and Marian, she says nothing of what ails her. Tess instead suffers in silence, working efficiently with her friends, so as to not pass the burden onto them. Anne and Tess mask their own feelings, positive or negative, to facilitate the lives of their friends.

These two women prioritize the needs of the men in their lives rather than their own. After Tess has revealed the secret about her past to Angel, he views her as “grotesque” (Hardy 232) and their married life begins with an emotional distance between them. Despite this, Tess cares for Angel to the greatest of her ability, acting as the perfect wife, even though he is cold with her. She even offers to leave, emphasizing that he “must go away from” (Hardy 247) her, as though she is the one at fault. Tess dismisses her true feelings, similarly to how Anne ignores Captain Wentworth when they are first reunited, because she believes “he wishe[s] to avoid seeing her” (Austen 93). Despite the fact that she would like to see him again, Anne, as well as Tess, acknowledges the man’s feelings before her own. The women also put first the needs of men that they aren’t fond of. Although Anne sets aside her own viewing pleasure to translate the Italian concert for Mr. Elliot, he still mocks her “ignorance” (Austen 203). Likewise, Tess agrees to swear that she will “never tempt” (Hardy 305) Alec again to cease his complaints. Both women know that they have the moral high ground, but instead of defending themselves, they find it easier to submit to the men’s wishes. Finally, even though Anne and Tess struggle with their romantic relationships throughout the course of both novels, they do not stop advising others on matters of the heart, no matter how painful it may be for them. Anne discusses love at length with Captain Harville, and although she does so “with a faltering voice,” (Austen 242) she persists. Captain Wentworth is in the room when this conversation takes place, only adding to Anne’s discomfort in this situation. Similarly, when Tess realizes that she will be executed for her crime, she begs Angel to remarry to her sister, ’Liza-Lu, claiming that she would “share” him with her “willingly” (Hardy 381). Both women allow the men around them to prosper romantically, even though they themselves cannot.

In both Persuasion by Jane Austen and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the leading women find themselves in situations where they prioritize others’ feelings over their own, leading to the overall improvement of others’ lives. This is revealed to be the role of a woman in the societies where both Anne and Tess live. The protagonists are so busy attempting to fix everyone else’s problems that they believe “it would be too hard […] if women’s feelings were to be added” (Austen 242) to the list.


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. Broadview Literary Texts, 2013.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s Boston New York, 1998.


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