Social Class Struggles in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Picture of Dorian Gray
During the Victorian Era, social status meant everything. Being at the top meant those people had a world of opportunities. However, it also came with a long list of unwritten rules to abide by. Going against these social etiquettes was taboo. As for the lower class, it was very unlikely for them to become a higher class citizen. Therefore, more times than not, people stayed in the social class they were born into. This impression became a common theme in many of the Victorian novels we have been presented to read in class. This is especially expressed in the two novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. In these two novels the characters’ social status are contrasted however, we still see the struggles they face within their classes.
In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, we see this development of alternative lifestyles throughout the story with the main focus around the wealthy and elite upper class. The structure of social classes define who people are during the Victorian Era and homosexuality was not only illegal, but an ignored about topic. Basil starts the readers off with an impression of his obsession after he would not show Lord Henry the picture he painted of Dorian. After this discussion between the two men, readers develop a better understanding of Basil feelings towards Dorian Gray however, it was not something he could talk about or flaunt. Reputation was everything and rather than allowing himself to act freely he succumbed to society’s view of propriety. Once Lord Henry learns of Basil’s feelings, he seems to manipulate Dorian and a strange love triangle develops where Dorian’s loyalties lie toward Lord Henry.
Before Dorian hits his bottom, he thinks he falls in love with an actress from the East side, Sibyl. During this time, it was very unusual for someone to marry outside their social class especially if they are below them. Sibyl’s family is poor and relies on her acting for a source of income. Once Sibyl meets Dorian after her performance, he asks her to marry him. Once her mother hears of the news she begins to look at it as a way to move up in their social class. “…if this gentleman is wealthy, there is no reason why she should not contract an alliance with him. I trust he is one of the aristocracy. He has the appearance of it, I must say (47).” It is not clear, but Sibyl does not give the readers an impression she wants to marry just for a way out, because she genuinely seems excited. However, her mother’s reaction just goes to show how hard it was to make anything of yourself in this time, if they thought the only way out was marriage.
On the opposite end of the social ladder, Tess from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was raised in a poor house hold, where she had to help take care of her family because her dad was an alcoholic. Due to her dad’s alcoholism, he was unable to properly provide for the family. Right away in the beginning of the story we find out they are decedents from a rich aristocratic family, the D’Urbervilles. In a time of desperation Tess’ family felt the D’Urbervilles owed something to them. So once again Tess is sent out to provide for the family and reach out to the D’Urbervilles. Her family’s hope is that the son will fall in love with Tess and marry her, raising the Durbeyfield social status. We find this doesn’t happen and Tess goes to work on a dairy farm where she meets Angel. Angel’s family is well off and higher on the social hierarchy. Angel tells his parents about Tess’ background “…for she is a cottager’s daughter, as I am proud to say. But she is a lady, nevertheless-in feeling and nature (131).” When they find out about Tess, Mr. and Mrs. Clare are skeptical and try to persuade him towards another girl Mercy, who is “of a very good family (131)”.He continues to defend her character trying to convince them of the woman she is, not where she came from. Hardy later writes, “Angel therefore refrained from declaring more particulars now. He felt that, single-minded and self-sacrificing as his parents were, there yet existed certain latent prejudices of theirs, as middle-class people, which it would require some tact to overcome (131).
Seen in the quotes from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, family status meant a lot to people of the Victorian Era. People wanted to keep “good blood” in the family and not dull it with farmers and others with little skill. From the two novels a theme of social class comes apparent and readers are able to identify the struggles from both ends of the hierarchy. It is clear that during the Victorian Era there were many prejudices towards people of lower class as well as high standards to uphold in the upper classes.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ed. Joslyn Pine. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Philip Smith. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993. Print.