Article Expert: Adrian Poole “‘Men’s Words’ and Hardy’s Women”

English 567: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Article Expert: Amy Goldman

Poole, Adrian. “‘Men’s Words’ and Hardy’s Women.” Essays in Criticism 31 (1981): 328-44.

Brief Summary:

  • Hardy “enjoys” exploring the limits of what can be “written about women and said by them” (471), and a significant element in that exploration lies in “the effort of men’s words to circumscribe and describe, confine and define, women’s bodies” (472). Poole relates this to Hardy’s interests in (a) how men look at women, (b) how women respond to being looked upon (473), (c) how women’s bodies “speak” (473, passim), and (d) how men—both literary characters and critics—attempt to describe or understand the “speech” of those bodies (passim).
  • Hardy’s treatment of women is unique in that he allows them to move freely between polarities of “vague” and “coarse” behavior. Poole interprets these terms, originally used by Henry James in a review of Far From the Madding Crowd, as follows: “‘vagueness’ signifies a being too remote to be distinctly seen or touched or judged and ‘coarseness’ a being too close” (475). He attributes contemporary readers’ frequent discomfort with Hardy’s female characters as related to those characters’ “refus[al] to keep to a settled or ‘middle’ distance” (475).
  • Poole examines “two main kinds of explanation for the distinctiveness of Hardy’s women.” These are two types: (a) the character as “unpredictable, vacillating, undecided,” unable to “make up her mind,” and (b) the character as representing “‘primitive’ and ‘pagan’ qualities which are indifferent and even hostile to socialization” (474).
  • Poole posits that part of the interest in Hardy’s characterization of “indecisive” female characters lies in how their “indecision is […] the producer and product of men’s decisions and resolutions” and “teases out the processes by which men’s authority is produced” (476). He notes the frequent failure of Hardy’s men to actually assert such authority and “wish” of contemporary critics “that Hardy’s men would take their women in hand” (476). This connects to Poole’s later discussion of Hardy’s male characters as sometimes possessing feminine characteristics, both physically and in terms of their “irresolution” and “adaptability” (478).
  • Similarly, the “pagan” type challenges men’s standards in their refusal to “care” about the “‘male’ sphere of mental culture” (477). This is uncomfortable for male characters, and contemporary readers, because it provokes a sense that the women have an “instinctive disregard […] for men’s rules” (477).
  • Finally, Poole argues that Tess’s physicality, and the way in which it both “provides and gratifies” male desire, creates a dissonance for contemporary readers between her asserted status as a “pure woman” (Hardy’s subtitle) and the aspects of her character that connect her to prostitution (480). He connects this to the idea that critics’ assessments of Tess’s body and her actions often reveal their own attitudes about proper feminine behavior (479-80) and to Hardy’s rewriting of the novel as deepening the complexity of the relationship between that physicality and Tess’s efforts to reclaim both her body and her words from men (481-83).

Thoughts on the Article:

Main Contributions to Understanding Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

  • Provides interpretive insights into the representation of Tess’s body and her physicality.
  • Notes, and posits explanations for, contemporary reactions to Hardy’s female characters.
  • Advances useful frameworks for considering male and female roles in the novel.


  • Obscure organizational plan. Poole ranges over a variety of ideas and the connections between those ideas can be difficult to follow.
  • Frequently makes assertions without convincing supporting analysis of the examples on which he draws. Example: Poole articulates “various conclusions” that “one might draw” from Hardy’s description of Tess’s mouth, then treats those conclusions as fact; he does not demonstrate how the text supports his reading (478).


  • Do we agree with Poole that Tess’s decision to open her mouth to receive Alec’s strawberry, after her initial reluctance, is a mere “difficulty of resisting the gifts of [physical] admiration” (474)? Are there competing possibilities that Poole ignores?
  • Does Tess fall into either of the “types” that Poole discusses? Does she cross between them?

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