Confession and Power in Adam Bede and Tess of the d'Urberville

Essay, 2003

13 Pages, Grade: Distinctio

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By arguing that the production of truth is embedded in power relations, Michel Foucault undermines the traditional idea that ‘truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom (Foucault 1978:60)’. Foucault emphasizes the productive aspects of power – a force inducing bodies to speak, to produce truth in and through various discursive and institutional techniques. One of these techniques is confession. Although he considers confession as anchored in the catholic ritual of penance, Foucault argues that after the ‘rise of Protestantism, the Counter Reformation, eighteenth-century pedagogy, and nineteenth-century medicine, it gradually lost its ritualistic and exclusive localization (Foucault 1978:63)’. Confession became more and more secularized and the forms it has assumed since then are manifold.

Drawing on Foucault’s theory I would like to examine two specific examples of confession in two nineteenth-century novels: Hetty Sorel’s confession to Dinah in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Tess’s confession to Angel Clare in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Although I assume that these two literary representations of confession show more differences than similarities, I would like to suggest that comparing them within a Foucauldian frame of reference may still yield some interesting results. Of particular concern will be the power relations shaping both the ‘confessional subjects (Bernstein 1997:1-2)’ and the representations themselves.

However, before taking a closer look at the two novels I have to provide a brief outline of Foucault’s ideas of power and discourse as they appear in The History of Sexuality. Foucault conceives of power as a complex matrix permeating and encompassing every area of social life. Furthermore, he considers power and knowledge as mutually conditional forces through which discourses are produced. Both the domain of sexuality and the discourses through which it is articulated are, therefore, products of a power/knowledge nexus, which constitutes the identity of both the known object and the knowing subject. Crudely speaking, Foucault argues that discourses are positioned within and through the shifting force relations of a multi-dimensional power/knowledge nexus. And he identifies sexuality as a key site in which the interplay between power and knowledge manifests itself in the form of multiple discourses (Foucault 1978:92-102).

In George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which was first published in 1859, Hetty Sorel who leaves home to cover up her pregnancy, abandons her illegitimate child and is found guilty of infanticide. Confronted with her crime in the courtroom Hetty is unable to speak for herself and represent her own motives and actions. Only in the private setting of her prison cell can she relate her story to a sympathetic female listener, young Methodist preacher Dinah Morris who, according to Krueger embodies ‘the representative of a forgiving god rather than a hanging judge (Krueger 1997:280)’. This does not seem to tie in that well with Foucault’s idea of confession as a discursive and institutional technique for the production of truth being inextricably bound up with power relations – a notion which is deeply rooted in the historical tradition of Catholicism. However, in spite of Dinah’s female sympathy for Hetty their relationship remains starkly asymmetrical. This asymmetry find its expression in the contrast between a saintly Dinah, described as ‘a flower on this background of gloom (Eliot 1980:447)’ and a wretched, degraded sinner, depicted as ‘an animal that gazes, and gazes, and keeps aloof (Eliot 1980:448)’. This saint – sinner dichotomy suggests that Hetty’s confession is indeed enacted within the dynamic of a power relation. Although Dinah is not fashioned as a worldly authority representing an institution, she, nonetheless, acts as the representative of God. Moreover she succeeds in eliciting a confession from Hetty not only because of her sympathy, but also by skillfully manipulating Hetty’s fear of a violent death and possible further punishment after death:

My poor Hetty, death is very dreadful to you. I know it’s dreadful. But if you had a friend to take care of you after death – in that other world – some one whose love is greater than mine – who can do everything …


While you cling to one sin and will not part with it, it must drag you down to misery after death, as it has dragged you to misery here in this world, my poor, poor Hetty.


Cast it off now, Hetty – now: Confess the wickedness you have done – the sin you have been guilty of against God your Heavenly Father (Eliot 1980:450).

Hetty’s confession in Adam Bede thus seems to partake of a more traditional, purely religious sense of confession, but its role in the novel as a whole is more complex. On the one hand, it displaces a portion of Hetty’s moral guilt onto the philistine attitudes of her community and on the other hand it once again gives a voice to Hetty and thereby satisfies the reader’s desire to learn about her motives and feelings regarding the murder of her child (Matus 1995:168). The frequent occurrence of the personal pronoun ‘I’ on pp. 452-5 suggests that in and through her confession Hetty regains her subjectivity; for a short while she is both the speaking subject and the subject of her speech. Hetty’s confession appears to be not just an effect of the all-female sympathy and forgivingness of the domestic sphere contrasted with a vengeful male public; it is also inflected by the socially constructed asymmetry of Hetty’s and Dinah’s relationship which is modeled after a traditional saint – sinner dichotomy. Furthermore, behind the forgiving God of the New Testament, as whose representative Dinah acts, seems to lurk the vengeful God of the Old Testament – a male (non-)presence haunting an all-female interaction. However, not only Hetty’s confession is shaped by power relations, but also Adam Bede as a whole, insofar as the novel interacts with other discursive practices within a specific historical context. In her book Unstable Bodies Jill Matus suggests that the representation of Hetty’s maternal deviance in Adam Bede participates in the complex field of controversial discussions about motherhood and its aberrations, which she localizes in the 1850s and 1860s (Matus 1995:157). According to Matus, discourses on motherhood ‘serve[s] to inscribe class differences as differences among women, and to naturalize the distinctions between middle-class and deviant others (Matus 1995:157)’.

These are the first few lines of Hardy’s preface to the fifth edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

This novel being one wherein the great campaign of the heroine begins after an event in her experience which has usually been treated as extinguishing her, in the aspect of protagonist at least, and as the virtual ending of her career and hopes, it was quite contrary to avowed conventions that the public should welcome the book, and agree with me in holding that there was something more to be said in fiction than has been said about the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe (Hardy 1998:462).

The preface refers to Tess’s complex editing history which is intricately tied to the novel’s representation of sexual violence. Hardy’s novel is a story about a woman’s rape. However, both the rape and Tess’s confession of it are only represented by gaps, the unspeakable is spoken in and through textual silence (Bernstein 1997:144). What do we make of these gaps?

Drawing on Lacan we could think that these gaps constitute the text’s missed encounters with an elusive ‘real’ – two violent, traumatic encounters which escape representation, but, nonetheless, haunt author, readers, and protagonists (Lacan 1977:53-64). They seem to form a kind of textual unconscious.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles seems to say both too little and too much. Hardy believed that ‘more [was] to be said in fiction […] about the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe’, whereas some of his contemporary critics and reviewers were of the opinion that he had already said too much (Hardy 1998:462). The textual gaps highlight nineteenth-century cultural and ideological contradictions in representing sexuality in general and sexual violence in particular (Bernstein 1997:143). On the one hand, Tess’s complex editing history seems to bear witness to a Victorian regime of repression, whereas, on the other, the novel itself and Hardy’s defense of it seem to indicate a general desire to put sexuality into discourse and to say more ‘about the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe (Hardy 1998:462)’.

In her book Confessional Subjects Bernstein argues that both ‘Tess and Tess, both female character and text, are docile bodies, that is, bodies shaped through political forces (Bernstein 1997:144)’. The figure of Tess is constructed by male desire for her body. Both male protagonists, Alec and Angel, but also the narrator and reader subject Tess to their colonizing gaze. K. Silverman holds that throughout the novel Tess or rather her body exists only as the object of a male gaze and is always represented through the eyes of a male focalizer:

Within that novel the gaze never innocently alights on its object. Rather it constructs its object through a process of colonization, delimitation, configuration and inscription. To use the novel’s own metaphor, it extends representation into virgin territory (Silverman 1993:132).

The metaphor of Tess as a pure, virginal surface which is defiled by another’s inscription seems to link Tess, the fictional character, to Tess, the novel (Bernstein 1997:146):

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order (Hardy 1998:74).

Tess is here represented as ‘beautiful feminine tissue’, basically as white paper, and her rape as textual inscription. Paradoxically, both Tess’s rape and her confession of it are represented by not representing them. The whole plot of the novel hinges on these two scenes, while they seem to remain beyond representation – almost as if the text is haunted by their ghostly (non-)presence. Bernstein writes:

The white spaces that substitute for the sexual aggression also integrate Hardy’s twofold argument of Tess as a “pure woman” as the subtitle proclaims, and his novel likewise as pure text, as if sexuality and textuality can exist apart from power (Bernstein 1997:145).

The corruption of Tess’s character and the violation of her body which are disclosed to Angel in the confession scene seem to anticipate what Hardy in the preface to a later edition saw as the corruption of his text because of the changes which were made necessary by hostile reactions on the part of reviewers and publishers. Ironically Hardy’s preface to the fifth edition may be considered as a confession of its own disclosing a desire to say more ‘about the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe (Hardy 1998:462)’. This desired transformation of sexual violence and its effects into discourse seems to be forestalled by power relations, in Hardy’s case between author, publishers and reviewers, just as if there was a regime of repression countering Hardy’s apparently subversive desire to speak openly about sexual violence. I would like to suggest, however, that we cannot conceptualize the problem of this contrast or even contradiction in such a neat, binary way, with Hardy’s subversive intention to speak of these matters on the one hand, and his publishers and critics embodying a general, societal regime of repression on the other. According to Foucault’ conception of power ‘resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power (Foucault 1978:95)’. Because of its relational nature, power needs ‘points of resistance’ within the societal field of force relations (Foucault 1978:95). Hence Hardy’s persistent desire to put sexual violence into discourse in spite of a general attitude of repression on the side of his publishers and critics may be seen as immanent to the configuration of the power nexus specific to his historical context. But how does this repression tie in with Foucault’s theory of a proliferation and multiplication of discourses on sexuality from the eighteenth century onwards? Foucault does not think of this proliferation in terms of a ‘continual extension’ unfolding in a linear way (Foucault 1978:34). On the contrary, he regards it as an uneven, complex process with overlaps, ruptures and continuities. Moreover, he posits a link between this discursive growth and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a distinct, hegemonic class. In the course of the bourgeoisie’s ascent to power it asserted its body and sexuality by drawing a line between itself and the aristocracy, whereas after having attained economic as well as cultural hegemony at the end of the nineteenth century it had to consolidate its body and sexuality by barring it from the morally as well as physically contaminating influences of the proletariat, whose emergence as a class was, of course, closely intertwined with the rise of the bourgeoisie (Foucault 1978:120-122). Foucault situates the emergence of both a general theory of repression and repression as a tactical discursive element at precisely that particular point in history. I think we also have to localize both Hardy’s novel and its complex editing history at that particular historical juncture with its specific configuration of the power nexus. Crudely speaking, Hardy’s novel is about a working class girl who is given a very raw deal by two members of the bourgeoisie; first she is drug-raped by Alec and then she is punished for this crime by Angel. Maybe at a time when the bourgeoisie sought to consolidate the purity of its body by drawing a demarcation line between itself and the proletariat, such a violent blurring of class boundaries could only be represented through the white space of textual gaps. As Hardy’s desire to represent sexual violence does not exist outside power relation, the textual silences are not exterior to discourse. On the contrary, they form an integral part of a discourse which is situated within a specific configuration of the power network.

I think that this contextual specificity and a kind of immanence in relation to power structures is the most important common feature of Eliot’s and Hardy’s literary representations of confession. The more than three decades which elapsed between the publications of Adam Bede and Tess of the d’Urbervilles made for considerable differences in the way both novels represent (or not represent) sexuality in general and confession in particular. The late-1850s witnessed the proliferation of multiple discourses on motherhood and its perversions, which, broadly speaking, established boundary lines between a healthy middle-class motherhood and its aberrant working-class other, while in the 1890s these multiple demarcations between middle-class and working-class bodies and sexualities were already drawn and had to be rigorously policed. Don’t let there be any misunderstanding, these boundaries were of course never that neatly drawn and they were always contested, but precisely because of an increasing proximity between the working- and the middle-classes these dividing lines had to be consolidated and reinforced. This establishment, consolidation, and policing of symbolic boundaries was never a monolithic, all-encompassing process, but these practices, nevertheless, seem to constitute a dominant strand within a complex discursive fabric. Whereas George Eliot, also because she was writing under a pseudonym, had some more freedom to represent Hetty’s sexual and maternal deviance and the ways in which her community is implicated in the latter, Hardy could only represent Tess’s rape and confession through silence. We have to note, however, that Hetty does not confess her sexual deviance; her whole sexual relationship with Arthur Donnithorne is also only alluded to, though it inevitably leads to the subsequent death of her child. In Adam Bede Hetty is constructed as being at least partly responsible for her sexual fall, and by implication also for the death of her child, though her community and especially Arthur Donnithorne play an important part and are represented as being implicated in her transgressions. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, on the other hand, Tess is fashioned as an object and a passive victim of male, bourgeois desire. Because of the textual blankness of her confession, and because of the fact that she confesses an event where she is only an object, Tess does not even become a subject in and through her confession.


Bernstein, S. D. 1997. Confessional Subjects. Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture. Chapel Hill, London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Eliot, G. 1980. Adam Bede. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Original edition, 1859.

Foucault, M. 1978. The History of Sexuality. An Introduction. Translated by R. Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books.

Hardy, T. 1998. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. 1 ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Original edition, 1891.

Krueger, L. C. 1997. "Literary defenses and medical prosecutions: Representing Infanticide in nineteenth-century Britain."Victorian Studies 40 (2):271-94.

Lacan, J. 1977. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by A. Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Matus, J.L. 1995. Unstable Bodies. Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.

Silverman, K. 1993. "History, Figuration and Female Subjectivity in 'Tess of the d'Urberville'." In Tess of the d'Urberville, Thomas Hardy, edited by P. Widdowson. Basingstoke, New York: The Macmillan Press, St. Martin's Press.

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Confession and Power in Adam Bede and Tess of the d'Urberville
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Novelists in History
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Confession, Power, Adam, Bede, Tess, Urberville, Novelists, History
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M.A. Markus Kienscherf (Author), 2003, Confession and Power in Adam Bede and Tess of the d'Urberville, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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