“You are the cause of my backsliding!”

I finished reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few days ago. At one point, Tess and antagonist and rapist Alec D’Urberville are conversing; it’s his decision to renew their relationship, against her desire, and as persistent and devious as Alec is, his desire overrules hers. But during their series of conversations, his words begin to take on a familiar form: the vocabulary and structure of the discussion on modesty in the Christian subculture. It’s not just the formal church teachings, but it’s also in the applications and misapplications between the genders, where much of the emotional damage happens.

“Don’t look at me like that!” he said abruptly. (. . .)

And there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong.”

Cover it up. If there was one thing I gained from all the lectures and books on modesty I absorbed as a teen, it was this: the female body is dangerous and shameful. Cover it up.

“No, no! Don’t beg my pardon. But since you wear a veil to hide your good looks, why don’t you keep it down?” (. . .) It may seem harsh of me to dictate like this,” he went on;

—I’ll interrupt and point out that it’s harsh and inappropriate—

“but it is better that I should not look too often on you. It might be dangerous.”    (. . .) “Well, women’s faces have had too much power over me already for me not to fear them!”

Interesting. The male, who has the physical power, legal rights, and socially dominant position, claims to have a lack of power. He uses the female’s body to rhetorically place power in her hands, so that he might take that nominal power away from her and use it for himself. In this case, he uses this power to keep her under his control.

At my Christian college, we had a fairly strict dress code. Even so, there were men who put anonymous notes in certain females’ mailboxes:

Please, the notes read, don’t wear that sweater that you wore yesterday. It caused me problems.

I never received a note like this, but I was told about these notes by a male friend. It struck me as creepy. Who were these men? Friends, classmates, married students, professors? What kind of problems did these dress-code-acceptable but lust-inducing pieces of attire cause? A fleeting sexual thought? Something else?

Now, it strikes me as both creepy and controlling. The men asserted anonymously—a power play—that they had undisclosed “problems” —indicating a lack of power, even when they have the power to control their own actions. Why? Because of a clothing item on a particular woman’s body.

Then they tried take that power—her choice to wear the item—back with the spiritual argument. Your clothing caused me problems. Translated: It’s dangerous and powerful, so I must stop you from wearing it, even if I must resort to stalker-ish methods.

“Tess—I couldn’t help it!” (. . .) I assure you I had not been thinking of you at all till I saw you that Sunday; now I cannot get rid of your image, try how I may! It is hard that a good woman should do harm to a bad man; yet so it is.”

And later—

“O Alec d’Urberville! What does this mean? What have I done!”

“Done?” he said, with a soulless sneer in the word. “Nothing intentionally. But you have been the means—the innocent means—of my backsliding (…) Tess, my girl, I was on the way to, at least, social salvation till I saw you again!” he said freakishly shaking her, as if she were a child. “And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again—surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!” His voice sank, and a hot archness shot from his own black eyes. “You temptress, Tess; you dear damned witch of Babylon—I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!”

Notice his lack of self-control and lack of taking responsibility for his own actions. I can’t help it, he repeats, you’re so attractive that I can’t help lusting after you! And following you. And talking to you, even after you’ve made it clear that you don’t want anything to do with me! I can’t help it! (Why am I thinking of a certain ex-boyfriend of mine? Oh, yeah. He just couldn’t help pursuing me. I was that pretty. All his previous flirtations with my friends? Oh, they were a way to get closer to me.)

“Of course you have done nothing except retain your pretty face and shapely figure. I saw it on the rick before you saw me—that tight pinafore-thing sets it off, and that wing-bonnet—you field-girls should never wear those bonnets if you wish to keep out of danger.”

These lines in particular were familiar. Dress modestly. Men are visual, so if you wear (fill in the blank with a clothing item), you’re causing them to stumble. And a good Christian girl never wants to make a man stumble! And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a tight pinafore-thing or a tight t-shirt, the effect is the same. You are to blame for being in danger. If he’s lusting, you have played a part of his slide into sin.

Then there’s the attribution of motives. What’s your motivation? If you dress that way (whatever way is offensive to the looker), are you trying to get attention from men? It’s a heart issue!

Well . . . maybe. Some people—men and women—do dress to receive attention from others.

But the Tess passage shows that it’s not always self-aggrandizing motivations. She’s working as a field laborer, doing demanding physical labor, when Alec makes this declaration. Her attire is not only appropriate for the setting, but necessary and practical. Plus, Tess is actively trying not to call attention to her appearance; she’s taken to wearing a veil to cover her beautiful face.

I ran across a blog post today that told a story of a mom on a beach field trip with a group of thirteen-year-olds and other mothers. The woman chose to wear a bikini.

The blogger, in discussing her attire, focused on her motivation: she was trying to get attention from the other women. Not sexual attention, but affirmation about her attractiveness. Then the blogger went further. Now, obviously she doesn’t love the Lord, so . . . and went on.


He just went from attributing motives to judging her spiritual condition based on her choice of a bathing suit. The motivation aspect, I understand; been there, done that myself. But a statement about whether or not she loves God? The bikini was inappropriate in that social setting—a school field trip—but I don’t see how that reveals the state of her heart.

(Incidentally, I’ve been guilty of both these.)

“You have been the cause of my backsliding.”

Alec blames Tess for his reversal of his previous reversal: reprobate turned lay preacher turned reprobate. On the basis of what? Her looks. Her clothing.

I’ve heard the “stumbling block” idea used in this discussion in church circles. You shouldn’t cause others to stumble into sin, so therefore you shouldn’t do thus-and-such.

I understand. There are areas where people are weak, and we shouldn’t use our freedom to further weaken them. But those who are weak shouldn’t use their weakness as an excuse to sin, nor should they exploit their weakness to gain power and control over others. And unfortunately, that happens far too often.

I realize that there are good reasons for dressing modestly: showing that you respect yourself, and that others should respect you as well. But even good motives can go awry, and even well-intentioned words can cause harm.

It’s interesting that Alec resorts to well-worn arguments about appearance and clothing in order to control Tess. It’s even more interesting and disturbing to hear variations on those lines used by Christians. Their motives may not be the same, but the effect of the words may be uncomfortably similar.


21 thoughts on ““You are the cause of my backsliding!”

  1. Alec’s statements to Tess are as sick as those notes that young men left for young women at your college, Laura. Please don’t wear something I disapprove of: how dare they say such things? Talk about a sense of entitlement. Sheesh.

    P.S. I tweeted a link to this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim,
      Thanks for tweeting a link! It was bizarre reading a novel from a hundred years ago and realizing the parallels with those notes at the college. It’s also baffling that no one at the college (to my knowledge, at least) protested to the administration.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Unfortunately, this sexist sense of entitlement and blaming the victim is more pervasive than the conservative Christian subculture. Think, for instance, of the modesty strictures of all major Western religions — Orthodox Judaism, conservative fundamentalist Christianity, and fundamentalist Islam. Such strictures blame the victim. Here’s another interesting blog post on the subject: http://feministactivism.com/2011/04/14/religion-and-modest-dress/


    1. Thanks for linking that article, Kitt. This is definitely an issue outside the conservative Christian circles; they are the ones I’m most familiar with, of course.

      Today, I read a blog post on how female clergy are judged for their outward appearance. You might be interested in reading it: http://jeremiahgibbs.com/2014/11/29/women-pastors-and-male-privilege/

      It’s really bizarre that clothes are such an issue. If I read the Genesis account of the fall of man correctly, God is the one who adequately clothes Adam and Eve; this is after they realize they are naked and try, futilely, to cover themselves with fig leaves. Which would make God the first clothing designer!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always hated Tess of the d’Urbevilles. Now I know why – too close to home. These are the same abuses of language that every power-seeking manipulator uses. Reading this has brought back memories (don’t worry, not a trigger, more of an ‘aha!’ moment). I won’t go into detail but I’m sure I’m not alone in being a former victim of abuse whose abusers oh-so-cleverly twisted the truth so that every bad thing was *my* fault.

    I have renewed respect for Thomas Hardy. I think he understood abuse, the misuse of power and powerlessness at a time when it was rarely acknowledged. Thank you, Laura.


    1. If I had ever been an abuse victim, I would avoid Tess. I read this novel’s summary when I was in high school, so I knew what was going to happen and what to expect. (With difficult or long novels, that’s helpful for me!) There’s so many trigger points in this book (and, looking at the quotes, probably in this post, unfortunately). I’m glad that it didn’t act as a trigger for you.

      Abusers do seem able to manipulate language very cleverly. Hardly a new thing: the serpent twisted language in Eden to tempt Eve and Adam, and we’re here, thousands of years later, still listening to word-manipulations and lies designed to oppress and gain power over others.

      As for Hardy, I second your opinion. I’m going to read some of his other work. What was interesting to me in reading Tess was that my edition had endnotes about the textual changes Hardy made from his first edition to the final version. Hardy wrote Tess, couldn’t find a publisher (the book was too scandalous), re-wrote it, and had it serialized in a family magazine; it’s a very different book. (She’s tricked into marrying Alec; there’s no rape or illegitimate child; he appears more sincere in his religious transformation.) Then in 1912, Hardy published the version we have now. What’s the same, though, is how Alec misuses power and how powerless Tess is.


  4. I can’t bring in any relevant Madeleine L’Engle or L.M. Montgomery quotes or facts here, but I find your other follower lb1950 to be a kindred sprit as we are both big fans of your writing. Even when your post is about religion and I don’t “get” all or part of it, I still learn a little more than I did before reading it.

    The section where you mentioned the men who put those anonymous notes in the women’s lockers made me REALLY mad at them. That simply freaked me out! I’ve never read “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, despite being very curious by its title alone, but to be honest, I don’t feel drawn to it. I’m going through my memoir phase right now, so maybe someday…

    Regardless of all that, I’m always intrigued by what topic you’ll present to us next – your blog is wonderfully diverse in its content.

    ***Thank you*** and have a happy weekend!


    1. Thanks for the encouraging words, Dyane. Advice: Don’t read Tess if you’re not drawn to it; it’s a sad, tragic story, and the two main male characters are total jerks. Read a summary online, and you’ll see what I mean! Enjoy the memoirs.

      Oh, and about those anonymous notes. Not all Christian men are like that, and probably not even all the men at that particular college were like that. I’m surprised, in retrospect, that no female complained to the administration or staff. Then again, I had a difficult situation with an ex at that college, and I never thought about telling a professor or staff member or asking them for advice. (Despite the sexism promoted by the top administration, there were profs who probably would’ve been sympathetic to my issues, and who would’ve been willing to help me. The Bible prof who had taught at a Quaker college comes to mind.) I thought I had to handle everything by myself. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would never have thought about reporting such a thing in college either, Laura! Thanks so much for your reply – I know that it’s a small percentage of Christian men who would do such a thing…it’s sad, really. I hope whoever did it found help, peace and stopped the behavior…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda, I know that I’ll be thinking about this novel for years to come. It’s refueled my desire to work for justice for women, whether here in America or other places. Thanks for reading!


  5. It’s been a long time since I read Tess in university, and I never had the urge to re-read it. Maybe this is partly why. Your example of the blogger writing about the field trip was really interesting — particularly the fact that it was a male blogger; that surprised me, actually, because I was expecting it to be a woman taking an “I’d never do THAT!” approach. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we judge others’ motives based solely on what we see them doing, and we can be so wrong. Your post covers many, many important issues besides that, but that’s certainly something I took away from it.


    1. Jeannie, trying to judge others’ motives is a weakness of mine! (I wrote a post a few years ago about judging an overweight kid eating an ice cream sundae, and the kid’s parents’ “lack of good parenting skills” in allowing that. Sheesh.) It’s tricky, though; we need to be able to accurately perceive certain things about strangers, but then we fall into the trap of judging motives without any ability to be certain of our perceptions’ accuracy. (The police encounter this a lot, I imagine.)


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