From the moment Tess Durbeyfield’s ne’er-do-well father discovers he is descended from the noble d’Urberville line, his daughter Tess is screwed. Figuratively, literally, every which way. This discovery sets into motion a plot of unrelenting bleakness after Tess is sent to “claim kin” with some nearby rich folks by the name of d’Urberville. Tess is seduced by the evil, wily Alec d’Urberville. The seduction results in a child who dies in infancy. When Tess tries to rebuild a life for herself, she ends up falling in love and marrying Angel Clare, who harshly rejects her when he learns she’s been “ruined.” And then the really bad stuff starts to happen!
This was my first attempt at reading Thomas Hardy, and I’m thinking he might not be for me. Certainly, Hardy is good at what he does. The writing is beautiful, particularly some of the sections where he writes about the English countryside. The story is full of layers of symbolism and meaning that touch on themes of religion, sexuality, gender, nature, class, and modernity. All good stuff, for the right reader.
As a reader, I suspect I just don’t possess the right degree of sophistication and knowledge to appreciate what Hardy is doing here. For much of the book, I just wanted to throttle Tess. It’s not so much that Tess is weak; I certainly see Hardy’s intent to show Tess’s moral strength. He seems to want the reader to sympathize with Tess, to admire her goodness, her lovingness, her conviction, her loyalty. This is 100% the result of my particular biases, but I found Tess to be sniveling, infuriatingly passive, and largely complicit in her own fate (beyond the initial seduction by Alec – that dude’s the worst and totally to blame). After the loss of the child, she seems to be on a path towards rebuilding her life and finding some source of happiness, and I was on board.
And then she meets Angel Clare. She immediately turns into a self-sacrificing, self-loathing, obsequious worshiper of her Great Love. Love comes on as a sort of madness that drives away any sense of self-preservation or common sense. The traits I believe we are meant to admire in Tess (her goodness, her lovingness, her conviction, her loyalty) all either disappear or are, and here I’m going to be mean, filtered through her own stupidity to destroy her.
I do admire the choice to portray a fallen woman sympathetically (the subtitle is A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, after all). For a book written in the 1890s to not only feature a sexual act so frankly as a plot point but to also not blame the woman is certainly huge. Hardy also points out the double standard towards premarital sex (Angel is no virgin on their wedding night either), which, again, is huge.
All this does not mean Hardy does right by women. While he might not blame Tess, he’s certainly ok with punishing her, unrelentingly, and letting Angel get off more or less scot-free. The dynamic of Tess and Angel’s relationship feels supremely icky to me. Throughout, she uncritically accepts his judgment on everything, wanting him to shape her into a woman worthy of him. For as much as I suspect Hardy was trying to portray Tess as a real, live woman with a complex inner life, it just felt so…gah. I just don’t have words. Your reviewer has failed you.
So yeah. This wasn’t my book. I give it 2.5/5 stars because the writing is good and it’s an important data point about female sexuality in Victorian literature.
Title: Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Author: Thomas Hardy