A few weeks ago, I had the sudden urge to read Thomas Hardy‘s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I’ve heard of it before, but did not have a single idea what it was about. The only other Thomas Hardy novel I’ve read is Far From the Madding Crowd, so when, for reasons unknown I suddenly wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I thought, well, why not…what’s the harm in it?
Wow…what did I get myself into!?! Anyone who has read Tess will know what I’m talking about, and those who haven’t….well, I don’t know if I really want to tell you, lest I influence you to read it!
A rather long, oftentimes meandering novel, Tess covers a wide range of themes, such as philosophy, religion, ancestry but most importantly, it criticises people’s contemporary and hypocritical views on love, morality, and sexuality at the time it was written. In essence, and without giving too much away, the story is about the eponymous Tess Durbeyfield, whose young life changes forever because of a meddling parson who puts it to the mind of her haggler father that though now impoverished, he comes from an ancient line of knights and nobles called the D’Urbervilles. Despite being told by the parson to John Durbeyfield in passing, the idea occupies him and his wife entirely, and in hearing of an old Lady D’Urberville living in a nearby town, decides to send their eldest daughter, Tess to introduce herself as poor relations in hopes of getting some kind of employment, or better still, marriage. Tess’ troubles start when she visits her would-be relations and meets the persistent and morally questionable heir, Alec D’Urberville. From the get go, it seems like Alec is a no good, lazy freeloader who has no honorable intentions toward Tess, who, being beautiful and naive, is offered a job at the estate as manager of the poultry farm. Despite her protestations, Tess goes to live at Alec’s estate where she experiences, at his hand, her first terrible downfall.
After a short stint at their estate, Tess leaves the D’Urbervilles, tarnished and disillusioned, swearing off men and vowing never to marry again. Despite having suffered so much already at such a young age, cruel Fate was only just beginning with her; her tragic experience led to another tragic outcome, which only served to transform her even more, from a young carefree maiden to a melancholy, hardened woman.
After returning from the D’Urberville estate and suffering a series of very unfortunate events, Tess spends a few years hiding in her parents house, hardly daring to leave the premises lest people see her and guess her condition, until she finally decides that her best recourse would be to find a job as a milkmaid at a distant farm where no one would recognise her. She vowed to work hard only at the farm, to earn money for her family, and try to forget her past. Unfortunately, her resolve wanes when she meets Angel Clare, the farm’s intelligent, handsome, gentleman apprentice, learning about farming methods with the aim of starting his own someday. Angel Clare came from a family of ministers, all educated at Cambridge, and though he is equally accomplished and refined as his brothers, even more so, in some respects, his unorthodox beliefs on morality, faith, and religion has lead him to a life far removed from the church. Despite his family’s protestations, he chose a more practical, applied form of occupation. Tess being superior in beauty and intellect, albeit country intellect, compared to the other milkmaids at the farm, attracts the curiosity of the gentle, handsome young man who soon finds himself falling in love with her.
Angel woos Tess, despite her repeated refusal of him, mainly on account of her sordid past, and readers are given a ray of hope that this charming, intelligent, unconventional young man will finally love her and give her the life she deserves. Alas, it is not meant to be, and surprising as it may sound, Tess’ relationship with Angel suffers once the truth is revealed to him.
At this point, nothing goes right in Tess’ life, and things just go from bad to worse, with no hope of happiness in sight for the poor girl. More bad things happen to her, at which point, readers might wonder why Thomas Hardy hates Tess so much as to make her suffer so undeservingly. Perhaps Hardy based Tess’ character on a maiden who had spurned him in real life, and this fiction was his way of getting his revenge on her.
Readers will experience a range of emotions while reading Tess of the D’Urberville. They may feel angry and indignant at Tess’ family for their narrow-mindedness and ambitions; at Alec D’Urberville for his despicable character and persistence. They might also feel sorry for Tess, while being really anger at her for her naïveté, her extreme self-sacrifice, and her unconditional love and devotion for Angel Clare. And then of course, there is Angel himself, which readers will love and adore one minute, then hate with a fury the next.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking novel that will depress readers long after finishing the novel. The injustice Tess suffers at the hands of men, not just from the one she despises, but also from the one she loves, is so infuriating, especially since, being from the 1800s, she was incapable of changing her fate despite her desire to escape it.
I have never been so angry with a writer before Hardy for his treatment for Tess; it seemed so unjust, so uncalled for, so undeserving of a pure, innocent, unassuming young woman. Why, Hardy, why!?!? It’s so unfair! I protest on behalf of Tess! I hated Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I loved it too! It’s a very moving, tragic tale, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more unfortunate woman in literature more undeserving of her unhappiness and fate.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) – Thomas Hardy
Barnes and Noble Classics; 465 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 4/5