Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Thomas Hardy knows where it’s at. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but one of the best books I’ve ever read. My previous outings with Hardy convinced me of his skill as a writer; this book cements him as truly deserving classic status. Hardy is one of those writers whose pointed social commentary dovetails precisely with his plot and characterization. He doesn’t have to sacrifice story for subtext, and it shows: Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a stunning novel, easy to read and follow but also emotionally moving; at the same time, it’s a sharp critique of late nineteenth-century English society, from the decline of rural life to the treatment of women.
I liked Bleak House, and in general, it’s obvious why Charles Dickens is a perenially popular, time-honoured writer. He has a keen wit and an uncanny knack for characterization. But he’s just so long-winded! Hardy, by contrast, has a clear and concise style. I don’t mean to hold up these two authors for comparison and declare Hardy superior—they both have their merits—but the act of reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles certainly felt smoother than Bleak House. (I’m not sure what it says about me that I found this book “easy to read” despite the numerous and almost unrelenting tragedies that befall Tess. I’m choosing to believe it’s because Hardy’s writing is just so good; it’s like watching a TV show that you don’t want to pause because you need to find out what’s happening next!)
If Dickens was the master of commenting on the urban side of the Industrial Revolution, then Hardy is his rural counterpart. In his fictional Wessex, life is hard for the common folk. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is rife with imagery and symbolism that depicts a society in decline, particularly the fact that the eponymous family, once noble, has now become diluted to the common Durbeyfields. Though the role of technology is quite different from the factories of London, its presence is nevertheless just as keenly felt: Hardy speaks of the effect new farming technology has on labour and employment. Whereas factories created jobs in the cities, farming equipment took jobs away. There’s a definite feeling of nostalgia here, with Hardy playing the role of the observer of the end of an era.
So it’s hard times, and when Tess’ father discovers their family hails from a proud Norman lineage, he tries to make the best of it. John Durbeyfield is an interesting patriarch: he strikes me as a man who lacks guile. As soon as he learns of his bloodline, he goes off to the pub and talks about it to everyone. He demands honours and respect as if it his due—there is no subtlety to John Durbeyfield. His wife Joan (oh, the names in this book) is quite the opposite: she schemes, albeit very openly, to use this information, however accurate, to their advantage. She sends Tess off to a distant relative who claims the name d’Urberville, hoping that rekindling an association will bring the Durbeyfields some good fortune for a change. But all it gets Tess is a baby and bad memories.
I really like this “Penguin Popular Classics” edition that I bought used for $3.95. It has a beautiful cover (not the one, at the time of this writing, associated with this book). And it has no introductions, forewords, afterwords, or “critical” interpretations or examinations of the text. While these can be useful—sometimes—I also find them distracting and often boring, because they tend to be an opportunity for some academic to wax about their favourite aspects of a classic. And I can see why they were useful a few decades ago when looking up critical essays required a trip to the library and a battle with the card catalogue. Now, however, I just have to Google “Thomas Hardy critical essay”, and I can have my pick of literary criticism.
So I like this edition, except there is one interesting detail that bears mention. The back of my book describes the story as “a simple but beautiful country girl’s seduction by another man…”. Only, I’m pretty sure Alec doesn’t seduce Tess; he rapes her. There is a vast difference. This choice of words in the book’s description irks me, and I wonder why the publisher chose to do it—did the marketing team genuinely decide it’s ambiguous, or was someone not a fan of the word “rape” showing up on the cover? The situation does not seem ambiguous to me. Hardy’s allusion to “Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors” dealing “the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” seems to make it clear that Alec is taking advantage of Tess’ situation—both her status and the fact that they are alone, at night, in a place unfamiliar to her. Furthermore, at no point in this book does Tess ever so much as hint that she feels anything other than repulsion and loathing for Alec. She sees through his transparent attempts to seduce her from the beginning, and she spurns his advances at every turn.
Tess laments that her mother should have warned her of what unscrupulous rogues men could be. And, yes, Joan did kind of throw her daughter into the wider world without much of a tutorial. This particularly smarts in light of the fact that Joan, rather than acting as a supportive ally, blames Tess for getting raped and then not even getting a marriage out of the deal. She is the one who initiates the scheme to ingratiate Tess with the other d’Urbervilles. But when Alec rapes Tess, Joan’s reaction is, “And you didn’t marry him? Disappoint!” She goes as far as to claim Tess would have learned to love him with time. It’s the ultimate in victim-blaming, and it’s coming from the one person one would expect to give Tess the support she needs. Joan continues to play the role of oft-times antagonist to Tess, throwing up obstacles to the possibility of happiness with Angel.
But, no, the only person who gives Tess the support she needs is Tess. She has the baby and falls in love with it, caring for it until its untimely death, and worrying about its immortal soul. (Tess maintains a somewhat ambivalent and unsophisticated relationship with religion throughout the book.) She works tirelessly, and even after the baby’s death, continues to look for work. I took a stroll through the 1-star reviews on Goodreads to see why some people hate this book. (It is amusing to see how many confused Hardy’s critique of Victorian morality for an endorsement of it.) Many cited Tess’ lack of agency or action as the reason. Fair enough—it’s OK not to like the book—but I don’t see it. Tess keeps going despite everything Hardy throws at her. Tess is a survivor and a strong character.
Most of Hardy’s characters are round and well-defined, and that’s what prevents Tess of the d’Urbervilles from being a flat and dull message novel. Not only does Tess change considerably, going from “innocent” maiden to unhappy wife to murderer, but Angel, Alec, and other minor characters change as well.
Angel is an interesting mirror to Tess: like her, he begins as a rather naïve individual. He has preconceptions about farming and colonial life that turn out to be far from the case; he has illusions about Tess and marriage that he finds difficult to reconcile once he has both. His initial reaction upon learning of Tess’ previous “relationship” is every bit as harsh and condemning as we would expect for dramatic purposes. But as their separation nears its first anniversary, Angel sees that he was wrong.
This change in his thinking is helped by some urging from two minor characters, Izz and Marian. Dairy maids at the farm where Tess meets Angel, they are head-over-heels for him as well—but they also recognize he has eyes only for Tess. The high school version of this novel would require them to form a pact to take Tess down and then fight to the death for Angel; instead, Hardy makes them more interesting. They all wish they could marry Angel, and his departure with Tess is hard on them … but at the same time, they find themselves unable to hate her. They consider her good, pure, and altogether quite a match for Angel. When Angel is on the cusp of bringing Izz to life with him in Brazil rather than his own wife, it’s what Izz says about Tess that makes him change his mind. Without these two characters, I wonder if Angel would have had the motivation to reconsider his judgement against Tess so thoroughly.
I find Alec’s characterization a little more problematic. His abrupt regression from converted preacher to rogue is fine, but afterwards he seems to act intermittently chastened and nonplussed by Tess’ rebuffs. I guess these changeable moods of his are supposed to show how beneath his more playful persona a darker, abusive personality lurks. Compared to Angel and Tess, however, Alec’s characterization is slightly more of the moustache-twirling bad guy variety. If there is anywhere the seams of Hardy’s careful plotting and narrative sleight-of-hand shows through, it’s here.
I don’t care, though. From a stylistic perspective, this is one of the best nineteenth-century novels I’ve read. The tension in the last half of the novel, when Tess throws her lot in with Alec just as Angel returns, leads up to an amazing and unforgettable climax. We knew (thanks to the back cover) that all these tragedies were leading up to a murder. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that, as I was reading, I found myself thinking, “If only there were a way she could get away with it.” But she can’t, of course—Hardy won’t let her, because of that damned d’Urberville coach, and so she goes off to the gallows, and Angel marries ’Liza-Lu.
Then the curtain descends, the house lights come on, and the cast takes a bow. It’s time to process our feelings. There were two other common objections I noticed about Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The first is that it’s just too depressing, and so while it may have literary merit, it doesn’t deserve praise. I’ve already talked at length why, when done right, depressing is good. The second objection is that the book—particularly the way Tess doesn’t “stand up for herself” (to Angel, I assume?) is frustrating. And my response to that is: well, good.
The major sentiment I get from Hardy from reading this book is one of intense frustration, so if you’re frustrated with Tess or with Tess, then he’s doing something right. Hardy is frustrated. He’s frustrated by the decline he observes throughout the country heralded by the age of steam. He’s frustrated by the venal, self-serving motivations of manipulators like Joan and hedonistic heirs like Alec. He’s frustrated by the double standards that apply to women and sexuality, but more than that, he’s frustrated because people who otherwise proclaim themselves open-minded, progressive, and sceptical fallback on such attitudes without a second thought. My favourite passage from the entire book demonstrates this:
This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgment this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings.
And so, as Hardy states in his preface to the fifth edition, “the novel was intended to be neither didactic nor aggressive” but instead “to be oftener charged with impressions than convictions”. Hardy is brave enough not to write something of his time, that conforms or emulates the standards of his age, but instead to write something timeless by challenging those standards. It’s not polemical but provocative, an attempt to shake those of us who consider ourselves open-minded out of the complacent blank of culture in which we always wrap ourselves.
So for me, Tess of the d’Urbervilles excels in two respects. Firstly, as I have noted persistently, it’s just an excellent novel. Its characters are great; its plot is captivating; its pathos is without peer. I didn’t just love this book; I loved reading it, which is an entirely different thing. Secondly, it is truly timeless, not just for attitudes that it conveys—as these may change—but for the sceptical sentiment towards social norms of thought and morality that it encourages. Those norms have definitely changed since Hardy’s time, but the fact remains: we still have a lot of work to do. Hardy reminds us that people often don’t deserve the inequity society heaps upon them.