Review: ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

tess

Tess of the D’Urbervilles
By Thomas Hardy

  • Date Finished: March 2, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1891
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2014-15
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts:

This book was a tough one, and it’s hard to explain why. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is, first and foremost, a classic of the Victorian era, and deserves a certain amount of respect. Books of this era always brings me back to college English classes, where you read authors like Thomas Hardy not necessarily for the story, or to be entertained, but to learn more about the era and the literary themes and tropes, and to analyze the heck out of them. I’ve read Thomas Hardy before, and for this very reason, and so approaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles from a non-academic perspective – for pleasure reading – was a difficult task, at least at first. To say that I liked this book doesn’t exactly mean that I believe the book was good. 

But despite that, I did like the book, especially once I found my reading groove, and once I found a reason to get passionate about the fate of Tess, the unfortunate heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel. Since I feel a book like Tess of the D’Urbervilles is less about the plot, and more about the spirit behind it, I’m going to refrain from explaining the tale of Tess and her plight, though you might already be familiar with the story (perhaps from this 2008 BBC miniseries!).

Still, I want to say a few quick things about rooting for Tess, because I found myself both loving her, and at the same time feeling terribly frustrated with her. This is not going to make sense if you haven’t read the book, but bear with me because it really outlines the trajectories of my feelings toward this story. If you’re seriously interested in reading the book, please skip this as it contains serious spoilers.

Here were the stages of my feelings about poor Tess:

  • Ambivalent. Eh, she’s raped as a 16-year-old, but is strong enough to leave the man who attacked her. I have no reason to hate her, but she’s still sort of vanilla.
  • Slightly impressed as she leaves home and tries to make a solitary life as an independent dairy woman. You go girl!
  • Not going to lie: I was pretty taken in with Tess’s romance with Angel Clare (what a name), and I was rooting for her, and her happiness.
  • A little annoyed at how much Tess worships Angel, subsuming all of his thoughts, opinions, and each speech patterns into her own personality. Still, I guess she’s in love, and he does seem to love her as well, even though she’s only a peasant and he’s the son of the landed clergy. What a progressive guy, right?
  • Wrong! Completely, and utterly pissed off when Angel leaves her because she’s a “tainted woman.” Seriously … I can’t even tell you. I still want to punch him.
  • Sad as Tess wanders around, lonely and love-less. Aww, Tess.
  • Then, when Tess writes her embittered letter telling off Angel, I wanted to give her a feminist high-five. No Tess, you did not deserve to be punished by Angel, and the world, because a man raped you in as a teenager. You did nothing wrong. If Angel has a problemcalling you his wife, then he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.
  • So OK, I think I understand why she moves on. Realizing that must do something to better her life, and to help her family, she makes an effort to move forward and try to make the best of a bad situation. And hey, it doesn’t look like that hubby is coming back, so screw him.
  • And then, this happens: Angel returns, repentant and still in love. Tess is with someone else. She murders her rapist to prove to Angel how much she loves him. OK, she murders her rapist. That’s something I can get behind. But she only does so to throw herself back into the arms of the man who basically threw her away because he’s a hypocritical, provincial loser who needs to practice what he preaches. Just like her rapist, he also wronged her, and yet we’re expected to forgive him? I’m not saying that one should forgive a rapist, but why aren’t we allowed to believe that the rapist – who did, by the way, eventually marry her and make her legitimate by giving her his name – can change as well? Why doesn’t he deserve a second chance? I’m a little thrown off by the morals here, but I think that’s just the 21st century speaking.
  • Ah, frustration!
  • Aw, that book ended on a sad note.

Like I said, a tough book. And a complicated one. Beyond the plot itself, I thought that Hardy’s portrayal of English rural life, especially from the perspective of the migrant farm worker, was really interesting. It’s a perspective you really don’t read about too often in classic literature, and it’s one I appreciate, especially as a reader who loves her English Victorian literature.

Still, I think that loving these kinds of books is definitely an acquired taste, and reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for “fun” is probably not for the un-initiated. But it’s definitely worth it, and hey, this book was considered a bit “taboo” when it was first published because of the allusions to sex. It was like …. the Fifty Shades of Gray for the late 1800’s (kind of)! You learn a lot reading classics like these; it just takes time, patience, and practice.

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