Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Modern Library, 2000/1891, 451 pages
In an effort to read more classics this year, I picked up Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is, perhaps, one of the less well-known classic titles, not on par in popularity with the likes of Pride and Prejudice or Oliver Twist, for example. I’m surprised, however, by its relative lack of fame. Even by modern standards, Tess of the D’Urbervilles makes hearty and fascinating commentary on sexism, double standards, religion, and classism.
After her father drinks himself to a stupor at the news that he may be the descendant of a rich and noble family (the D’Urbervilles), Tess Durbeyfield takes on the responsibility of delivering goods to a town with the family’s horse and her brother. The horse is fatally injured on the journey and, despite her earlier protests, Tess agrees to visit their wealthy, alleged relatives in hopes of securing a husband, some money, or both. She meets her cousin, the roguish Alec D’Urberville, who aggressively attempts to seduce her and ultimately sexually assaults her (although there’s debate on this point, as Tess’s actual consent is unclear). Given that this is Nineteenth Century England, Tess is up a creek when she finds she’s pregnant. In the time following the death of her infant, Tess re-meets the romantic Angel Clare, but soon discovers despite Angel’s carefree way of life, Angel is no angel and expects more of Tess than he does of himself.
The summary I just gave you doesn’t even begin to cover all of the social intricacies that occur in this book. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll be blunt: After going back and forth for months about whether or not to tell Angel about her “impure” state, the two get married. Angel then reveals he’d engaged in premarital sex. Believing she’s now safe in her own confession — because how could Angel believe his sexual history was okay but maintain Tess’s was not, especially as it was seemingly forced upon her — Tess explains her experience with Alec. Angel is not pleased, to say the least. He abandons her for Brazil.
I could go on, as there are certainly more woes to Tess’s story, but I won’t. The point is, this book dares to address THE double standard. For modern literature, this isn’t as big a deal. I haven’t gone into the scholarly literature on TESS yet, but I can only imagine the kind of stuff you’d find in there. While Angel expects “purity” from Tess without believing reciprocation is appropriate, Alec expects forgiveness for the state in which he left Tess. Ultimately, realizing the money will do her good after further series of misfortunes, Tess relents and marries Alec to help ease the burden. Just in time for Angel to return. But Tess still gets the short end of the stick in everything. I’ll let the book show you how rather than explain myself, but, man, it’s a cruel, cruel world.
Commentary on class comes in especially with Alec, who, plenty well-off, is able to run about the countrysides and make poor decisions without real consequences. Tess, however, constantly seems to bear the brunt of consequences from the mistakes of others, such as her father’s drunkenness. Though the horse still might have been killed, driven by a sober Durbeyfield, the fact of the matter was, it wasn’t. And due to the lack of funds available for Tess and her family, she’s forced to go to the D’Urbervilles and her troubles follow from there. Many of her problems are compounded by a lack of money, too, increasing the urgency of poverty.
With religion as a frequent career path for the characters of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it comes up frequently. In general, Hardy discusses whether religion or a lack thereof means a presence of morality. Despite Alec’s past as an uncaring and cruel person, he enters into a religious profession, just to drop it in favor of Tess herself. He remains a terrible person, though perhaps not as bad as readers are made to believe in the beginning, particularly depending on how you define Tess’s vague experience with him.
Like other classics, Hardy writes with complex and beautiful language. There’s a focus on the bucolic. As a dairymaid, Tess has great occasion to be outside and Hardy takes advantage of her situation to describe the rolling English countryside along with Tess’s own natural and unique beauty. It’s a book to be read slowly and digested. Though perhaps slow in action at times, the sheer aesthetics of the novel make it worth trudging through.
A faster turn of events toward the end of the novel make keeping up a bit challenging, especially when the reader is so used to a slower pace. Originally published serially, I imagine there are a number of reasons why this happened the way it did, but it doesn’t detract severely from the book as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend tackling Tess if you don’t plan on trying to stick it out. It’s a rewarding book if you can make it through, but you won’t get anything out of it otherwise. It’s not a book for everyone (and that’s okay!) but if you’re into classics and literature of the denser-but-still-commercial variety, I’d give this one a shot.
❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤