Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

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46 thoughts on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

    • Thank you! 😀 It’s one that really deserves its reputation. Ha – yes, reading classics really makes you realise that no matter how far we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go…

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. It really does raise such important questions of class, moral standards, and gender. I hadn’t really thought about the irony of the message Hardy seems to be sending, considering how he portrays Tess, but it’s certainly there, isn’t it? Interesting, and sad, that there are still those issues today. I wonder what sort of story it might have been if Hardy (with the same talent and writing style) had been a woman?

    • That’s an interesting thought. I suspect a woman in that era might not have been able to write such a book without being seen as immoral herself. Hardy’s plea for Tess’s purity probably got a more sympathetic hearing than if a woman had made the same arguments. On the other hand, maybe a woman wouldn’t have made Tess quite so forgiving of the way the men in her life behaved towards her…

  2. You provided a really thoughtful review.
    I wish I’d seen this back when I was in college. I tried to read this but put it down. (But had to read Portrait of a Lady, however.)

    • I read it way back in my teens too, and loved it though I don’t think I got half as much out of it then. It was just a tragic romance, I think. I also loved the Polanski film and am a bit scared to revisit it in case my older, more cynical self doesn’t feel the same way about it…

  3. Great review! i loved this book although it was torture to read. Beauty is a double-edged sword. People are still dazzled by it even if they realize there’s more to appreciate about a person than just that. I think of movie stars. We are always shocked when their lives include suffering. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing beauty equates goodness as well, yet Lucifer was the most beautiful angel and the most evil. I loved how Clare was named Angel. I found him to be the most annoying person in the book. Alec was pretty straight-forward. Angel a complete fool.

    I think about the notion of the sins of the father causing trouble for generations. Tess’s father certainly handicapped Tess. As you say, poor Tess.

    • Yes indeed, we’re so conditioned to see outward appearances as a reflection of inner goodness or evil. And yet this book shows that unusual beauty can be a curse. Yeah, I frequently found myself wanting to slap Angel – his hypocrisy is pretty overwhelming. At least Alec was honest about his intentions. I found it interesting that it wasn’t clear if he seduced Tess or forced her – maybe it made no difference back then, but I think it would be seen as a major difference now. I wonder how Tess would get on in the modern world. I suspect her naivety might be even more of a drawback now. Poor Tess!

  4. Oh this takes me back! I first read Hardy when I was at school – we studied The Trumpet Major and The Mayor of Casterbridge. I loved them, so went on to read more of his books including Tess. What I love most about Hardy’s books are his lyrical descriptions of nature and the countryside and all his books show his great love and knowledge of the countryside in all its aspects. They also show his almost pagan sense of fate and the struggle between man and an omnipotent and indifferent fate. Hardy was a pessimist – man’s fate is inevitable, affected by chance and coincidence. I re-read Tess a few years ago and was less impatient about the way he portrayed Tess as a helpless victim than I was as a teenager. As you say – poor Tess!

    • It was at school that I was introduced to him too – Far From the Madding Crowd. And then, like you, I went on to read several of his other books on my own account. For a long time, he was one of my favourite authors and then somehow I got out of the habit of reading him, so it was great to find I still love his writing just as much now. Yes, I totally agree about the picture he paints of rural life – all the stuff in this one about the milkmaids and the cows is wonderful. He’s not exactly cheerful though, is he? I think I was more sympathetic to Tess this time too – as a teenager in the ’70s I’m sure her passivity would have irritated me and I probably didn’t have the insight to really understand how conditioned we are by the society we grow up in…

  5. Did you and I talk about reading this or something else? (Looks at upcoming reading list and can’t find a note but still I wonder)

    Great review because I really had no idea what the context of the book other than Tess. From your review I might need to prepare mentally for the heartbreak, poor Tess!! I’m not ready for it yet. I’ve been meaning to read it for a few years now since several I’ve talked to say it’s one of their favorites by Hardy (I almost picked up Jude over the weekend but decided I should read Tess first). Do you have any others by Hardy you’ve loved or have been meaning to read?

    • We did! I started out listening to the audiobook but quickly realised I’d rather be reading it than listening to it, so swapped over.

      Thank you! Haha – I fear Hardy is never exactly optimistic. Even when his characters achieve a happy ending, it’s always still a kinda sad happy ending! It’s years since I read him – decades in fact – but I loved Far from the Madding Crowd too from memory. I never got around to Jude, so that’s one I’d really like to read. I believe it’s supposed to be even more heart-rending than Tess… 😉

  6. I love this book. I first read it at university and couldn’t put it down. I’ve read it again since then (which is unusual for me), and I’ve also read (and loved) Far From the Madding Crowd. I keep saying I want to read more of his books…
    The way he writes about women also makes me want to learn more about him. I have the biography written about him by Claire Tomalin, but of course haven’t read that yet either. Sigh.
    Great review! Poor, poor Tess.

    • Ah, I was trying to remember which book if his we’d read at school that started my love affair with him back then and you’ve prompted me – it was Far from the Madding Crowd. I then went through a spate of reading him but it’s been decades since I last read one. Tess was even better than I remembered – I think as I get older I tend to appreciate these rather passive heroines more. My teenage self doubtless thought Tess should stop letting all these men mess her around, without having the insight to see how conditioned we all are by the society we live in…

  7. You know, I never read this one! Surprising, isn’t it? I’m glad you’ve done such an outstanding summary though because now I have little desire to read it. Oh, I suppose it has its good points, but I’m not at all sure I’d enjoy it (and why read unless it’s enjoyable, especially now that I don’t *have* to, heehee!)

    • Haha – but you’re missing out this time! This really is a great one, especially for the descriptions of rural life back then. Plus you get to sympathise with Tess and call the men in her life lots of rude names… 😉

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 He really is such a great writer – I don’t know why I got out of the habit of reading him. And for me, this is probably his most accessible book – Tess is so easy to sympathise with even when she’s at her most passive…

  8. I know I would probably really enjoy this book if I read it now, but unfortunately Hardy was ruined for me by the experience of having to read him for O level English. Isn’t it funny how our first impressions of an author can leave such a lasting mark (especially when we encounter them at school)?

    • I’m going to start a campaign to stop them making kids read classics at school. I was lucky that I liked Hardy when he was forced on me, but I still have an aversion to books about war because they made me read All Quiet in the Western Front and I hated it – though, like you, I suspect I’d love it now if I could bring myself to read it again. Thank goodness they didn’t manage to destroy Dickens for me…!!

    • Mine too! I did think the ending went a bit over the top, but I kept seeing the visuals of Stonehenge from the gorgeous Polanski film in my head, so that reconciled me to it… 😀

  9. I have not read all of Hardy’s novels including this one but he remains one of my favourite Classics authors. I might be wrong here but from the books of his that I have read, he had a penchant for stripping his flawed male heroes/characters to the bare bones, so to speak; for example, Jude Fawley in “Jude the Obscure” and Michael Henchard in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. I look forward to reading this novel.

    • I haven’t read them all either, but I’ve loved the ones I have read. Yes, I do think he’s harsher on the men, but I also think he maybe gets into the minds of his male characters more realistically. His women can be a bit too pure and innocent to be entirely believable. I haven’t read Jude yet – I really must get around to it. Hope you enjoy this one!

  10. Nice review! How interesting that the author writes one way, and seems to mean another. Is he simply being ‘realistic’ for the time, or is he trying to prove some point? It’s so interesting to read these classics in a political way centuries later…

    • I couldn’t decide. It seemed to me as if maybe he wasn’t even aware he was doing it, because it just seemed so natural to him to kinda define a woman by her physical beauty. And yet he has a reputation as an early feminist. Yes, the Victorian writers especially always seem to have some political aspect to them…

  11. I was put off reading this after watching the BBC’s TV adaptation, starring the wonderful Gemma Arterton. Don’t get me wrong it was very good, but the story was so sad and rather depressing that I wasn’t sure I could handle the book! But as I love Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, I do really think I should give it a go, so I have put it on my new Classics Club list.

    • I didn’t see that adaptation (no surprise there, eh? 😉 ) but I loved the Polanski film when it came out in my teens – I wonder if my grown-up self will still love it as much. Yes, Hardy really doesn’t do happy, does he? But his writing is so good I don’t mind – I love all the descriptive stuff. I’m going to see if I can fit in a re-read of Far From the Madding Crowd sometime – another one I haven’t revisited since my teenage Hardy phase…

  12. Stunning review. I do believe Hardy represented Tess in the way society would view Tess to add realism. It’s a very heartbreaking story, I almost didn’t want to finish it because of how sad it was. And yes, the book could be summarised in the two words you’ve supplied: Poor Tess!

    • Thank you! Interesting – yes, perhaps that was what he was doing. Hardy is always depressing, but I love his writing so much it carries me through the sadness, especially when he’s writing about rural life.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting!

    • I’m surprised – I’d have thought this would have been your kind of thing! I loved it even more on a re-read so (once you’re up-to-date with your TBR) it might be worth giving it another go…

  13. Considering I had to study this book for my final high school year examinations, would have read it at least twice and wrote several essays on its plot, characters and themes, I remember little beyond the very basics of the storyline. I’m sure I;d appreciate it more now, especially after reading your review

    • I always reckon they probably put a lot of kids off reading by making them dissect the classics when they’re really too young. I always get more out of them now that I have… ahem… a few years’ life experience. I loved re-reading this one. 😀

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