Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Tess of the D'urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy Review

Somewhere in the countryside of rural England, John Durbeyfield, a common man, is walking home. The local clergyman passes by and addresses him cordially as "Sir John" and he is thereafter informed of his connection to an extinct aristocracy. Meanwhile, his eldest daughter Tess Durbeyfield is on her way to a local village dance dressed in her best white attire. By chance, three young men (brothers) happen to be passing through. The elder two are practical, pragmatic, and dry, but the youngest is bright with youth and insists on stopping to dance. He takes the first girl he sees as a partner, and just as he is about to take his turn with the gorgeous Tess, he is called away for the sake of time. Tess returns to her impoverished home (complete with a large family of children) and learns of the "joyous" news: her father is a d'Urberville.

Despite this newly discovered connection, Tess insists that the family move on as usual but when their horse and only source of income dies, she reluctantly follows her mother's advice and undertakes the journey to search out the only other living (and conveniently wealthy) d'Urbervilles left. She arrives at a magnificent house, where she comes in contact with her handsome and strangely charming "cousin" Alec d'Urberville. He arranges for her to receive a job at the mansion, all the while keeping an eager eye on her. Inexperienced, vulnerable, and completely unused to the world beyond her little village, Tess resists his strange attraction to her having no idea where his motives really lay. She's unable to recognize the signs around her that point to trouble and is soon lured by Alec into a trap and raped by him.

Tess returns home distraught, confused, and ashamed after refusing any financial help from Alec because of her disgust. She eventually gives birth to his child, who dies during infancy and is unable to be properly baptized or buried because of its illegitimacy. Deeply hurt and depressed, Tess leaves her home again to make a fresh start and earn money as a milkmaid. It is there that she meets the young and handsome Angel Clare, who she immediately remembers as the boy she almost danced with a long time ago. The two form an immediate bond and Tess falls in love with him despite all her attempts to resist him. In a society where virtue, purity, and morality are the pillars of desirability in a woman, Tess is a haunted victim of her past. Now she faces losing the man she truly loves by risking the truth, and she must discover whether the future can hold happiness for someone so plagued by the misery of the past.

I read this book two years ago and after finishing it I was immediately convinced that I would despise it forever. The book is bleak and dark; not in the twisted and cruel way Wuthering Heights was but in a pensively sorrowful way. Somehow I felt like Tess was not a good heroine. I mentally accused her of being weak and essentially brainless. Even then, however, I wasn't able to put it down. I left it alone for a few years, but recently reread it and realized just how beautiful a novel it really was. Yes, it is frustrating to read. Every reader wants to place the blame on someone. The bleakness that permeates Tess's existence makes the audience despise humanity; women for being so easily led and men for being heartless and manipulative creatures. Yet, this is exactly what was intended.

Thomas Hardy reversed the gender roles during a time period in which women were the lustful and tempting seed of evil and men were the pure, entrapped lambs. Tess's life is filled with contradictions and complexities that create controversy in her views of happiness and morality. She is hard pressed from all sides. On one hand, her mother scolds her for being too open and truthful and on the other she is being tormented for hiding her past. Tess is the perfect protagonist; a complex character who evolves as the novel unravels with each page. By the end, the reader finds that the more corrupt Tess becomes by worldly standards, the more virtuous we hold her in our minds.

It is the complexity of the characters in the novel that creates the intrigue. Tess is not the only person to analyze; every major and minor character is multi-faceted and essential to the telling of her story. Nothing is coincidental. In the midst of this strange "love story", the reader discovers a poignant social commentary by Thomas Hardy that will turn the wheels of your mind. It is absolutely captivating.

Oh, and there is also an AMAZING BBC adaptation to accompany it for anyone interested. Absolutely breathtaking. 


  1. Such an unbearably sad tale. The last two adaptations have been good, too.
    I stayed at the Crown Inn at Marnhull, Dorset a little while ago. It featured as the "Pure Drop Inn" in Marlott, and nearby was the model for Tess' cottage. Such pretty country.

  2. It is quite a sad, and frustrating, tale to read. When I read it though I didn't really feel Tess was a weak heroine. It seemed to me as if Hardy was saying some things are just fated to be a certain; that some people's lives are always going to be difficult and they'll never be able to disentangle themselves from the mess. Which is quite tragic, I guess.
    But I couldn't stop thinking about that. Especially, close to the beginning of the book, when Tess and her younger brother start talking in the carriage after delivering the milk. They are laying down and looking at the stars and Tess says something along the lines of "Some stars are blighted, and some aren't, and you just have to live with the one you end up with." Obviously she didn't say it in those exact words but that's the gist of it. And Hardy pretty much strands poor Tess on a blighted star :( So even when it looks like good fortune might befall her, the good fortune just becomes twisted into another vine that ends up choking her.
    *sigh* It's such a depressing novel.

  3. @Supergran: I loved the most recent adaptation. I think it was really casted perfectly. The other one was was good as well so I really enjoy them both. And you always have so many stories to tell supergran! Hopefully one day I'll be able to go everywhere you've been.

    @Lady: I think the first time I read the novel, I read it a little too quickly and didn't really give Tess's story time to sink in. That's why I decided to give it another try after watching the '08 adaptation. I saw something in the adaption that made me understand the novel a little more so I revisited it and loved it. Tess is actually amazingly strong to deal with what she's been given. The story is depressing, and I did cry at the end, but I feel in love with it.

  4. I'll have to get around to watching the adaptation soon. You're right - Tess is quite a strong heroine, and there was a time when I resented Angel. The novel seems a string of 'what ifs': 'What if he'd forgiven her sooner'? 'What if Tess hadn't decided to accompany Alec that night'?
    But Hardy was also quite ambiguous about whether it was really rape or not. He writes of it as being an infringement, of something pure being tainted - but when Angel questions her Tess never denies being involved. When I first read it I kept thinking 'Why doesn't she just say that it was forced, that she had nothing to do with it?' but maybe she did. Or maybe she felt she did. As you say, they viewed women as being the sexual predators at the time so maybe she thought she was at fault?

  5. I read the book when I was 19 & I liked it even though it is a very depressing novel. I own the '08 adaptation on DVD. I'm glad that Tess and Angel had a few days of happiness together before Tess died. Gemma Arterton plays Tess very well.

    A sad and tragic novel.

    Leeds, England.

  6. @Lady: There are a lot of 'what ifs' in the novel, but that's what's so great about it. The reader really wants to see Tess get even just a little bit of happiness because we know she deserves it. The rape thing was also very complex. I've always thought that she was raped, but because Tess was so young and innocent at the time, she shouldered the guilt thinking that somehow it was her fault. And of course, the society around her has ostracized her and condemned her enough to make her really believe that she sinned.

    @Kate: The '08 adaptation was breathtaking. I read the book first and saw both adaptations later and it was the '08 that really allowed me to grasp the vital point of the novel.

  7. I read the book for my gcse English, at the same time watching the '08 adaption.
    The thing that really grates on me and what confuses me the most is, the fact that in the book, Alec is a good character, but I don't like him... Where in the adaption, Hans Mattheson plays him so well to a point where you can see genuine love for Tess when he speaks to her, that I didn't want her to murder him, even though I knew it was coming, and when she did I got a bit tearful.