Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover via Goodreads.

Cover via Goodreads.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

My professor introduced this novel by saying “Tess will change your life… but not in a good way.” Without a doubt, it has made me question the universe and all who inhabit it. My hatred of the patriarchy (aka Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare) still shines like the sun in the middle of a hot summer day, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles has filled me with a cold, dark despair over the injustice of existence. As if a college English major didn’t already have to dwell on that.

One day Tess Durbeyfield learns that she actually descends from the noble D’Urberville family. This sounds like good news – after all, Tess is responsible, attractive, and takes action when necessary. Instead, Tess learning about her lineage leads to the first of her many downfalls. Her family’s horse dies when she’s behind the wheel, the creepy and unattractive Alec D’Urberville keeps trying to get with her, and her relationship with the love of her life, Angel Clare, ends in sorrow. Still, Tess perseveres, even with fate and everyone else in her life moving against her.

In creative writing class, our professor always tells us to torture our characters. Thomas Hardy knew how to do that: every time Tess would earn a smidgen of happiness, he would smite her and send her sprawling. Hardy addresses several themes, such as the unfairness and ubiquity of fate, the role of women in the nineteenth century, and the psychology of trauma victims. On a literary level Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens itself for a lot of discussion, even if it runs a little long.

The men, though. I’m just going to take a moment (or a paragraph of this review) to rant about the horrid, horrid men in this book. Alec D’Urberville is a manipulative, rich swine who steals Tess’s happiness as if it were his to begin with. Angel Clare, whose name acts as the ultimate irony, suffers from a delusional sense of self-importance and an all-consuming hypocrisy; the worst part is that he comes to his senses too late, and even then his intentions are questionable. These two characters develop and bring a tangible counterpart to the abstract concept of inequality throughout the book, but they still make me want to scream. My annotations consisted of several sassy comments, of course.

Even though there’s a high chance this book will make you rage over the unfairness of the universe and/or hate yourself for caring about Tess when her doom is inevitable, I recommend it because Hardy knows how to write a compelling novel. Tess’s journey, her interactions with her family, and the descriptions of nature all make Tess of the D’Urbervilles worth reading. I’ll end this review with a passage that exemplifies Hardy’s wonderful writing style:

How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it: all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind, with such persistent iteration, the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no: they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.

*you can also check out my brief thoughts on Backbone by David Foster Wallace and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings here and here, respectively

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11 Comments

Filed under 4 stars, Book Reviews, Books

11 responses to “Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

  1. Tess is an interesting novel that explores many themes and I love that about it. I think that the character of Tess can be ridiculous at times, but I cannot stand Angel. Alec is a villain, but at least he knows he’s bad. I much prefer Alec to Angel’s character and most of my English class agreed.

    • Yeah, it’s frustrating as a reader when characters cannot comprehend the consequences and implications of their actions. All the characters in this book had flaws, including Tess, but some were certainly more unlikable than others. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. I really did not enjoy this book! I had the same rage that you have towards ALL of the male characters, but I also had rage for Tess. I hated the way she always blamed herself for everything! I found it so annoying!

    My memory of this book (and I read it a while ago now) is of Tess constantly trudging through the countryside feeling unworthy and guilty. I just wanted her to pull herself together!

    • Tess’s internal attributions were sad, and I can see how she could be frustrating at times: every time she tried to take action, her plans were thwarted. I guess Hardy really meant to show how women and others in her position had no way out. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Peter

    Great review, Thomas. Shelley said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world and I think this is certainly true in Thomas Hardy’s case. It was books like Tess that started the great impetus for the social change that we have witnessed in the West.When Hardy was writing women, like Tess, would generally have been ashamed of being raped – society insisting that somehow it must have been their fault. Hardy gets us to sympathise with Tess – of course it wasn’t her fault that Alec raped her – and, for the first time, readers’ sympathies and understandings began to change. It’s no accident that women, gays, children now have equal rights alongside hetersosexual men in Western society – writers have made society aware of the needs of the individual and, gradually, the laws have caught up.
    Keep on reading!

    • Peter, thank you for extending my thoughts and commenting on why Hardy wrote Tess the way he did. As my peers and I discussed in class, he makes sure to maintain Tess’s purity and innocence even though she does have sex. It’s great that novels like these could propel people to think differently about society’s rules through triggering emotional responses and empathy overall. Also, thank you for reading and commenting as always!

  4. Oh, gosh, yes, this book will make you rage indeed. As soon as I finished it, I felt this horrible, intense disliking to it – not because I hated Hardy (though I might have slightly), but also because I realized what he was saying, that sometimes life is just going to suck (understatement, I know) and there is just nothing you can do about it.

    Because, I mean, as you say, Tess is smart and resourceful, and following every miserable disaster she works to repair her life, and even seems to be on the way before something else happens and everything collapses around her again. Gah! Just seeing the book’s title on your post made my eyes glint in memory of my hate and sheer depression I felt at reading this book. And I can feel myself getting worked up *SIGH*

    Also, this made me laugh: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles has filled me with a cold, dark despair over the injustice of existence. As if a college English major didn’t already have to dwell on that.” Truer words and all that.

    I know Hardy’s other novels are equally dark – I wonder if his life held many hardships as well? His author portraits don’t really depict him as a particularly cheerful guy.

  5. Also, reading someone’s comment above just made me realize, that yes, Tess’s pious, martyrdom grated on me as well. As well as the males around her – Angel is certainly not excuseable, I think – and Tess is far too easy on him. I also, wonder, if he wasn’t so handsome, if he had been as repulsive as Alec, would Tess have loved him? And then, if she /had/ rejected him, then, would he have stopped himself from pursuing her as relentlessly as Alec did? Who knows? I know he’s called Angel for a reason, but he is far from perfect.

    • I feel like Hardy makes us question the “what-if’s” within the plot of this book. Along with all of your questions, what if the first death in the book (being purposefully vague) never happened? What if a certain letter had never fallen under the carpet? There were so many “just missed” chances that screwed things over, to put it bluntly, and it really does make the reader rage at the universe. Still, it’s a sign of a good author that we still feel invested in the book and in Tess despite the never-ending despair that runs throughout the book. We don’t give up hope, at least during our first read of the book, even when we should.

      Thank you for reading and commenting and for all of your insight!

  6. One of the must-reads on my list of books waiting for me to read it :)

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