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.