Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy
ages: adult
First sentence: “On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.”

Men are jerks.

Really.

That’s basically the bottom line that I got from this book, the one that I stomped around the house growling about, that I vented on the phone to a friend about, once I finished the book.

Men — all men, from fathers to lovers — are just basically going to take a woman’s innocence, their good hearts, their good will, and stomp. all. over. them.

Cheery, isn’t it?

For those who are unfamiliar with this classic, Tess Durbeyfield is part of the Victorian working poor — oldest daughter of a lackadaisical farmer. When her dad inadvertently finds out that he’s a decedent of a noble family — the d’Urbervilles — he decides (practically pushes out the door) to send his daughter to a branch of the family who lives in a nearby town in order to beg them for money.

Male jerk #1.

Tess, being the kind, good, loving daughter that she is, does her father’s (and mother’s — she’s not much better!) will, and heads out. There she meets Alec: pretty boy, ladies man, and who is completely and utterly smitten with his “coz”. (Because as these things go, Tess is not only pure, but beautiful as well.) He pursues her very aggressively, and while she’s able to withstand his advances for quite a while, eventually he rapes her. Or at least, that’s how I see it.

Male jerk #2.

A short while later, Tess up and leaves the house and ends up back at her parents’ place. She gives birth and while the baby dies shortly thereafter (a very touching, passionate scene with her desperately trying to get the baby baptized before it dies), she’s determined to move on with her life. Fast forward a couple of years, and she gets a job at a dairy farm where Angel Clare is working.

A bit about Angel — he’s a gentleman’s son, and an enlightened Soul. He was meant for the Church, but unable to commit because of a lack of faith. And so, he decides to be a gentleman farmer, setting about visiting farms to get training. He falls head over heels in love with Tess, because of her purity and earthiness. She tells him she’s no good for him, that it would be better for him to marry one of the other dairymaids. He persists, and eventually she gives in (either these guys were REALLY persistent, or she really didn’t have much of a backbone), agreeing to marry him. On the wedding night, they decide to be confessional (word of advice: the wedding night is not a good time to be confessional). Angel confesses to having a short affair, whereupon Tess gets hopeful: perhaps he will be sympathetic to her plight. So, she tells him about her past.

Male jerk #3.

Actually — at this point, I don’t know who I was more incensed at: Alec for abusing and using Tess for his own personal pleasure or Angel for being such a merciless hypocrite. I had to put the book down for quite a while (a day or so) before I could deal with the story again.

Tess is totally the victim here, and it’s very frustrating for me as a reader to experience that. Especially since Tess is really the only sympathetic character in the novel. All that said, Hardy is a brilliant writer; engaging, descriptive, gorgeous language. And able to span all the emotions — from love to hate to disgust; he’s a master. The rest of the book is totally downhill, of course. A criticism of Victorian society and norms and a portrait of good intentions gone horribly wrong couldn’t have a happy ending.

That said, I’m not sure I’m going to run out and get more Hardy any time soon. Unless someone can convince me that it’s not full of horrid men. Because, I’m not sure I can handle much more of that!

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15 thoughts on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles

  1. I loved this book. Difficult to read, horribly unfair, just wanted to scream at the characters the whole time, but it illustrated so much about society and it was so beautifully put together…I just loved it.

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  2. I did neglect to say (in my overly long rand) that I too really liked the book. It was so beautifully written. And I think getting angry at the characters is actually a sign of a great novel — that the author could make you care enough to feel strongly about it takes some talent.

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  3. I read this book in 8th grade, and I've never wanted to read another Thomas Hardy novel since. It was just so ridiculous and over the top.

    *spoiler*I read a copy from my school's library, and unbeknownst to me the last chapter had fallen out. So for years, I thought the book ended w/ Tess killing the guy and then walking away. I thought she got away with it! And I think that's a much better ending. πŸ˜‰

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  4. I read this several years ago, and I actually thought that Hardy's main point is that there is no God, and basically that Christ is a failed Savior. I think that is the secret that Angel had to tell Alec after his conversion which undid his conversion. I think he accomplished this through being over the top with Tess's circumstances. Anyone would agree that Tess is put into one unfair and difficult circumstance after another by bad men. I think her killing Alec at the end summed up his theme that there is no redemption and no God, and that basically man is left to himself. Certainly if we were left to ourselves and there was no God life would be more like it is portrayed in Tess of the D'Ubervilles. However, this is just my opinion. I know a lot of people who think the book is about women's rights. I just cannot concur with that conclusion.

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  5. I'm not a fan of Thomas Hardy. Though I think this is probably my favorite of the Hardy that I've read (which is more than I'd like to have read but that's a whole other story!)

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  6. I just remember thinking that every horrible deadly sin known to man happens in this book.

    Perhaps that is part of its appeal to some people? πŸ™‚

    Hardy's stuff is very depressing and the characters are extremely horrible in many ways. And most of the men are jerks. I don't remember any good ones, but maybe I've forgotten.

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  7. I've been a lurker for a while, and thought I would tell you how much I love your blog!:)
    I read this in high school, and hated it. I might read it again though, since that was 10+ years ago, and see if I like it any better.

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  8. Oh yeah men are jerks- that's pretty much the gist of it. Tess just gets kicked around so much partly because she's poor but mostly because she's female.

    A little happier Hardy novel is The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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  9. I love this book! Hardy's intentions to push people's buttons about the huge discrepancies he saw in the way men and women were treated obviously still works today. I teach this to my AP Lit. students, and they may not love the story, but they love the furious emotions they get from reading it. I will have to say, that I loved seeing that you also kind of reacted with gusto as well! I can't say whether you should pick up another one, but will say that they all really hit at some point that either shocks or disappoints you about our human nature!

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  10. Far from the Madding Crowd is my favorite of his. I hear Hardy was in a good mood when he wrote it. The dead count is relatively low in the end, and it ends happily. Who knew with a Hardy novel.

    Tess is my second favorite. I think the hypocrisy of the time was one of his main points in the novel. I really liked this book, but I love Wuthering Heights too, so there you have it!
    Great review!

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