A ne'er-do-well exploits his gentle daughter's beauty for social advancement in this masterpiece of tragic fiction. Hardy's 1891 novel defied convention to focus on the rural lower class for a frank treatment of sexuality and religion. Then and now, his sympathetic portrait of a victim of Victorian hypocrisy offers compelling reading.
Why do I keep reading your books? No one, and I mean no one, treats his characters (or her characters) as badly as you do. Well, maybe with the exception of Upton Sinclair, who must have been greatly influenced by you.
I read Jude the Obscure several years ago and closed the book with a "Never Again." I was sure I could not bear to read another one of your books after somehow finishing it in spite of that awful letter from the kids "Because we are too menny". I can't figure out what your overall point is except that if one is poor, one is destined to be miserable and that is all there is to it.
I guessed what Tess would be about just from its title. I've read lots and lots of other 19th century fiction. Many books have treated the issue of women who lose their chastity, as it would have been put at the time. Many books are pretty grim about their fate. However, you manage to make it worse than the norm because your characters are so very sympathetic.
As I read on, I know that Tess' life is going to go from bad to worse, that her ridiculous level of nobility will end up undoing her, that all bad things will happen to her. Sure enough, but what else would we expect of you.
What is the point, Tom? Why do you write these novels? What do you want your readers to do? Unlike Dickens, you don't seem to be a social reformer. You don't seem to ever paint the slightest possibility of an alternative to all this woe. On the other hand, your respectful-but-not-convinced portrayal of evangelical Christianity doesn't seem to show religion as a way out, either. Were you just trying to convey existentialist despair? Weren't you a little too early for this?
I am really giving you up this time. This is it. You have been too cruel on your characters and your readers and this is the last of your novels I plan to read. How could you, Tom? You are too cruel, and I will never forgive you.
Either Hardy's views were more strongly developed since the publication of his earlier works or he, emboldened by his literary success, now had fewer qualms about expressing his anger toward the God whom he believes is most likely not there. In any case, the doubt and questioning of God are much more pronounced in this novel than in either The Mayor of Casterbridge or Far From The Madding Crowd. As Tess's greatest advocate, Hardy argues that she would not be so miserable if it weren't for the "accepted social laws" regarding morality that her society forces upon her. He's mad at the Christian conception of God as a harsh taskmaster (as shown by the wandering man who paints biblical texts of judgment and hellfire on barns and fences). And yet at the same time, Hardy is mad at the Christian God for not being there to prevent great evils and make sure that human relations progress toward the best interest of each party. Hardy is a mass of contradictions. God is blamed for not intervening, but God is also blamed for how He has intervened. God is cruel; God should be different from what He is; God, in Hardy's opinion, has failed.
And yet Hardy's writing is rich with biblical allusions and metaphors. He can never quite repudiate his early upbringing, but he has to replace God with something — and, like a true materialist, he settles on the deification of nature instead. Humankind is made to worship, and worship we will, even if we remove God from the picture. Hardy emphasizes natural law over moral law; over and over again he reminds us that Tess's troubles are not because she was raped, but because people hold to "arbitrary social customs" that have "no foundation in nature." Nature is freeing; society is restrictive. And Tess—a character clearly loved by her author—is pretty much an extension of the natural world. Hardy writes that country women, when they work in the fields, become a part of the natural landscape in a way that men can't. Hardy loves describing nature, and does so frequently. Rural life is somewhat romanticized (not entirely, though, especially with Flintcombe-Ash farm), while the cities are distant places of misery and evil. The happiest times of Tess's life are spent in isolation from or in very limited contact with society as a whole. The message is clear: nature is god, and society (and the Christian God) shouldn't be.
As a Christian of a stamp that Hardy would probably dislike, I can't quite explain my appreciation and enjoyment of his work. He questions, casts doubt on, and sometimes even attacks my beliefs, and yet somehow he does not anger me. On the contrary, I feel a sort of indulgent pity for him. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing, because I certainly appreciate that he was wrestling with very hard things and I don't have pat, easy answers either. Maybe it's our very differences that have created my fascination with his work. I had trouble tearing myself away from this audiobook; I was thoroughly invested in Tess's story (and was, consequently, rather saddened when I reached its unhappy ending). Just last night I was at a library booksale and I swooped down upon a lesser-known Hardy title, The Trumpet-Major, with a sense of having snagged something good. For all that I dislike Hardy's pessimism and distaste for biblical Christianity, the man can write. And his books are works of art.
The characters are so complex and realistic. Hardy has to force himself to do justice to Angel's parents, who are portrayed as strict and somewhat narrowminded Calvinist fundamentalists. For all his dislike of their beliefs, Hardy does manage to paint them realistically and even with charity — a gift that he says they possess to the full measure. Tess's parents, shiftless and passive spectators of their own lives, remind me of people I know. Alec d'Urberville is another well-rounded character, even in his role as the pursuing demon of Tess's life. Somehow I never could completely hate him, hateful as he was. I did think that the name "Angel" was rather unfortunate for the male protagonist (I hesitate to say "hero"). But as a character he's very sympathetic, even if his rigidity and double standards frustrate the reader.
This audiobook was read by Stephen Thorne, who makes excellent work of it despite his limitations when it comes to voicing female characters. At times I was so eager to learn what happened next that I was tempted to pick up the printed book, but the excellence of Thorne's narration always won out and I patiently listened to all of it.
I'm not sure Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a book I will ever revisit, so heartbreaking was its effect, but I feel richer for the experience of reading it. Though Hardy and I would never agree on things spiritual and moral, I've gained a greater appreciation for his attempts to show the problems of misapplied Christianity and to offer a different solution. He offers the wrong solution, but he does try.
At the beginning of the book, Tess Durbeyfield's father learns he is descended from a great family known as D'Urberville, and sends the 16-year-old Tess off to meet a branch of the D'Urbervilles living nearby. Her parents hope she will make a good match and better their social status and economic prospects. Alec D'Urberville is smitten with Tess, but seduces her and treats her cruelly. Tess returns home having disappointed her parents. Later she makes her way as an agricultural worker, meets Angel Clare, and falls deeply in love. As the son of an evangelical preacher, Angel has his own "issues," which get in the way of their relationship.
As a Victorian woman, Tess is largely dependent on others: her parents, the landowners she works for, and men she hopes will bring her happiness and security. She is thwarted at every turn. In many cases, Tess is part of her own undoing through her naivete and submission to male figures. And at the same time she is a strong figure, persistent in the face of adversity and able to take a single, decisive action when she has finally had enough. I will remember Tess for a long time.
Tess is all innocence, vulnerability, and well-meaning ignorance. Decended from a now-impoverished line of a noble family, she and her family are resigned to a life of hard work. Her life is thrown into upheveal when she becomes the pawn of two rich men: Alex, with bad intentions, and Angel, with good. No matter what their intentions, their meddling sends Tess to her downfall. She overcomes seduction, or rape, depending upon your interpretation of the scene, only to suffer the hypocrisy of the man she loves, who cannot forgive her for having the audacity to be forced upon. Classism clashes with the reality of the poor working woman's life. Injustice is a major theme, and Hardy spends much time on bringing home the point that Tess, though not a bad person, is constantly outcast as a sinner. If this all sounds familiar, think of its American counterpart ``The Scarlet Letter." But while Hester Prynne wears the symbol of her sin on her breast, Tess carries her shame inside of her, only to cause a furor when she confesses under the innocent delusion that Angel will forgive her. With Hester's sin exposed, society can gradually adjust ot the idea of her disturbing presence. Tess's sin confessed disrupts the illusions of her innocence, causing her to be rejected in an impulsive burst of hypocrisy, immaturity, and vengefulness. In fact, we can judge the morality of the characters by the way they treat Tess.
The book is rife with symbolism, a dream for English majors bent on interpreation. Those simply reading for fun may be put off by Hardy's wordiness. He often says thirty words when five will do, but this is all part of his distinguishing style. If you're the type to get lost in words, Hardy is an excellent choice of an author.
Tess is an amazing protagonist - beautiful and pure at heart, she stalwartly endures the major change in circumstances thrown at her throughout the book, tearing our hearts apart with her readiness to carry the can for the men who have wronged her. Alec d'Urberville is a superb and complex villain of conflicting layers, and Angel Clare... well, let's just say Hardy played with his character so cleverly at one point I shouted aloud "what a complete s**t!" much to the surprise and consternation of my husband.
These trials and tribulations were all played out with the backdrop of Wessex painted as if with an artist's delicate brushstrokes. I watched the mist clear across lush green valleys as I walked side-by-side with Tess along the lanes and byways, felt the dew on the hems of my skirts, and felt the warmth of the sun on my face as I looked out across the dairy courtyard to the views beyond.
My only criticism with this book is with this particular Penguin Popular Classic edition, which felt a need to give away most of the plot on the book jacket. This spoilt a number of plot points which Hardy had done a great job of concealing, and seemed very unnecessary.
5 stars and then some for the literary equivalent of John Constable.
The injustice of a society with different sets of rules for men and women, Christianity vs pagan symbolism, the Industrial Revolution, and the class system of Victorian England are some of the interesting topics this book covers. The only thing I didn't like about the book was the ending – the final chapters just didn't seem to fit with the rest of the novel.
So, if you haven’t read this book yet give it a try – you might hate it...but you might just love it like I did.
The brilliance of his writing is just breathtaking. The scenes he creates are incredibly beautiful. Alec is such a brilliant villain because of the very fact that he is so relatable to different men. As Hardy himself says, Tess’ own male ancestors probably did the same thing to peasant girls. It's so horrifying and common at the same time and Alec has no real understanding that what he's doing is wrong. He knows what he wants he decides he's going to take it. There's no consideration for anything else.
Tess’ family is poor, but they discover they are descendants of a wealthy local family. She is sent to befriend the family and see if they can improve her own family’s situation. She meets Alec D'Urbervilles and soon her life is changed forever. I can’t say too much more without spoilers, except that it’s a powerful book, but not a cheery one.
I’ve never hated a character as much as I hated Alec. He is a rapist, a manipulator, and worst of all, he honestly doesn’t think he’s done much wrong in the first half of the novel. At one point Alec says something about how Tess shouldn’t have worn a certain dress and bonnet because it made her too pretty. The “you were asking for it” mentality was present even back then when dress was far more modest. It was so frustrating and infuriating. He manipulated every situation, forcing her to be alone with him, to rely on him for help, etc.
His condescending nicknames made my skin crawl. When he calls her “Tessie” or “my little pretty” it made me nauseous because she was shrinking away from him and begging him quietly to stop touching her. She said again and again that she did not love him and she was scared of him. She never feels comfortable with him. From their very first interaction, as he makes her eat strawberries from his hand, she is uncomfortable and wants to go home immediately. There was no infatuation only a feeling in her gut that he was not someone to be trusted.
On top of that, Angel’s absurd double standard for his actions and her actions was infuriating. The worst part is that both men, the “good” one and the “bad” one share the same mentality about the situation. Both blame Tess but never themselves. The same attitude is around today, even though women have many more options, they are often shamed when they are sexually assaulted.
The book is split into different phases and the second one begins after the infamous event. Tess is so broken; she's not even scared of him anymore because he's already done the worst to her that he could possibly do. She's resigned to her fate and full of sorrow. I kept thinking about how many other women over hundreds of years have gone through the same thing and are just completely broken afterwards and no one understands why. The man took something from her that she did not want to give and society treats it as if he didn't really do anything wrong. They justify it and say things like, maybe she gave off the wrong signals or put herself in a bad situation. It's just horrible.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not a cheerful book. Every time Tess’ situation improves, heartache is just around the corner. But Hardy deals with it in such a raw and personal way that it is relevant even a century later. His writing transcends the subject matter and I’ve learned that I’ll read whatever he’s written.
** My Penguin Clothbound Classic edition discusses the different versions of the novel that were released. The original release presented a much harsher version of Hardy. Apparently he toned it down and made him more appealing in later versions, which is interesting.
“‘I shouldn’t mind learning why the sun do shine on the just and the unjust alike,’ she answered with a slight quaver in her voice. ‘But that’s what books will not tell me.’”
“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”
Hardy weaves a poetic tome about the beautiful and likeable Tess, a peasant girl taken advantage of by richer man. Her "lack of virtue" will cost her self-esteem, her true love, (the saintly Angel Clare) and eventually...everything.
The pros: You've got to love that Thomas Hardy was willing to tackle the serious subjects of his day. He uses this novel to demonstrate the vulnerability of the poor and the innocent in a world that is changing from an agricultural-based community to one where cities are growing and farm machinery is taking away the jobs of the peasants. The novel, first printed in serial form in 1891, was considered a shocking social commentary in its day. I read somewhere that people would debate Tess’ virtue (or lack thereof) over dinner parties.
Hardy also knows his craft. His word pictures of his rural Wessex landscape can be haunting. He takes his time fleshing out Tess and you can tell he wanted her to be a sympathetic, full character.
The cons: Well, it’s a Victorian novel and full of the intricate melodrama that marked the genre. What I love about their poetry is what I hate about their prose. He subscribes to a novel form that slows down the action with a lot of inner dialog and a viewpoint from at least two characters for every turn of the tale.
I’m a child of the post modern novel and it’s hard for me to fall into the paragraph-long sentences or not to want to kill Tess off in the middle of a long rapturous description of a threshing machine. Hardy uses 446 small-print pages to describe what could have been said in the same amount of words as a good ghost story.
The verdict: It’s worth a read. It holds up well as long as one understands from when and where it came. If you dare to follow Tess on her ill-fated journey come prepared with snacks and a dictionary and plan for a long, long weekend.
That's not to say I didn't love it.
I won't rehash the plot; there are wonderful examples of critique, criticism and plot summaries all over the internet. I found Tess to be a complex character -- while she is certainly a very tragic figure, she is proud, able to face adversity and determined to do what it takes to survive in the most trying of situations. The male characters of this novel I found to be the least likeable, no matter who they were. But on the other hand, it also struck me that one could argue that men like Angel were also victims of the times -- although he felt himself to be more idealistic than other men of his generation, and although he escaped his father's plans for his future, he was still a product of ingrained proper Victorian society, where scandal could ruin a "good" family. He has to go to a place where societal ideals mean nothing before he turns himself around. As a human being, this doesn't excuse his behavior, but it does help to explain it.
I enjoyed reading this book, but it was like watching the proverbial train wreck -- you just know what's going to happen and yet you cannot turn away. I see many more books by Hardy in my future. I'd recommend it for others who might be considering reading this author's works; if you're not into tragic heroines you may consider skipping it.
Overall, a fine book, one I'm very happy to have read.
The first section was a little slow, but it picked up considerably about a third of the way in, developing into almost-edge-of-the-seat stuff, before giving way to melodrama towards the end, and a conclusion that really shook me up.
It made me think about the way things have changed, how this story could never happen in modern times because moral values and society have changed so much. Not always for the better, but on the basis of this tale I know which age I'd rather live in!
One gripe - Angel Clare doesn't sound remotely like a bloke's name.
The book is reminiscent of ancient Greek classics in several ways. The characters live tragic lives, some linked to the downfall of their ancestors. There are also natural and spiritual forces at work. Hardy even interjects narrated commentary that immediately reminded me of the remarks we hear from the Greek chorus of the great plays. I suspect such narrative seemed very modern in the late 19th century.
Also Modern were some of Hardy's phrases, such as the "vegeto-human pollen" he describes in a village dance scene.
To me, the primary struggle Hardy was exposing was the balance between human nature and societal norms. Several times, he interposed comments such as: She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature. Given the time in which this book was written, I also believe Hardy was showing the tension that comes with our migration away from agrarian society. The description of the threshing machine and the engineer are examples supporting this.
There is one thing that bothers me: I think Hardy contorts the narrative (and narrator) to make Tess utterly blameless (in a way he doesn't do with Jude in Jude the Obscure or Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge), and I think this dilutes her effectiveness as a character. Just once, I wanted to see her make a mistake or wrong choice because it was something she wanted to do, not because of ignorance or innocence. It would have made her more relateable.
The writing was at times a bit too much for me for the reason that I get annoyed at many 18th and 19th century novels...namely, that Hardy focuses far too much on minute descriptions and in-depth analysis of setting and location. Don't get me wrong, I love a vivid and lush environment and I much prefer a fleshed out character to a flat one. I just sometimes feel that all of the flowery descriptions slow down the story telling element too much. There were a few paragraphs/pages that I tried to skim through in order to get to the next relevant points of plot. Still, I don't know that I'd want to edit out the descriptive text since it does comment on the narrative itself in a metafictional sort of way.
The main characters in this book are wonderfully composed. They are absolutely and completely frustrating but they are superbly crafted nonetheless. I wanted to smack each of the main characters on many occasions.
Tess is far too willing to simply be acted upon and then to bemoan her fate. Alec is an absolute pig (although towards the end of our experience with him, it's debatable just how awful he truly is). And Angel is far too inconsistent to be liked at all...at first he seems almost lovable...then he deserves to be hated...then he seems slightly adequate...then he becomes repulsive again...he's just far too wishy-washy in his behavior and ideals to ever be fully redeemable.
The story itself falls into the realm of realism taken to its extreme. The plot elements felt almost like the Bible story of Job...whatever could go wrong willgo wrong. And even though Tess was generally found to be almost whining about her circumstances rather than trying to make things better for herself, the story was still rather thought provoking since it makes you wonder just how you would handle horrific circumstances and what can truly be done about them. Is it better to try and solve the problem or better to just let fate and happenstance take its toll.
Personally, I try to make the best out of any bad situation...perhaps that's why I like "depressing" stories...they make me realize my life could be worse and they help inspire me to always think of the best possible outcome.
I'm sure this book won't be for everyone. Those who want a happy fairy-tale romp through a girl's life would do better to stay away. Those who are easily frustrated by fallen characters, will find themselves hating all of the primary roles in this book. The book isn't terribly lengthy (~300-400?) but some of the longer descriptive passages do crawl by at times.
Still, I whole-heartedly recommend this book to those who are willing to look imperfection and awful situations square in the face and come away smiling. It's not a happy book. It's not a terribly fast past book (which can also be frustrating...I wanted to shout Just do it to Tess many times).
But it is a wonderfully rich book and definitely worth getting into.
4.5 stars (out of 5)
"Justice was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess…” Well, I don't know Mr. Hardy.
Throughout that though, I ploughed on through the book, realising very soon, that there was no happy ending. Not the happy ending that I wanted.
Irrespectively though, I did really 'enjoy' this book. I found it very well written, descriptive and a book that had the ability to grab me and keep me intrigued.
I would recommend this book.
Tess Durbeyfield comes from a poor family that are descendents of the noble D'Urbevilles. In the hopes that Tess can marry a distant cousin, Alec D'Urbeville, Tess' parents send her to work in his household. Instead, young Tess is seduced by Alec and her reputation is ruined. She goes to work as a dairy maid in a distant farm where she is unknown. She falls in love with a handsome gentlman, Angel Clare, throwing Tess in a dilemma of whether or not she should tell Angel of her past.
This book is a wonderful example of the double standard of sexual conduct held during Victorian times between men and women. Although Tess' problems are really caused by men, she pays the ultimate price for their behavior. I found this story haunting - so beautifully written and told, and so sad. Wonderful narration by Simon Vance!
What always impresses about Hardy is his ability to link the cultural to the psychological. (I guess this is really what naturalism is all about, and he was probably its foremost British practitioner.) We perfectly understand the sometimes poor choices that Tess makes, both on the level of the cultural forces operating on her (Victorian society of course had a lot of expectations for the way women should act, which didn't always accord with what they encountered in the real world), and on the level of individual psychology (Tess always has a perfectly good reason to do what she does-- and somehow so does Angel and even Alec!). My students and I came up with the idea of "active passivity" to sum up Tess: she seems to never do anything... but not doing something often requires enormous force of will on her part. She puts so much work into not reacting so that she can fulfill what society expects of her. She's a victim of herself and her circumstances, in a way that really only a Victorian novel can depict.