My Rating: ****1/2 – 4.5/5
Tess Durbeyfield is a poor farm girl. Her father is an indolent drunk and her mother is, let’s just say, less than intelligent. After discovering that they may be the descendants of a more refined line of ancestors (the D’Urbervilles), Tess’ parents hope that she can improve their family’s fortune by sending her off to lay claim to their heritage, and hopefully improve their lot in life. Things certainly do not unfold according to their master plan. While there, Tess is seduced and taken advantage of by Alec D’Urbervilles. She ends up pregnant and returns home no better off, worse off in fact, than when she left.
After her return home, Tess’ child dies and she leaves once again, this time to start life anew as a dairy maid. In so doing, she meets and falls in love with the son of a parson, Angel Clare, who knows nothing of her past circumstances. After much prodding and pleading Tess agrees to marry him.
Right when I was just starting to really like the guy and felt reassured that he was a decent fellow . . . Wham! Tess confesses her past “sins” to him and he refuses to forgive her! He refuses to pardon her even though he has committed similar transgressions! In the span of about one page I went from liking Angel Clare to wanting to kick him in the face.
Tess is beautiful, gorgeous in fact. Except instead of being revered for her beauty she is condemned for it. She is seduced, taken advantage of, and then all blame for any “wrongdoing” is placed on her for being a temptation, a living, breathing, walking snare. The men in this novel have no accountability whatsoever.
If Hardy wasn’t such a great writer, I probably would have loathed this book. The story is hard to take. It’s dismal. It’s unfair. It exudes injustice from beginning to end. I will also admit that, great writing aside, by the last 60-70 pages I was tired of hearing about the dry roads, thorny hedges, and endless toiling. I wanted Hardy to get on with it and put an end to the misery.
Well, that he did. This is no fairy tale, folks.
Now, all misery aside, this is a very worthwhile book to read. Hardy surfaces the blaring inconsistencies and double standards regarding morals for men and women of the time. He opens a gateway to rural life and poverty in 19th century England. He conveys his message by way of a highly readable, engaging, and well written story. It is not a book that I care to revisit too often, but it is an important read nevertheless.