Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

Published: 1891

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.

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11 thoughts on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles

  1. Very nice review. I read Tess back in the late 90s during my “Thomas Hardy phase.” I distinctly remember the ‘unfairness’ theme throughout and also hating the fact that Angel Clare didn’t ‘step up’ when he should have. Grrr…

    Have you read any of the other Hardy novels? Return of the Native was my favorite by far, but Jude the Obscure was also very good.

    -JC

  2. JoAnn, I think this would be a great book club choice. It would probably generate a lot of discussion.

    JC – This is my first Hardy book but I do plan to read more. I will check out Jude the Obscure.

  3. Loved the darker shades in ‘Tess of D’Urbervilles’, which are usually not so prevalent in books written during the Victorian era. After I read a few more by Hardy, I realized that that’s his style – love it! I also liked his ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.

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  7. I listened to Tess on a rental from Books on Tape in August 1984 and again six years later, same month. (a long interval of recovery time) The book was read by Jill Masters with full British accent, melodious euphonious voice, and a slow, emphatic reading style that maximized the pathos of the story. It was a wringing-out experience to listen, and I was reduced to tears by the continuous heartbreaks that happened to Tess, especially drawing towards the conclusion. The second listening was somewhat easier to take, and thankfully not as shattering. It is gratifying to find someone who felt the book this way, as you did. Your reviews are most interesting from a literary standpoint, and I like that you allow humor and down-to-earthness to shine through.

    • Thank you!
      Tess was my first Hardy and I was so devastated by her story that I didn’t return to Hardy for months. However, I’m glad I did as he’s become a favorite. Have you read Jude the Obscure? Talk about heartbreak! I’m really eager to reread Tess. As I was unfamiliar with Hardy at the time, I’m sure there are many Hardyesque features that I missed during my first reading.

      • I’m very appreciative of your reply. I’ve read all the Hardy novels including Jude except for the three my book of Hardy criticism calls the “novels of ingenuity.” These being: Desperate Remedies, The Hand of Ethelberta, and A Laodicean. This last is said to be his most autobiographical. The character that supposedly stood for Thomas Hardy in Maugham’s Cakes and Ale was said to have never written a page that wasn’t “extant with beauty.” My paperback copy is also copiously packed and chock-full of classical and Biblical references that the author employed in a chapter-by-chapter format that an in-depth reader like yourself would appreciate. One of his poems that I like is “Great Things.” “Barbara of the House of Grebe” is a short story that I remember as being of a brutal nature in the husband’s psychological treatment of his wife. I hope you get to reread Tess among your many reading projects.

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