Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy [A Review]

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the story of a young woman from a poor family, objectified, harassed and pursued by an older man with wealth and power over her. Though ‘more sinned against than sinner’, in an unequal society, the damage to her reputation is irredeemable. When a second chance at life unexpectedly arrives, Tess knows it is futile to try and escape her past, but the possibility of happiness in an otherwise miserable life is a great temptation.

John Durbeyfield is a poor peasant from the village of Marlott. Somewhat unreliable and irresponsible, not to mention a drinker, John has an equal partner in his wife, Joan. Both are easily content with a life of bare sustenance and simple pleasures, with little care for ambition or reputation and providing just the essentials for their young children. John, though, has just been informed that he is in fact descended from the noble D’Urberville’s, a family who go back to the time of Norman conquest and rule, now all but disappeared.

Their eldest child, Tess, has a greater appreciation for responsibility and respectability yet it is Tess who may reduce them to beggars after she has an accident that results in the death of the family horse. Joan encourages her daughter to seek out the D’Urberville family that has established itself near the town of Tantridge and claim kinship with them. Feeling a level of guilt and duty her parents never would, Tess embarks as requested.

But the very shiftlessness of the household rendered the misfortune a less terrifying one to them than it would have been to a striving family, though in the present case it meant ruin, and in the other it would only have meant inconvenience. In the Durbeyfield countenances there was nothing of the red wrath that would have burnt upon the girl from parents more ambitious for her welfare. Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself.

The D’Urbervilles, though, are no relation to the Durbeyfields. They are a nouveau riche family who have taken the name D’Urberville to add an ancient aristocratic air to their recent wealth. Tess does not manage to meet the family matron, Mrs D’Urberville, and instead has to deal with her son, Alec. Tess is offered a job and her parents encourage her to take it, hoping as well that Tess and Alec might marry and in doing so reunite wealth to the lineage and vice-versa.

But Tess finds Alec repugnant. He objectifies her from their first meeting and pursues her relentlessly, making her eat fruit from his hand, placing flowers in her bosom, forcing kisses on her. Tess, only about sixteen years old, is unused and unsure how to rebuff him. She is also conscious of how much her family is depending on her to work and earn which she could only do with Alec’s generosity. When she does find the courage to confront him, Alec plays the victim and engages in emotional blackmail to appeal to Tess’ guilt from her higher moral virtues.

Things come to a head one night when a jealous rival for Alec’s affections drunkenly challenges Tess to a fight. Alec rescues Tess from danger and they ride off together into the night. Alec leaves a grateful Tess in a grove while he supposedly gets his bearings. When he returns, Tess is asleep and…

What happens next was censored in the first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Later editions left the incident deliberately vague.

‘O mother, my mother!’ cried the agonised girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. ‘How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was any danger? Why didn’t you warn me?’

What we know for certain is that some several weeks after the fateful night, Tess leaves her job and returns home over the half-hearted protests of Alec who does not know that she is pregnant.

‘[…] if I had ever really loved ‘ee, if I loved you still, I should not so loathe and hate myself for my weakness as I do now!’

He shrugged his shoulders. She resumed –

‘I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.’

‘That’s what every woman says.’

‘How can you dare use those words!’ she cried, turning impetuously upon him, her eyes flashing as the latent spirit (of which he was to see more some day) awoke in her. ‘My God! I could knock you out of the gig! Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?’

Tess, still a child herself, already has a difficult life ahead of her. Since her shiftless parents have all but absolved themselves of providing for their children, Tess continues the backbreaking work of a farm labourer in the hope that her younger siblings might have a better life. Meanwhile she has accepted that love and marriage cannot be for her since it is impossible for a man of good repute to want a damaged and dubious woman such as her.

Almost at a leap Tess changed from simple girl to complex woman. Symbols of reflectiveness passed into her face, and a note of tragedy at times into her voice. Her eyes grew larger and more eloquent. She became what would have been called a fine creature; her aspect was fair and arresting; her soul that of a woman whom the turbulent experiences of the past year or two had quite failed to demoralise. But for the world’s opinion those experiences would have been simply a liberal education.

[…] While there’s life there’s hope is a conviction not so entirely unknown to the ‘betrayed’ as some amiable theorists would have us believe.

Tess Durbeyfield, then, in good heart and full of zest for life, descended the Egdon slopes lower and lower towards the dairy of her pilgrimage.

By the time she is twenty years old, Tess has found work on a dairy farm where her past is unknown. Here she finds good work for which she is appreciated and comradeship with the other women on the farm. But also on the farm is Angel Clare, an apprentice to the dairy farmer. Angel is the youngest son of a Parson and was expected to pursue a career in the church. But lacking the desire for the profession, not to mention holding some irreconcilable theological differences, Angel has, with the reluctant approval of his father, been able to pursue a calling more to his taste.

Handsome and young with strong moral character, Angel is an object of intense love for the women working on the farm. But Tess’ industriousness, her simple nature, her beauty and her, perceived, innocence, singles her out for his affection. Tess does her best to deter Angel from pursuing her. The thought of her past catching up with her is her greatest fear but her own love for him and the unlikely chance of happiness are overwhelming temptations.

Tess and Clare unconsciously studied each other, ever balanced on the edge of a passion, yet apparently keeping out of it. All the while they were converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the fifth Thomas Hardy novel I have read and in some ways it contains many aspects that would be familiar to the Hardy reader; a woman torn by having to choose between suitors; the restrictions, inequities and judgements women face from society, and a heroine who breaks with those expectations; social norms that interfere with people’s pursuit of happiness; a rural way of life disappearing under the strain of questionable progress and the tragic consequences of poor matches in love.

Tess is certainly one of Hardy’s most enduring novels. Half way through Tess, though, I was a little unsure how this reputation was deserved despite the shocking event of the possible rape of Tess. Unlike Hardy’s earlier novels, Tess has a smaller cast of characters. While Tess’ and Angel Clare’s parents have roles, as does the dairyman at the farm where they meet and Tess’ female workmates; they are mostly on the sidelines and Tess of the D’Urbervilles is mostly a novel about Tess, Alec and Angel. Half way through, the characters of Alec and Angel also lack the complexity I would normally expect – Angel is very good and Alec is very bad with little contradiction.

But the novel really comes through in the end. The plot takes some unforgettable and unexpected turns, the reader’s early estimation of the characters becomes welcomingly cloudy and it has a great ending. In the end, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one my favourite Hardy’s and one I am most eager to read again some day.

Tess was rejected by three publishers, with Hardy unusually refusing to make suggested alterations, before it was first published in periodical form in 1891. It quickly proved to be very divisive; the sort of thing that provoked heated arguments between friends over how to interpret it. The heart of the argument was the character of Tess and what happened to her. Was she, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, ‘A Pure Woman’? Mistreated and wronged by men and unequal society? Or was she a harlot who got what she deserved? Was she raped or is she a temptress? The uncertainty was enhanced by the fact that that periodical edition omitted the crucial scene. Instead, after seeing Alec at his most gallant, and Tess beginning to warm to him, we next see a pregnant Tess leaving him. Surely if readers knew what happened in between it would shift their opinion? The omission certainly helped secure the novel’s infamy.

I don’t usually read the ‘history of the text’ sections, typically of one or two pages, that are often included with classic books but, in this case, it was extended and essential. It is not clear that Hardy ever settled on a final version of Tess. Instead he reworked the novel with every edition. Not to offer any greater clarity. Rather, he added to the ambiguity by making the characters more complex and the crucial event less clear, making it harder for the reader to feel secure in their interpretation.

This Penguin Classics edition is based on an 1891 first edition that appeared after the periodical version and includes the parts originally censored from the periodical. This was the only edition which makes it pretty clear what happened between Tess and Alec on the fateful night. It is difficult to know if this is the best way to experience the story for the first time. Clarity can offer satisfaction but can also simplify a story. Ambiguity can be frustrating but when done well can really make a story more than the sum of its parts. The fact that the reader does not witness the event for themselves, and has to try and deduce from what they are given, means the novel replicates our experience of hearing real-life cases play out in the media.

I am glad that, by accident, I happened to read the clearer version first. At least, I think I am, even in hindsight. Now that I have read it, I think if I were to read it a second time I would want to experience the ambiguity of a later edition for comparison.

As I have come to expect from Hardy, there is a strong theme of the inequities of society’s treatment of women. Tess has little power of self-determination and is repeatedly wronged by others including her parents. There is a clear double-standard where society permits men to sow wild oats in their youth but women dare not lest they be ruined by reputation. Even men whose reputations have been damaged have many paths to redemption while women are tainted for life with no recourse. There is no defence for women wrongly accused; the fact that men have been tempted by them is deemed to be their fault as well.

Are there more relevant classic novels for our time? At least with regards to the new spotlight on sexual harassment and assault? Here we have a woman who is emotionally very young but physically mature and finds herself frequently objectified. She is poor, anxious for the well-being of her family and vulnerable, pursued by men who have power over her by their wealth and position.

I was surprised by how sexually explicit the novel was and like most Hardy novels, there are aspects that can be interpreted as being forward-thinking in hindsight. As well as drawing attention to the unequal treatment of women in society, there are many norms broken in Tess. From the inclusion of the possible assault itself, to the fact that Tess does not marry despite being pregnant, that she has and keeps the child and continues to work while nursing.

Unlike the Hardy novels I have already read, in Tess, the aspect of relationships between women is also a feature. The fact that Tess’ attractiveness draws the attention of wealthy available men means that she is the object of jealousy and contempt for other women. Gossip, curses and even violence are the result. On the other hand, Tess is also able to participate in a certain comradery amongst women who, like her, experience the drudgery of hard farm labour, the uncertainty of their future and the pain of unrequited love.

One aspect of the novel that I am surprised gets little mention are the strong religious aspects. The novel is filled with Biblical allegories, many of which, unfortunately, went over my head. I knew the stories being referred to, but the specific interpretations of them, or conflicting interpretations, Hardy was using to make his points was often a little beyond me. There is also a lot of pagan symbolism in the novel, drawn from England’s pre-Christian past. There is the difficulty Tess has in obtaining religious rites for her child born out of wedlock. Then there is the subplot of the theological conflict between Angel and his preacher father and brothers; their divergent views on religion have created a division between Angel and his family.

Once upon a time Angel had been so unlucky as to say to his father, in a moment of irritation, that it might have resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilisation, and not Palestine; and his father’s grief was of that blank description which could not realise that there might lurk a thousandth part of a truth, much less a half truth or a whole truth, in such a proposition.

Temptation is a strong recurring theme in the novel. Both Tess and Angel inspire strong feelings of physical attraction in those around them. Particularly Tess who, in some ways, is an ‘Eve’. She even has a fruit (a strawberry) forced on her. Tess’ wanderings through Hardy’s Wessex have been associated with the Fall of Man and the Exodus. There are also questions about the nature of morality raised in the book; whether morality can be determined by reason or whether it must be delivered and policed by divine authority.

One other noticeable aspect of this novel is that it was very poetic. Hardy is also, if not equally, regarded as a poet as well as a novelist. In Tess, more than in any Hardy novel I read earlier, the connection is plain to see. Tess is sometimes held as an exemplar of the use of pathetic fallacy and it is clear that the landscape, weather and animals have a voice in the story. There were some beautiful descriptive pieces that were too long for me to quote here. Long descriptive pieces are pet-peeves of many a reviewer, including sometimes myself, but in this case I found them very enjoyable.

The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is in the drowsy reverse.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a great novel. The shocking events and turns of the plot and the divisions over its interpretation take nothing away from its more literary qualities of the complexity of its themes and characterisation and its poetic language. Its ongoing relevance both commends the novel for its farsightedness and rebukes our own culture for how little it has travelled.

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4 comments

  1. Great review. I’ve been meaning to read a Hardy book for quite some time now – you’ve convinced me to pick one up! The quoted passages are so beautifully written.

    Since you’ve read so many of his works now, which do you most recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Your question is a hard one to answer. Far from the Madding Crowd is the safe choice – it’s one of his earlier novels, one of the most entertaining, contains all of his hallmarks, has two decent film adaptations to watch after you read and is probably the most popular. His later novels like Tess and Jude the Obscure have also endured well but partly because they were controversial for the time. His others have not endured as well but they are pretty good and different in their own way. I would start with Far From the Madding Crowd (I did) and then decide where you want to go from there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review, Jason! Tess is one of my favorite Hardy novels and I look forward to re-reading it again soon. There’s so much to ponder in the text, and I agree with you that it is still incredibly relevant today.

    Liked by 1 person

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