Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Book Review

Shockingly enough, I do read more than just Harry Potter.  I actually own Tess of the D’Urbervilles by accident – my Victorian Lit professor from the fall 2009 semester (best class ever!) accidentally required that we buy it despite having removed it from the syllabus.  Instead of trying to return it though, I figured that I might as well hold onto it and read it once I graduated.  And so I did.

A rather prolific poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy is well known for such famous novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd.  My first encounter with him was in my senior year of high school when I was required to read The Mayor of Casterbridge for an AP English class. Though much of my class really enjoyed the novel, I did not, nor did I come close to finishing it.  When I decided to hang onto Tess and read it at a later time, I had not yet put together two and two and realized that it was written by the same dreaded author.  Eventually, I did make the connection but I told myself that I’m older now, my tastes have changed, I’ve learned to find the good in things.  And that’s true; I did finish Tess, which is clearly an improvement on my part.

My feelings on Tess are quite mixed.  At some points I couldn’t put the book down and would read on late into the night.  This obsessive reading was tempered, though, by the rather high number of times that I fell asleep with it in my hands.  This is probably because the writing is rather schizophrenic.  Sometimes the narrator is detached and we get little more than “He said, she said” whereas at other times all we hear is the narrator expostulating on the background of the situation or place or character.  Sometimes the writing is melodic and beautiful, at others brusque and ugly.  It was hard for me to get a real handle on the writing itself because of how inconsistent it is.  This is probably partially due to the fact that the novel was originally published as several stories in different publications before Hardy put them all together, a practice common to that literary era.  An excellent and understandable explanation, though it doesn’t make Tess any easier to read.

The Broadview Press edition.
I would buy from them just for the
covers.  Yes, I do judge presses
by the covers.  Is that a crime?!
Before I go on, I think a quick review of the plot is in order for those who aren’t familiar with it.  The title character, Tess Durbeyfield, is the daughter of poor parents whose poverty is due largely to their laziness and fondness for drinking.  One day the father learns that they are the last surviving members of a noble family, the D’Urbervilles.  Tess’s parents send her off to marry the son of a family with the same name, with the intention of restoring them to their former position.  Tess is impregnated, though not married, and returns home disgraced. The baby dies and Tess leaves home again, meets a respectable young man who loves her, marries her, and then abandons her when he finds out her past.  There follows desperate poverty, exhausting work, sexual threat, stalking by her rapist, a crime of passion, and execution.  So yeah, it’s pretty much the most depressing thing ever.

Hardy does not tell us how Tess is impregnated, choosing rather to abandon his close narration at this point.  It is my opinion that she is raped, partially because the full title of the novel is Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (emphasis mine) and partially because Hardy has a tendency to abandon Tess at her moments of greatest vulnerability, yet another issue I have with the narration of the novel.  Also, rape matches much better with the overall tone of the novel than surrendering to passionate love.  Either way, she is ruined for good because nobody gave a crap whether the girl consented or not.

Tess herself is a pathetic little character, destined to poverty and untimely mistakes and constantly done in by those around her.  Loyal and hardworking, she is also dull, poorly educated, and easily influenced.  Being a woman in Victorian England, she is generally at the whim of those around her, whether that be her parents, her employer, or her love interest.  Despite the promise that this holds for many lovable characters, Tess lacks the snarky decisiveness of Elizabeth Bennet, the independence of Jane Eyre, and the passion of Maggie Tulliver, all of whom are in similarly helpless, impoverished positions.  Of course, Elizabeth, Jane, and Maggie were all written by women so Tess is not entirely to blame for her lack of spirit or any interesting qualities whatsoever.

Speaking of which, what about men writing female characters?  To be perfectly honest, I’m attracted more to Victorian female writers than their male counterparts and every time I read a Victorian novel written by a man I am reminded why.  Their female characters are often hollow shells of what women were expected to be, which offers an insight onto how women were viewed at that time, whereas their men are actual people.  Just think of Angel Clare, Tess’s husband: educated, witty, decisive, free to go and do what he pleases, he is everything that Tess is not.  Even her rapist is more multi-faceted than she.  In fairness to other Victorian male writers, I haven’t read that many of their novels so if anybody wants to recommend something to me, please do.

My biggest problem with Hardy in this novel is what I mentioned above: his abandonment of Tess during her times of greatest vulnerability.  Yes, I know that I’m supposed to think about the text independently of the author and that it is the narrator who is to blame but when a poor, sad, abused girl is left to the wiles of a man stronger than she with far less morals, I need somebody more tangible to blame than a nameless, bodiless narrator.  That’s you Hardy!  As somebody who gets far too involved in books, it actually pained me to know that Tess was completely alone during those moments, without even a disinterested narrator to hold her hand.  Also frustrated as a reader to not be allowed access to her thoughts.  Which is giving me ideas for my next story, should I ever complete the collection I am currently should be writing.

One more note on Tess before I give up this hopeless attempt to make sense of my feelings towards it: pages from the end, Tess and Angel stumble in the dark upon Stonehenge.  Freaking Stonehenge.  Yeah, I know it’s been there since long before Hardy’s time, but I have never once actually associated it with British literature.  Nothing I have read has ever described it or even mentioned it.  My point is not about the novel but about how I have two very different conceptions of England: there is the England of novels, where accomplished ladies play and sing and madwomen are locked in attics and men hunt at their leisure and orphans ask for more and an infant defeats the greatest Dark Lord of all time; and then there’s the England that I can see and touch and read about in travel books.  It’s bizarre when these two Englands intersect and prove that they are the same place.  Do you know what I mean?

So my feelings on Tess are mixed, and with good reason.  It offends me as a woman, a feminist, a friend, and a writer.  But sometimes it was good, or at least captivating.  I’ll probably give Hardy a chance.  Though not until I finish rereading Harry Potter!  I also have to say, I'm astonished at how much I managed to say about Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  If you made it this far, I apologize.


  1. This is one of my fav novels ever, Hardy was among a few authors who could depict the human condition in the late victorian era through focusing on certain individuals (examples). Themes of fate and chance are mostly highlighted in his works. These two themes relate to every reader as they represent the struggle each one of us has in life.. life/choice vs chance/fate. Thanks for the review, I really enjoyed reading your post :)

  2. I had to read this for one of my classes in undergrad, and I HATED it. So. Much. Naturally, my prof loved it and would rave about how wonderful it was when all I could see was how insulting it was to women. He kept raving about Hardy when all I wanted to do was smash Hardy repeatedly with a hammer. Or an axe.

  3. Oh man, that reminds me that I completely forgot half my rant about the treatment of women in the novel! It would have included this quote (which I noted for that very purpose):

    "So easefully had she delivered her whole being up to him that it pleased her to think he was regarding her as his absolute possession, to dispose of as he should choose." (261)

  4. Hi Jennifer

    You might like Book Drum’s illustrated profile of Tess, which incorporates maps, music, video, pictures and background information to bring the book alive for modern readers:

    Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Book Drum

    All the best