Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tess of the D'Urbervilles 
by Thomas Hardy

Rarely have I ever had such a visceral reaction to a book. I have read a few other Hardy novels and so at this point I expect tragedy. But this one still blew me away. It broke my heart in so many ways, but Hardy’s writing made the whole experience oddly beautiful, despite the inevitable disaster that you know if coming.

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 Alec 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.”


JoAnn said...

I read this for a Classics Club spin a year or two ago... it redefined my whole idea of a tragedy! I loved it.

Amy said...

I love Thomas Hardy!

Heather said...

This was one of the first books I read in high school that I actually loved. And yes, Alec is absolutely the WORST. Doesn't it feel weird to say that such a...miserable...book is a book one loved? Hardy's writing though...goodness. Just so good.

o said...

I remember being so impressed with this book when I first read it. Incredible book. I must re-read it one of these days, it truly is a masterpiece.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

JoAnn - That's a perfect way to phrase that! Hardy did that for me in Jude the Obscure too.

Amy - Me too!

Heather - That's exactly what I was thinking. How do I say I loved it when it was so painful... but I did.

O - Seriously, I can see myself retreading it one day.

*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

Okay, I need to read this.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Corinne - I wish I hadn't waited so long!

Brona said...

I had a very similar response both times I read Tess. The double standards infuriate me. I got angry at Hardy, furious at Tess' parents for their neglect & even annoyed with Tess by the end for not being stronger!

I love it when a book moves me so strongly :-)

Great review - it brought it all back for me.

Anonymous said...

Yep. I am so glad I braved to read Far From the Madding Crowd after reading Tess. Madding Crowd is SO MUCH MORE happy. or, at least much less tragic.

Anonymous said...

This is on my TBR Pile Challenge as well, so I skipped the spoiler part of your review. But just reading your first paragraph has made me glad that I put it on the list. I'm really looking forward to reading it now.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brona - I felt so angry too! It was such an intense read.

bkclubcare - That's the one I want to read next! I'm glad to hear it's not quite as sad. I don't know if I could do two of those back-to-back.

mybookstrings - I can't wait to hear your thoughts. I've been thinking about reading another Hardy this summer because it was so powerful.