This post contains major spoilers.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the story of the book’s namesake. Tess is a young peasant girl who comes from a family that is intellectually and emotionally less advanced than her. As a result of their somewhat silly pretensions of nobility, Tess sets out in the world, at their encouragement, to seek out her fortune.
Early on, she is raped by the abusive and narcissistic Alec d’Urberville, and the rape results in a pregnancy. Hardy seems to have understood the psychology of sexual assault survivors very well. Tess’s subsequent reaction to the assault plays out very realistically. She does not reveal the nonconsensual nature of the incident to others. Though not entirely rejected by society, Tess is an object of shame due to the pregnancy. When her young infant dies, she once again sets out into the world.
She meets and falls in love with the seemingly honorable Angel Clare. However, shortly after they marry, Angel discovers some of the details of Tess’s past. He subsequently shows himself to be priggish, hypocritical and cold. Despite the fact that he himself engaged in past indiscretions, he more or less abandons Tess.
Once again, Tess strikes out into the world to endure great hardships. Alec appears and, in stalker-like fashion, begins to infiltrate Tess’s life again. Things end badly when she eventually kills him. Though she briefly reunites with a repentant Angel, the book ends with Tess’s execution.
It bears noting that the behavior of the male characters in this book is extraordinarily bad. Tess’s father is an irresponsible drunk. Alec is an abuser and rapist. Angel, who seems to initially behave decently, is perhaps the most frustrating character of all. He leaves Tess in a spate of childish hypocrisy, despite the fact that his own past included a sexual indiscretion. Hardy clearly did not have a positive image of his male cotemporaries.
In this work, Hardy seems to be attempting to describe his take on the state of human society. It is a complex view. The author appears to be depicting something of a duel level Universe. He first illustrates the absolute failure of multiple bastions of society. The failures of manhood, Christianity and modernity, and the prevailing economic and moral systems, are among the factors that conspire to make life impossible for Tess and ultimately lead to her destruction.
Underneath this pernicious structure of society, something else seems to be going on. The book is full of hints about something older appearing out of society’s past. The narrative is full of references to a pagan past and to a spiritual connection to the natural world. Furthermore, there are numerous references to the fact that society’s disapproval of Tess is based on something unnatural and contrary to the old ways.
“Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism, she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly."
There is so much to this primeval connection contained in this book. For instance, fertility is referenced over and over again, often in relation to Tess herself. Furthermore, Alec seems to represent the dark, satanic forces inherent in the Universe. The text contains a mixture of Christian and pagan symbolism when it comes to his character. At one point, he appears near a bonfire,
“The fire flared up, and she beheld the face of d'Urberville. “
Later, he even compares himself to the devil as he is speaking to Tess,
"A jester might say this is just like Paradise. You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. “
The work is filled with references to society’s failures, as well as to this dark, non-Christian foundation. The feminine underpinnings of this Universe seem to be one of the only positive and bright spots in an otherwise dark Cosmos.
These ancient, naturalistic connections seem to reach their height when, in one of the final passages in the book, Tess lays upon an altar at the legendary site of Stonehenge.
Many of these allusions to the pagan underpinnings of the world in this work remind me of similar connections made in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” However, in Bronte’s work, these ancient and feminine roots seemed to be somewhat triumphant in the end. In the case of Hardy’s novel, however, they are utterly destroyed by a malicious society. This is indeed a pessimistic worldview presented in this novel.
This novel is bleak. While it is not without hope, and at times portrays the best of humanity, it often illustrates the worst. Despite its pessimism, it is populated with brilliantly crafted characters, and the writing is top notch. I have only scratched the surface in regards to its philosophical musings. I highly recommend this one for readers who are not afraid to look at the darkness inherent in reality.
I have a bit of a difficult relationship with Hardy as I had to study The Mayor of Casterbridge for O Level (a process that sucked all the enjoyment out of his literature for me). It took me quite a while to go back to him, but I'm glad I did. Tess was one of my favorites (along with Far from the Madding Crowd), so thank you for this reminder. Insightful commentary as ever, Brian. Wishing you all the best for 2016.
Hi Jacqui - This was the first Hardy book that I have ever read.
It is interesting how a bad experience can make us, at least temporarily, adverse to a writer.
Have a Happy New Years!
Tess was such a difficult but rewarding read!I found the religious, moralistic tones of the novel quite interesting, too.
Have a good start to the new year!
I still hvaen't read Hardy and this is one I own, so I only skimmed your review (sorry). I know many people love him but I think I would find him too bleak. I want to try him though. And then, Ill be back.
Happy New Year, Brian
I read Tess for a Classics Club spin a couple of years ago and it redefined my idea of a tragedy. It's hard to love book like that, but I thought it was brilliant. Haven't read much more Hardy, but Far From the Madding Crowd was one of my favorites this year... it's practically cheery when compared to Tess. Great review, Brian.
My love of Thomas Hardy's novels began when, as a teenager, I read The Return of the Native and much preferred it over Eliot's Silas Marner which was required reading in school. Subsequently I've read most of his novels and continue to appreciate his writing in spite of the dark view of humanity that you identify in Tess. This view culminates in his final novel, Jude the Obscure, that has one of the most brutal scenes in literature, yet is perhaps his greatest creation.
In Tess the contrast between Alec and Angel is striking as is (always with Hardy) the use of nature as background. His Wessex seems anachronistic considering the age of growing industrialization in which he was publishing. I enjoyed your focus on the pagan implications of Hardy's symbolism which makes so much sense in light of his own atheism.
Hardy seems to be able to create fascinating female characters; Eustacia Vye from The Return of the Native or Bathsheba Everdene from Far From the Madding Crowd share with Tess a certain Hardy strength of character in spite of their differences.
I have never read any Hardy books. This sounds intriguing. I finally read Trollope! I'm looking forward to settling in to some reading for the new year. Here! Here! to a better reading year in 2016. There's so many that I want to read.
Hi Bina - Thanks for stopping by,
The difficulty of this novel is novel is worth noting. In particular, I found Angel's actions to be the most unbearable and tough to read about.
Hi Caroline - If you want to avoid bleak then I think it is best to avoid Hardy.
No worries about the skimming. That is why I put up spoiler warnings.
Happy New Year!
Thanks JoAnn - Perhaps "Love" is indeed the wrong word for a book of this sort. Like a fair number of other classics this book is too dark and harrowing for such a description.
This was my first book by Hardy and I want to read more of his works.
Hi James - Thanks for the great comments. I would like to read more Hardy. His bleakness seems to be difficult and the brutal passage that you allude to may be a showstopper for me in regards to Jude the Obscure.
Tess is really a brilliantly crafted character. Alec and Angel are truly great creations and their contrast highlights this. They seem top both represent the failure of manhood but in very different ways.
Yeah! At last, a book we have in common. I read this one many a year ago. Perhaps a book I should revisit as I'm sure I'd get more out of it now than I did.
Wishing you and yours all the best in 2016 Brian.
Hi Heidi - I am so happy to hear that you read Trollope. He is such a different writer from Hardy.
The thing with this book is that it is so dark that I think that any recommendation to read it needs to go with a little caution.
Here's to a great reading year in 2016!
Hi Tracy - I find that reading things when one is older is a very different experience.
Happy New Years to you and your family!
Brian,I hope the New year is especially good to you and yours.
Brilliant commentary here, Brian! I greatly enjoyed reading your insights!
This is a very bleak novel, indeed. I read it years ago, and it left a lasting impression on me, although I don't remember all the details you mentioned -- specifically, all the pagan references. I really must read this book again in order to catch them. However, I hesitate to do so, because it's just such a depressing read....
I remember feeling righteous indignation, too, when I first read this novel, because of the double standard. It's EXTREMELY unfair for women to be judged more harshly than men regarding sexual behavior. And, in spite of the feminist movement (of which there have been several waves), that old standard is not quite gone.... Yes, women do have more sexual freedom now, without much social censure, but still, men are still supposed to have more sexual experience before marriage than women do. And men are still judged lees harshly in cases of adultery.
This novel is very fatalistic in tone. Tess was doomed from the start; there was really nothing she could have done to escape her horrible circumstances. And, most horrible and sad of all, she actually internalized society's view that she herself was responsible for being raped.... She felt shame for something that was not her fault. And later, when she meets Angel, she even tells him that she is not worthy to be his wife. How very sad....
It was horrible that Tess was destroyed, but she had to be, in order for Hardy to make his point: the society of the time was horribly demeaning to women, and hypocritical in the extreme.
What I find saddest of all is that such a novel had to be written. Had women's situation been much more favorable at the time, this book would have been totally unnecessary. I am happy, however, that this novel was written by a man. This indictment of the hypocritical Victorian society would not have had such a great impact had a woman written it. That's a very sad statement, but nevertheless, a true one. I wish Hardy were around today, because I would definitely write him a letter thanking him for writing this novel!
Of course, as a Christian, I would much prefer it if men would adopt the former female standard of virginity before marriage, instead of women now adopting male sexual behavior. This might sound chimerical and even ridiculous, but it's the Christian ideal. Paradoxically, the Hebrew patriarchs had several wives, and God never lifted and eyebrow at this, to speak metaphorically....
What I totally DETEST is society's holding men and women to different standards of sexual behavior, and refusing to acknowledge the hypocrisy of doing so. As the old saying goes, "it takes two to tango". One cannot be judged as guilty and totally disgraced, while the other is actually PRAISED for the very same behavior the former is condemned for. Either BOTH are engaging in shameful, immoral behavior, or neither one is. Having it both ways is just logically and morally unacceptable and repugnant.
i think I need to steel myself and re-read this book!
Thanks for your excellent analysis!! Happy New Year!! : )
Thanks Diane. Have a Happy New Year!
Hi Maria - It is striking that this book was written by a man. Especially since the behavior of men in this book is so Universally bad. If this book had been written by a woman I think that it might have been labeled misandry.
Hardy was amazingly sensitive about the plight of women. In this book this is illustrated over and over again.
I do not agree that society should adapt celibacy before marriage as the preferred standard. I think it is a choice that most free people would not choose and I do not think that it would be a benefit for most. With that, I am a believer in freedom and I think that society needs to stop ostracizing people who choose celibacy before marriage.
The double standard that you refer to still is evidence of a society that needs change. I do think we see the change happening but it is never fast enough.
Happy New Year from R.T./Tim at the new and improved http://beyondeastrodredux.blogspot.com/
Happy New Year RT!
Glad to see that your blog is still up.
Hi Brian, I have yet to read Hardy but I do want to try and read more classics this year so I'm adding this to my to read list. It goes without saying that Tess sounds like she led such a difficult life. This is definitely the type of book that would drain me.
Thanks for your thoughts on this one and happy new year!
Happy New Year Naida.
One thing that made this book so troubling is how difficult the life of the protagonist was.
I have a difficult relationship with Hardy. He's so tough on his female characters, and I find 'Tess' to be relentlessly bleak and sad. It's a wonderful novel, though. You might like Far From the Madding Crowd. I think that's my favourite I've read so far.
Hi Violet - I have heard folks say that they had problems with this novel because of what happens to Tess is so unfair and cruel. It was an ugly depiction, but his sympathies with always 100% with her.
Thanks for the recommendation. I will read Far from the Maddening Crowd soon.
My Apologies to Sharon whose comment I inadvertently deleted. Fortunately I as able to retrieve the text which I am posting here:
I've read most of Hardy's works and this is a great one. It's interesting how our own personal beliefs can color how we see life. Tess was treated unfairly, however, Christian morals were put in place to protect women, not hurt them. If she had had a family who was there for her to protect her against her oppressor it wouldn't have happened. If Alec had practiced Christian morals he wouldn't have raped her.
Because out side of Christian morals, what did he do that was wrong? Outside the Christian framework he was just exercising his own sexual freedom. I know you would disagree with that, but then you would be imposing your own values on poor Alec (sorry, I know that's tongue in cheek).
And why did she return to him in the end? She murdered him. That is Hardy's expression of his personal beliefs in fate.
I prefer Hemingway, Chekov, and F. Scott Fitzgerald because of their honesty. They say, yes, we're immoral but we're not going to pretend it's good or anything other than what it is and it's our choice, not fate.
In my opinion Hardy is not honest. He was a great believer in fate. As you say, he wanted to show Christianity as a failed system and he wrote a work of fiction to support his point. That's very convenient. The people with Christian values naturally come off bad. (Interestingly they don't in Far From the Madding Crowd.)
But what does Hardy offer people in return? Fatalism. Bad things happen because we are prone to bad things and we can't escape it. Tess ended up hanging for her crimes. In the end, I suppose Tess was empowered because she "executed" her rapist. Not so helpless after all, I guess. But then again, by Hardy's terms she couldn't help killing him or help being hanged herself. Take it a step further, I suppose Alec was "fated" to rape Tess while she slept. Her baby was fated to die etc..
You believe we should all have the freedom to choose our sexual lifestyle. As St. Paul said, "All things are permissible but not all things are beneficial."
I believe your own posts about the victimization of women, even in our "free" modern times supports that."
Hi Sharon – Thanks for making me think. But I do disagree with several of your points.
I believe in a free society people are able to choose their own path, but within reason. I do believe that this is the case even if some folks think a particular lifestyle is not preferable or healthy. With that there are undesirable paths and thinking folks will understandably call that out. There are also paths that are so damaging to individuals, prostitution for example, that are best kept illegal. Common sense and moderation need top be part of our decision making process.
There is an enormous line in being free to choose for yourself and forcing your will on others. Alec forces his will on others.
With that, in my opinion Christian belief in sexuality is not the only healthy path one can take in life.
One does not need to follow the Christian thought system to be moral. Alec is a rapist, and a controlling man. That is immoral. It seems evident that this basic morality is inherent in the minds of most humans. But that is a discussion for future posts :)
I agree there are enormously beneficial things about the Christian belief system. It is indeed protective of people. On the other hand, some forms of it, particularly the form that Angel practices are, in my opinion, over -judgmental and damaging. Other parts say things about the role of women that are untenable and unfairly discriminatory. Many Christians reject this judgmentalism and discrimination but some others embrace it. It seems that is what Hardy was trying to illustrate here. In fact Angel’s father, who may be the only moral male character in the book, seems all about forgiveness as applied to Christianity. Though an atheist, maybe Forster was not against all Christian beliefs.
I must mention that nothing in my posts identified or implied women are generally victims. The word victim is way too strong. One can critique society and say that it is being unfair to a particular group without going as far as calling folks victims. In my opinion this is how society improves. If we cannot critique society in this way, it seems pointless to talk about the world or try to make it better.
Nice review Brian. Both Hardy and DH Lawrence seemed ahead of their times eh? Just to think of feminist issues and such. I would like to read them both again as I have forgotten much. Despite the darkness, Hardy seems to champion these doomed characters, right?
Hi Susan - Indeed Hardy was very sympathetic to Tess and the role of women in this book.
I have read both the Rainbow and Women in Love by Lawrence. He really created strong and complex characters who were women. I found the character of Ursula, to be extraordinary.
Strangely Lawrence has been accused of misogyny based on other things that he wrote. That seems difficult to reconcile with the these two books. I have not read the works in question so it is hard to know for sure.
Hi Brian! I appreciate that you cared enough about my response to post it anyway, especially since we don't agree on everything.
I wasn't going to respond because this is a book review venue and not a forum for philosophical debate but I've been thinking about it all week and decided to say what's been on my mind.
I appreciate your response. I know that many Christians don't act, well, Christian. It's important to know what the Bible actually says about our attitude towards others. It says judge not lest ye be judged and the amount of mercy you show others is the amount of mercy that will be shown you. (Matt 7:1-3). And Jesus himself when confronted with a woman who committed adultery told her accusers, "you without sin cast the first stone" he then told her he neither condemned her and to sin no more. (John 8:11)
Sorry, not trying to preach and neither do I think people are converted by winning an argument with them but I felt the need to give a defense for what I believe is the truth.
I want to leave you with one last thought: You say that morals are inherent in all people. The Bible also says the the truth is written on the hearts and minds of all men. (Romans 2:15)
If there is a God and He is good and our creator, of course He would imbue all His people with a conscience. You can say evolution produced it, but I would like you to explain to me how that happened.
Anyway, I hope you and your wife had a wonderful new year and I look forward to future reviews and exchanging of our ideas. Take care!
I love philosophical discussion in my comments section. I think that it relates to literature in a of ways.
I actually agree with a lot of what you wrote.
I think that there is great wisdom in parts of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. The passage from Romans illustrates that.
I also agree that the fact that there is morality built into our psyches is not an argument against the existence of God. If there is a God he clearly created a Universes where physical laws apply everywhere we look. thus it is only an argument that physical laws apply.
As for morality and evolution: Cooperation and forming social groups such as families, communities, etc are instrumental in the survival of individuals. Morality is a key component in the establishment and maintenance of such social groups. A moral individual can be trusted by others and can establish social ties.
Though these ideas are not new to mw I just completed Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. In it he summarizes these concepts. I will be blogging about that book soon.
I read this book as a teenager and it hit home powerfully. It is a book I should reread as an adult. Thanks for all the reminders by tweet and this post about the complexity, beauty, and tragedy of this book.
Hi Rachel -
This was my first read of it. I think that I would have found it less affecting when younger.
Your use of the word "beauty" is accurate and interesting. It is striking how such a dark work can also be beautiful.
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