Saturday, August 27, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In high school, we were assigned Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. I loved it so much I read more. However, so many years have passed, I don’t remember much about any of his novels. So I decided to re-read Hardy for the back-to-the-classics challenge. Although I intended to re-read The Return of the Native, when it came down to it I picked up Tess of the d’Urbervilles instead.

This is a painfully beautiful story of a woman wronged in every conceivable way. I wish I could remember my response to it when I was a teen, because I imagine I see it differently now. Or maybe not.

Tess is the ideal perfect woman. The daughter of uneducated, poverty-stricken, adverse-to-the-idea-of-work farmers, Tess is intelligent, industrious, and strikingly beautiful. Her father is a drunkard who, unfortunately, is told that he is a descendent of the noble d’Urberville line. In order to achieve the wealth and respect he believes he’s entitled to, he tasks his daughter with presenting herself to a rich woman a few towns away whose name is d’Urberville. He’s sure the woman will set them up in style, just because.

Tess is more sensible than her parents, but unable to disobey them. She goes to the home of the d’Urbervilles where she meets the wastrel son, Alec. He gives her a job taking care of the chickens, then pursues her relentlessly. She rebuffs him time and again. However, eventually she is caught off guard and raped.

Tess flees home and has a baby who does not survive. Although she is now a ruined woman, she nevertheless manages to find a job as a milkmaid in a different town. She is as pure at heart as she ever was and all her coworkers are fond of her. There she catches the eye of Angel Clare, a studious young man, son of a parson, who is learning how to be a farmer. He is captivated by her innocence and beauty.

The two fall in love. Angel proposes marriage. Tess resists as long as she can, feeling unworthy of Angel. However, his persistence wears her down. They are wed. But on their first night together, she confesses her past. Horrified, Angel rejects her.

For the remainder of the story, Tess tries to make her own way without Angel. Her living situation goes from bad to worse. She is essentially the only bread-winner for her family and they are no more sensible than they ever were. Through various twists of fate, Alec d’Urberville finds his way back into her life. By the time Angel recognizes the error of his ways, it’s too late.

The story is old-fashioned, but also challenges the social conventions of the time. Tess is a fallen woman and believes herself to be unworthy of Angel’s love, but the reader can’t help but feel indignant for Tess and infuriated at the men in her life–none of whom deserve her. Although a modern reader can feel impatient with Tess’s tendency to let people treat her as a doormat, in the bigger picture one has to see that she’s trapped by her circumstances. None of this is her fault. And that’s what makes this story so tragic. Tess deserves better, but there were no good options in her life.

I have more of Hardy’s work on my shelf, and will have to make time to re-read more of his books now that I’ve reacquainted myself with what a marvelous a writer Hardy is.