Werner's Reviews > Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
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Mar 15, 09

bookshelves: classics, books-i-own
Recommended for: Fans of 19th century fiction
Read in January, 1997, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** My rating for this novel is based on Hardy's technical artistry, and on the power of the emotional reaction that the story evokes. I'd have given it only 3 stars if I were basing the rating strictly on my own personal enjoyment of the book, but that's only because I don't really enjoy heart-tearing tragedy, which this is (happy endings don't abound in Hardy's Wessex). Tess is the sort of heroine I can readily like and respect, but that makes her ultimate fate all the more gut-wrenching.

Like Jude the Obscure, this novel offended Victorian "propriety," in this case by its obvious criticism of the conventional gender-based double standard for sexual sins (Angel's reaction to Tess' following of his example in sharing a wedding-night confession made me want to reach into the pages and shake some sense into him!), and by its contention that, as the subtitle "The Story of a Pure Woman" says, a woman who's borne an out-of-wedlock child --in Tess' case, as a result of what we'd call "acquaintance rape"-- can nonetheless be a pure and decent person. For me (and I think for most readers), these points aren't problematic. Neither am I, and probably most other readers, inclined to shed any tears over Alec's stabbing; while I recognize that he's a human being, my sympathies aren't very engaged on behalf of a rapist and total jerk. (I've never been a major fan of the insanity defense in criminal law, since I think it's often abused; but I think a claim of temporary insanity on Tess' part would have been completely justified.) The subjective problematic elements of the story for me, on the other hand, are theological.

Most of Hardy's work actually portrays tragic situations as the result of lousy attitudes and behavior on the part of his characters, which have consequences both for them and for others. (This is entirely consistent with the classical literary tradition of which Hardy was a contributing part.) Modern critics don't find this congenial, and usually ascribe the cause instead to impersonal Fate; the problem with that is that there's little in Hardy's work itself that suggests such an interpretation. The bulk of this novel follows his usual pattern in that respect; but at the end, he ascribes Tess' sufferings to the callous whims of God. Not taking that view of God myself, I naturally find this off-putting. (In fairness to Hardy, though, that's a view of the cause of suffering that would arise naturally from Calvinist theology, with its denial of free will and its assertion that God wills everything that happens. That view was a strong strand in the British evangelical tradition in which he was raised, though he rejected it as an adult; the Rev. Mr. Clare's reference to "election" in this novel suggests a Calvinistic theology.) Likewise, Hardy's mirroring of his own religious skepticism in Tess and Angel, and his portrayal of Christian conversion as completely ineffectual to bring about any genuine moral transformation in Alec, is obviously uncongenial. But those caveats don't diminish the human interest of the story, the force of its moral messages, or the vividness of the characters.

So, this is a very real story about very human characters, and well worth a read --and not just for historical interest in Victorian fiction. But it's probably best read with a tissue box handy, especially if you're inclined to be emotional!
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Dolors What a wonderful review! You're so right about Hardy's...the only title I can think of which has a more-or-less happy ending is Under the Greenwood Tree, a short and innocent love story which has a nice BBC adaptation as well...
But even though I mainly agree with you about Hardy's pessimistic views of life and his general mistrust of the values of men , I also think he did a great job describing the English rural life in the XIXth century.
And, I'd even dare to say that he was a kind of a "feminist" in his own particular way, always defending women's virtue, and also because a lot of his stories imply that they should be treated as equals...and that was certainly new!


Werner Thanks, Dolors! Yes, I think Hardy was definitely a feminist, of the equalitarian sort (as opposed to a so-called "gender feminist" of the type promoted today in some quarters); one doesn't have to be female to be one. (I think of myself as an equalitarian feminst, as well!)


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