Steve's Reviews > Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
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Sep 07, 12

it was amazing
Read in May, 1983

HEADLINE: A bad guy who is fabulously talented in bed and a good guy who fumbles sex can complicate life for a girl.


I ought to have my head examined for undertaking a review of Tess of the d'Ubervilles, the next to the last of Thomas Hardy's novels. My purpose in considering the idea was that I might perhaps persuade one other person to read this novel who might not otherwise. I am all about service to my fellow man. However, there are strange aspects of this novel that when discussed in remove from the novel itself can make it sound off-putting. I will mention a few of those without emphasizing them. They involve weird twists in the plot handed us through the vehicle of some strange scenes. On the other hand I do not wish simply to offer diamond-like passages from this novel, although that is tempting. But let us take a shot here.

Tess is the eldest daughter in a poor family in 19th century England. The novel follows events in her life from the time she is sixteen until she is approximately 21, let us say. There are a multitude of detailed plot outlines of this novel to be found elsewhere on line. The only valuable supplement to those that I can offer is to say bluntly what those plot outlines say in such a roundabout way that it loses impact or can be missed entirely. Tess is one hot looking sixteen-year-old female human being.

It is out of the fact that Tess is one hot looking sixteen-year-old that all the action of this novel arises. At the time of her first seduction, or rape, she is described as one who has a "coarse pattern" laid over her "beautiful feminine tissue." So in picturing her, we must picture her as something much more than simply a pretty young girl, although she is certainly that. She is a pretty young girl with that look about her that drives men wild—that look about her being something rarely encountered in a girl so young.

Some part of that look about her derives from her unity with nature—or should we say “Nature” with a capital “N” since we are after all talking about a Thomas Hardy novel? I would rather put it this way. She is earthy. When Hardy writes about her when she is in relatively unspoiled natural surroundings, it is apparent that she herself is very much at home in and a natural part of those surroundings.

Hardy places our hot looking sixteen-year-old girl in an environment with some problems. It is an environment wherein the Victorian morals of society are so completely at odds with the nature of men and women generally, and particularly in the realm of sex.

Second, she inhabits a rural area of England where the quality of life is slowly deteriorating. Hardy does not impose upon us with some heavy-handed social commentary at all. Rather, this social commentary is portrayed seamlessly along with the characters and the action. As an example, there is a great contrast between the portrayal of Tess's life as a milkmaid early in the novel, which is idyllic and almost lyrically described, and her life later in hard labor on a farm, the slave of a threshing machine. You must notice stuff like this if you are going to do big time literature.

But let me get back to the sex because I know that is what probably piqued your interest. For women heterosexual sex requires men, as much as women may at times regret this. Hardy supplies the men here in the form of two male knotheads named Alec and Angel. She is raped by the wealthy Alec who drugged her with a delicious strawberry, and has his child, which immediately dies. She falls in love with the decent Angel who lacks wits but is under the mistaken impression that he has them in spades. She marries Angel, only to be abandoned by him when he finds out about her past. She becomes Alec's mistress--Alec now, ala Roman Polanski, regrets the strawberry drugging and the rape--partly for economic reasons. A girl's gotta eat. The other part of her reasons are addressed below. A repentant Angel flies back to her, a tad late to the dance as usual, only after she has just murdered Alec. The two of them end up at Stonehenge of all places, where she is apprehended after the police let her complete a nap. There are a lot of puzzling sleep episodes in this novel. Again, you must notice stuff like that if you are going to do big time literature.

I think that we can safely conclude that Alec, the "bad guy," is sexually skillful in the sack. He knows what he is doing with a woman and likes to do it a lot. The "good guy," Angel, fumbles in this area. I mean, the "good guy," Angel, chooses to sleep on the couch during his wedding night rather than have sex with one of the hottest young women in the country. Why? Because he finds out that she has had sex before. Whew! This is the kind of thing that can complicate life for a girl, I understand. And now, thanks to this novel, I do understand.

I wanted to kick both of those guys' asses at one point or another, but of course I was feeling a little paternal about this poor hot looking sixteen-year-old girl. I refer to them as knotheads, but both do evolve and develop during the course of the novel in what we could simplistically call a favorable direction. The problem—and it is this problem that gives us our story—is that neither of them evolves and develops quickly enough to remedy the horrendous impact their earlier conduct has had on poor Tess and save her. Angel finally comes to the realization that it does not make any difference if she has previously had sex with both the football team and the marching band. She is nonetheless a quality human being whom that nitwit should feel undeservedly blessed to have as a wife.

I say “poor Tess,” but. . . . Tess is not passive. She is a girl of action and decision. She makes choices. She acts on those choices. We readers like Tess immensely. It is just that we as readers are continually frustrated with the choices she makes. She is not very old. So this is natural. However, part of the great entertainment afforded by this novel for the reader is contemplating what her alternative choices were and whether those might have resulted in any better an outcome for her.

After great thought, insofar as I do great thought, I have concluded that none of those other choices would have. My personal view is that she was doomed from the outset by the mere fact that she was one hot looking sixteen-year-old female human being in a society where that made for nothing but trouble. The tragedy is that in 21st Century America, this could have made her queen of the hop. I might be wrong. You will have fun coming to your own conclusions.

I had given a spoiler alert at the beginning, but the facts of the plot that I set out above are not really spoilers. It is not at all that unusual a 19th Century plot, other than the conclusion is more grim than usual and the sex is more prominently on display in that Alec and Tess actually do have a lot of sex, as in intercourse and all the accompanying accoutrements presumably. At least Alec was no Bill Clinton. The great pleasure in reading this story is Hardy's manner of telling it even if you know what is going to happen. Anyone who knows anything about Hardy will know that Tess is not going to come to a good end anyway.

There you go. That is the best I can do. I urge you not to miss out on this novel. And please do not respond by telling me that you saw the PBS production. Give me a break. This is a great novel, to be enjoyed as a novel.
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Quotes Steve Liked

Thomas Hardy
“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles


Reading Progress

02/02 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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message 1: by Beej (new)

Beej Bravo, Steve. That's all that needs to be said. Except to say it again..bravo!


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez You described it perfectly. I love, love, love this book and I did like Tess, but I have to be honest, despite the fact that I agree she was not passive, I did want to slap her at times for making such poor choices! It's not that I didn't feel for her. I did. Immensely. (Now, Jude Fawley was a passive character, and though I did feel him, too, I really wanted to give him a swift kick in the rear.)

I thought this book was beautiful. I really do want to reread it soon.

And despite the warning, I own the Roman Polanski movie. I like it. I know it was filmed in Normandy (Normandy or Brittany), but still, it's so...so...English.

I love Hardy's tragedy, his bleakness. My favorite author, William Trevor, says all his bleakness comes from his love of Hardy's work, but I think Trevor is selling himself a little short on that score.

At any rate, I can second your recommendation regarding this book.


message 3: by Garrett (last edited Apr 26, 2011 11:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Garrett Hunter I am not sure your description of Tess a hot sixteen year old really grasps the significance of her role in the novel. A broader view might be Hardy was embodying in Tess the innocence and fertility of the rural 19th century life, and describing the loss of this innocence. Your comment, "It is not at all that unusual a 19th Century plot", is wholly inaccurate. When 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' was published it caused uproar amongst clergy and society in general, with Hardy regarded as little more than a pornographer. It is also important to remember that Tess had very little choice as society at the time permitted, she can and must be forgiven for the 'choices' she made. Hardy's skill here was to shape his message into such a human tale and create one of the few literary characters who can reach into ones heart and break it in two.


Steve I just happened by here after a long absence, Garrett, and noticed your recent comment, which was thoughtful and excellent.

However, I do not find a plot wherein a young woman is desired by two men of contrasting personalities to be an unusual 19th century plot. In the appended clause I thought I made clear what was unusual about this plot for its time:

". . . other than the conclusion is more grim than usual and the sex is more prominently on display in that Alec and Tess actually do have a lot of sex, as in intercourse and all the accompanying accoutrements presumably."

Then again perhaps I should have made more clear that these things were unusual in a 19th century plot. I dunno. In any event you have corrected the lapse if a lapse there was.


Carol Ok I will add this book. You have done your part to intice your fellow human to read this.


message 6: by Robert (new)

Robert I'm a long time fan of Thomas Hardy's work, prose and poetry. I've read "Tess" a number of years ago for the second time, and I guess it's time to go back to it again. There is a certain dark quality to "Tess" and to Hardy's other writings. I don't want to describe it as simply Gothic, because it doesn't feel quite that way with the muted supernatural overtones, but there is a certain darkness evident in "Jude...," "Return of the Native," and "Tess..." Part of the enigma that is Tess, the character, is the very naturalness of her sexual appeal combined with the vulnerability of her position in her society, which left her under such constraints to accept male protection and domination. I find that there are many similarities to the situation in which Nabokov casts his more modern day heroine, Lolita, whose innocence and vulnerability draw down the attentions of Humbert and Quilty.


message 7: by Steve (last edited Apr 15, 2012 12:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Robert, that comparison of Tess and Lolita was brilliant. That would never have occurred to me without your assistance, which seems to be the only way that brilliant ideas ever occur to me--with the assistance of others--another way of saying that they never occur to me at all.

By the way and to all, this was written back in the day when I was still in the business of recommending, something that I most emphatically do not do anymore. Kindly edit this in your own minds accordingly.


message 8: by Robert (new)

Robert Steve wrote: "Robert, that comparison of Tess and Lolita was brilliant. That would never have occurred to me without your assistance, which seems to be the only way that brilliant ideas ever occur to me--with th..."

Thank you, Steve. I think the true brilliance and the credit lies with Hardy and Nabokov. Any observations I might make surely arise only due to the reflected brilliance emanating from these works. Nobody has ever complimented me on making "brilliant" remarks about shoddy literature or schlock authors. The comparison just popped into my mind as I read your description of the setting and situation for Tess, and it seemed very natural and compelling. Hope to read more of your reviews and comments.


message 9: by Steve (last edited Jul 06, 2012 07:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Two and a half years after writing this and posting it, still shaky after having only recently completed substance abuse treatment, I have finally gotten around to proofreading it. I have corrected one embarrassing usage problem, deleted a sexist noun of direct address, and unsplit two infinitives--even though we all know that splitting infinitives is now no longer a sin. My thanks to all who read the review in the interim, overlooked those flaws, and indicated that they liked the review.


message 10: by M (new)

M Awesome review ! Feels inspired to read the novel :-)


message 11: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely You said everything that I wanted to say about this book. Excellent review, sir!


Steve My goodness! Thank you very much, Minu and K.D. These are wonderful compliments.


Carol Happy to hear you are doing well. Constant Reader gang was saying how much we miss you.


Srednivashtar YES. i couldn't say it better. LOVED your review.


Joseph Weyek Just finished Tess. Love your review. However, I don't agree with the "good in bed" versus the "limp wiener" distinction between Alec and Angel that you talked about.

Alec raped her, or forcefully seduced her. Angel, although he thought of himself as someone who had transcended the conventions of his society, really had not, and it took him a year or so in Brazil to see through his conditioning vis a vis sex. He was a day late and a dollar short for sure.

The last days he spent with Tess revealed no complaints from Tess. So, it wasn't about "hot guy" versus "nice guy" with her. Financial need was the motive with Alec. Love was the motive with Angel.

Other than that I loved your review.


Steve Certainly, I would not argue with that, Joseph. However one characterizes the nature of those relationships, the two male leads do not come off well at all.


Joseph Weyek Steve wrote: "Certainly, I would not argue with that, Joseph. However one characterizes the nature of those relationships, the two male leads do not come off well at all."

They are both definitely Schmucks.


Elizabeth Everytime I see a girl with pail skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, I always think, "Tom Hardy would think she's hot!"


Nicole I think you oversexualized the book. Alec being good in the sack and angel being unskillful is not relevant. You inferred that and by doing so you overshadowed some major themes in the novel. It's not ALL about sex and while sexuality plays a part it's not the drive. There are elements in this novel like the lower class trying to climb the social ladder which put Tess in her unfortunate situation. It was an inescapable fate due to the way her simple minded family raised her as well as how society expected women to comply. Tess was a tragic character doomed from the start. This whole rant about sex you did is the review a 13 year old boy would make after reading this. It's taking sexuality in the novel and era out of context and just getting overly hyper on the idea of a "sexy" protagonist


message 20: by Mimi (last edited May 04, 2013 08:55AM) (new)

Mimi Great job!! Your Headline is hilarious. Loved it. I like your humor. It made me laugh. You bravely stated what most people ( and Hardy himself) beat around the bush about this book.

This novel is full of themes, imagery and Hardy's own philosophy about life and universe, however they encapsulate the main big theme, sex. This is all about sex, no doubt about it, and as well as Jude. However, I don't really think Hardy deeply understands women's sexuality as much as he does in men, and him defending Tess's purity doesn't help...

Here is Tess; young, attractive, sensual girl of Nature, who masochistically suppresses her blooming sexuality, with sence of guilt and sin. This is a tale of Tess's clash of Flesh and Soul, and Brutal Lust and Love.


message 21: by Melissa (new) - added it

Melissa Where is your spoiler alert? I started reading your review, but stopped myself when you started revealing some pretty dramatic plot points. I wish you had put a spoiler alert at the top so I would have known up front.


Steve I probably did focus on the sexual aspect of the book to the exclusion of other important themes, Nicole. However, I disagree on one point. I think that my rant about sex was more akin to that of a fourteen or fifteen-year-old than a thirteen-year-old.

Sorry that I ruined the plot for you, Melissa.

Thanks, Mimi. Glad to read that you laughed.

Hey, Elizabeth.


Gary  the Bookworm This is a very intelligent review. I found Tess the hardest to like when I was doing a Hardy marathon last summer, but you have given me a fresh perspective. I'm not up for a re-read yet but when I do I'm going to re-read this review.


Steve Gary wrote: "This is a very intelligent review. I found Tess the hardest to like when I was doing a Hardy marathon last summer, but you have given me a fresh perspective. I'm not up for a re-read yet but when I..."
A strange novel in many ways, Gary. I'll bet it is better for you on a reread. In fact rereads are always the best for me.


message 25: by Mimi (last edited May 30, 2013 09:32AM) (new)

Mimi Hi Steve,

I agree with you on that the motives for Tess's voluntary return for Alec were partly economic and partly her sexual needs. But what is your take on Tess's murder of Alec? I don't see any real motive other than she'd gone mad, but definitely there was no necessity for the killing.


Gary  the Bookworm Haven't done the reread yet but I did take another look at the comments. I disagree that you overemphasized the sexual themes in the book. Tess was probably raped then relentlessly pursued by her rapist. Her sexual allure is crucial. It is her opportunity as well as her undoing. Hardy challenged the hypocrisy of the late Victorians, not just in Tess, but in Jude and The Return of the Native. To see it otherwise is to do him a great disservice. Your review gets it exactly right.


Shannon Just reread this and it seems to tell me something different every time. Good review~


Tanvi ... I think some people missed the humour in this review. :P

Alec's development might be said to be temporary, maybe a delusion on his part or maybe an outright sham. He appears to be remorseful after Tess discovers him as a preacher, but then pleads to kiss her one more time (? Sorry, I really need to reread.) Then later, I think when the Durbeyfields are in desperate need, he offers to marry her in exchange for help, doesn't he?


message 29: by Thomas (last edited Nov 27, 2014 08:25AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thomas Fennell After eating my feelings,murdering 5 bags of the delicious Brookside Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Candies, and ranting to my parents about Alec, I sorely needed your review!
Now I am a 16-year-old high school student so you can take my review with as many grains of salt as you want to.
Although your focus on sex, which is definitely an important part of the novel, in your review had me rolling my eyes you brought up many more interesting points that I was thinking as well.
In particular one question that I think Hardy leaves for his readers to decide is if Tess's future was predestined or if Tess is responsible. Of coarse readers view her as a saintly farm girl who was thrust by her loyalty to her family into the cruel world. However as the novel progressed I became more and more aware that it was not her who was naive,childish, and powerless but those around her. Her ability to move freely and somewhat unencumbered shows that.
I really enjoyed your review.


message 30: by Kerry (new)

Kerry Book- TBR
Review - Eloquent, humorous, informative, right up my street!!
Result- Off to read Tess, now.
Thank you muchly for your literary service to human kind


Charity You're definitely right about Tess not having any good choices. I really wanted her to flip the finger at Alec and Angel but given the time period and the poverty of her family, that wasn't really possible. She COULD have done that but then the novel would have probably ended with her mom and siblings starving to death, which would have been worse than the actual ending.

Then again, I guess she did give Alec a resounding, "Eff you", when she stabbed him to death...

Anyways, I really liked your review and it helped me to better see the circumstances around Tess's impregnation. I didn't catch that Alec drugged her. Whoops!


Heather Kim I did actually read this book because of this funny and pert review. It absolutely caught my attention as I am making my way slowly through all the classics no one forced me to read.


message 33: by Junius (new) - added it

Junius You've piqued my interest while adequately forewarning me of the tragedies awaiting. I go in with open eyes. Thanks much Steve.


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