Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Having gorged myself on a literary diet of predominately young adult and vampire fiction for the past few months, last week I felt it was time for another classic. I’ve always wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and was lusting after the pictured new penguin classics hardcover edition, so I settled on it. Hardy’s gorgeous writing, tragic heroine and moving story did not disappoint.

All I’d ever heard about the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that involves a rape, and I  assumed wrongly that this was to be the crux of the story.  Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens on John Durbeyfield’s discovery that, despite his current poor state, his ancestors were the D’Urbervilles, who are descendants of one of the Knight of The Royal Oak, and that Durbeyfield is a corruption of this grand name. He informs his family and, following a tragic event further depleting the Derbeyfield’s income, his wife hatches a scheme to send his daughter Tess to a nearby rich branch of D’Urbervilles to claim kinship and hope for help in forging an advantageous marriage. In doing so Tess is put at the mercy of the abhorrently amoral Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of her situation and forces himself upon her, obliterating her maidenhood and perhaps any chance she had of happiness in her conventional society.

Challenging conventional values is a major concern of Hardy’s and he uses Tess’ fall to call them into question. The following passage conveys both this theme and the rich writing he utilises to convey it:

“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief  at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other. But this encompassment of her own characterisation, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’ fancy  – a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. 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 a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.”

Years pass and eventually Tess takes a position as a milkmaid at Talbothays Diary, set in a luscious part of the country side. There she finds relative mental peace, until attraction blooms between her and Angel Clare, a pastor’s son learning the art of farming. Hardy’s descriptions of the settings in the narrative are always artful, but never more than at Talbothays Dairy, where he mingles love with milking cows, leafy green trees, vast pastures and the hum of nature. Here are two of my favourite passages from the section:

“They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily between that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three… The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degrees of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse. Being so often – possibly not always by chance – the first two persons to get up in the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, going outside at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve.”

“How very loveable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s teeth and lips which forced upon his mind with such a persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filed with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.

But how will Tess’ past affect Angel’s feelings? Should she tell him of her violation at the hands of D’Urberville?

22 responses

  1. My first and only Thomas Hardy book read was “The Woodlanders.” It was a great read and I highly recommend this. My aunt has asked me to read Tess D”Urbervilles because she loved it. I will have to get around to reading it.

    I know…I’ve been reading a lot of YA novels lately. I’m started to get into more fiction.

    1. I’ll check out The Woodlanders then, thanks for the recommendation! I want to read more of his novels now. 🙂

  2. Great review! I haven´t read this yet , it always seemed to be too depressing. But the writing is amazing, I guess I´ll have to be in the mood for this.

    1. I think it can be depressing and I know a lot of people have found it to be too much so, but for me the beautiful writing and the long period of courtship lifted it above being too depressing. Also I found it so interesting from a critical point of view that the gloomier parts didn’t bother me too much because they were so well crafted.

      1. You´re really convincing me to give it a try 😀 Btw I hope you´re enjoying The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie!

  3. Wonderful review! One of my friends keeps telling me that ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is a wonderful book and keeps urging me to read it and now I know why! I like your favourite passages especially these lines : “In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.” Will add it to my TBR list 🙂

    1. I love that part too, I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it! 🙂

  4. I read this in middle school, and it was far too melodramatic for my tastes. Also, the very last chapter had fallen out, but I didn’t know that, so I thought the book ended with *SPOILER* Tess walking away after killing Alec and the image of the bloodstain spreading on the ceiling. When I eventually found out that it ends with Tess being punished, I thought that made it so much less powerful.

    You’ve almost convinced me to give Hardy another chance with your review though. 😉

  5. I read this a few years ago and was blown away by it beauty. I felt really sorry for Tess though and she made such a tragic figure, entirely a victim of society and circumstances.

    I love those Penguin hardback editions! So beautiful.

    1. Hi Mae, nice to meet another book blogging Australian!
      I really love the Penguin editions too, I want to get The Woman in White edition next. Sadly I already own a lot of the books they’ve released in it, so I can’t justify buying as many as I would like to.

  6. I enjoyed this one when I read it last year!

  7. I read this book when I was in high school and I found it a really hard read. I remember finding it difficult to follow the language, given the style in which it was written. I also didn’t like the story. I think that as modern person, and also as a teenager when I read it, I couldn’t really appreciate the difficulties that Tess really faced.

    Now that I am older and more well read I sometimes think that I shoud go back and re-read it, but I also still very much remember how much I disliked it, and as a result so far I am finding it hard to bring myself to read it again.

    Maybe after reading this review I will give it a go!

    1. I can totally understand how being made to read certain classics in high school before you’re ready to appreciate them can affect your enjoyment. I can also see how it could be difficult as a younger person to follow the language, because while it’s beautiful the prose can be dense. I think I might have struggled with it had I read it as a teenager too. 🙂

  8. […] here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Canadian Authors Challenge 2010Books Read in […]

  9. I saw this in the book shop the other day and wanted to pick it up. I think might just do that now. Thanks for the great review!

  10. I think after your review I’m more tempted to read this book. I have watched the BBC adaptation not long ago and just found it so stark and depressing. However I have as you know just read Far From the Madding Crowd and loved it. So may be the dark story with Hardy’s beautiful writing will be more of a match for me.

    1. I hope that if you do read Tess you enjoy it. 🙂 I haven’t seen a film adapatation of it, but I think it would be difficult to make into a film while doing the book justice.

  11. Most. Despressing. Story. Ever. Told.
    Honestly, saying ‘poor Tess’ doesnt even begin to cut it – the trials that this heroine suffers immedaitely make me want to reach through the pages (and/or screen) and take her away from these oppressive, hopeless circumstances, give her a big hug, a hearty meal and a decent life! Hardy, you certainly were the master of making readers contemplate life’s negative aspects

  12. […] since I read and loved Tess of the D’Urbevilles last January I’ve been meaning to check out some of Thomas Hardy’s other work. Unfortunately I found […]

  13. I just recently finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles for an English project. At first it was challenging but once you were about 50 pages in I find that I got used to the language. I’m a sucker for happy endings but this pulled off a sad ending rather well. I find it weird that *SPOILER* he ended up with her sister. I can’t tell if I love Angel Clare so much just because of how awesome his name sounds or if it’s because of the adorable romance between him and Tess. Like when he carries her across the river *swoons*. It was a very rewarding book and I feel good having finished it. If only there was an alternate ending….

  14. […] Blue Eyes and Far from the Maddening Crowd are very different to the more nuanced and at times dark Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The former two read far more like very typical Victorian era romantic fiction, where as the latter […]

  15. I have read most of the book and know the story. I am currently studying for English Literature. I like the way Hardy writes and I think a lot of his poetry in wonderful. His ideas and opinions are amazing for someone of the time and are woven wonderfully into the story. However, I see the characters as very bland and unrealistic. Tess and Angel’s love seems so like a fairy tale i.e. lovely at a glance but with no depth. The characters seem to have no drive to them and Tess seems far too naive and morally correct to be in anyway realistic. Could someone give me their opinion on the matter; it would be nice to know if someone agrees or if not, what I am missing. Thanks

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