on September 23, 2003
I was looking for another edition of TESS and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the "average customer rating" was only three stars. So I'm taking a moment to correct the balance.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES must be as close to a perfect novel as anyone has written in English. It is a genuine tragedy with a girl/woman as tragic hero. It is about life on earth in a way that transcends mere sociology. It has the grandeur of Milton but concerns itself with the lives of mortal beings on earth, as much with sex as with dirt, blood, milk, dung, animal and vegetative energies. It concerns itself with only essential things the way the Bible does. It is almost a dark rendering of the Beatitudes.
The story is built with such care and such genius that every incident, every paragraph, reverberates throughout the whole structure. Surely Hardy had an angel on his shoulder when he conceived and composed this work. Yet it was considered so immoral in its time that he had to bowdlerize his own creation in order to get it published, at first. Victorian readers were not prepared for the truth of the lives of ordinary women, or for a great many truths about themselves that Hardy presents.
The use of British history as a hall of mirrors and the jawdropping detail of the landscape of "Wessex" make it the Great English Novel in the way we sometimes refer to MOBY DICK as the Great American Novel, though the works don't otherwise bear comparison. Melville's great white whale is a far punier creation.
Hardy's style is like no one else's. It is not snappy, as Dickens can be. It is not fluid and elegant, like George Eliot's. It can feel labored and awkward and more archaic than either. It has no journalistic flavor, but is painfully pure and deliberate and dense, echoing Homer or the language of the Old Testament rather than anything we think of as "modern." Don't start with TESS but with FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, another very beautiful book, where Hardy is at his loosest and wittiest. Once you have the key to his style, then pick up a good edition of TESS with notes, e.g. Penguin, so you get the full richness of all the literary allusions. Hardy's lowly shepherds and farmhands move and breathe in a very ancient literary atmosphere. The effect is not pretentious but timeless.
There is wisdom, poetry and majesty here. Tess stumbling through the dark and taking her last rest at Stonehenge will send chills up your spine like no other reading experience. I wonder if anyone can know why there are novels, why we care about them, or what they are capable of, without reading this one.
on June 29, 2001
Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of the best stories I've ever read. Its characters, especially Tess herself, are so alive and memorable that they stay in your mind long after you've finished the book. That being said, though, it's also not a novel for the casual reader. This book is so thought-provoking and, ultimately, heartbraking that it can't be easily forgotten, and will more than likely leave you with an overwhelming sadness for a long time afterward. I read a lot, and material with very different subject matters, so I'm not being melodramatic when I say that this book left me extremely choked up, and almost on the verge of tears. For a guy in his mid-20's who never gets emotional, I think that's saying quite a lot. It certainly left me with a lot of respect for the author. The reader comes to care so much about Tess, and agonize over the way her life turns out, that it becomes almost unbearable at times. For a fictional tale to have that effect on a person is quite incredible. Difficult or not, anyone who is interested in reading a brilliant and moving story that deserves to be called a classic should read Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
on November 29, 2004
Recently, my brother and I were discussing the "poverty penalty," the concept that the poor pay more for what they must buy because they have no bargaining power to invite competition, which drives down prices. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, because poor Tess Durbeyfield pays quite a poverty penalty through the course of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
This is the first novel of Hardy's I have read, but I chose it after reading "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew" by Daniel Pool, a fabulous book about 18th century daily life.
Hardy's title, as quickly becomes evident, is tongue-in-cheek (he is author of my favorite title of a book, Jude the Obscure, which I haven't yet read) is ironic and mocking. Tess, the lovely and somewhat educated daughter of a cottager in Hardy's British district of Wessex, has the last name of Durbeyfield, but in the first pages of the book, her father, the ne'er-do-well, learns that he is descended from Norman aristocracy, the D'Urbervilles, and there aren't many of them left, except his clan, as the local reverend informs him. He instantly thinks himself very grand and takes it as an excuse to go carousing, which causes Tess and one of her many younger siblings to have to make an early morning journey with the horse for the family's means of making money. Sleeping on the journey, Tess wakes to find the horse impaled in a wreck and killed. Feeling guilty, she agrees to be sent as a poor relation to the Stoke-D'Urbervilles to seek assistance of some kind. (They are "new money" and have bought the name "D'Urberville" to build position for themselves, so they are actually no relation.)
There she encounters Alec D'Urberville, who pursues her vigorously, though she repeatedly eschews his attentions. She takes a job for his mother, watching her fowl, but one evening, separated from her friends in the village on the way home from a Saturday night out in the village, Alec stops accepting no for an answer.
Later she falls in mutual love with a gentleman (the son of a minister) who has rejected the pulpit himself in favor of learning the trade of dairy farming so that he may run his own farm some day. Angel Clare does fall in love with Tess, but at the same time, he doesn't seem to really know her, or want to... he thinks of her as a pure country maid, and has no idea about her past. When she tries to tell him, he shushes her, thinking he knows all about her. When she finally confides in him after the marriage, the results are disastrous and Tess is once again dealing with harsh reality.
I won't recount the rest of the story, but it's clear that the bourgeois (Alec) and the gentry (Angel) have a great deal to do with the pain and hardship of Tess's life; they inflict the poverty penalty on her. The idea of the fluidity of the aristocracy in the 18th century -- Tess is descended from them, but has no rights thereof, Alec has taken the name due to his money, and Angel has rejected the career of his familial role in favor of farming whilst entertaining a very aristocratic (and inaccurate) view of the "peasantry" -- is prominent in the novel, with Tess's inability to care for herself and fulfill her perceived familial goals without resorting to asking for help from those who don't have her bloodline at all. The town of Kingsbere, where Tess's ancestors are said to be buried, figures somewhat in the novel, and one cannot help but think that this symbolizes their use to her as being just as dead as they are.
There are some motifs of paganism in the book... Tess meets Angel for the first time at a May dance, a pagan rite, and she has another climactic plot moment at Stonehenge toward the end of the book. Angel himself seems to reject his father's Christian teachings, and the beliefs of Tess and her society are often deemed superstitious or quaint and encompassing of pagan belief systems. Tess often wishes to be free of her life of burdens, and who can blame her? She didn't cause the horse's death that plunged her into this chain of events, and yet she is punished and punished and punished.
Hardy's writing is beautiful and engaging. The book, though long, seems to quickly move from event to event, and the author's descriptions are enlightening and complete. I really liked this book and look forward to reading more by Hardy.
on July 23, 2003
Despite its seemingly needless tragedy, its persistently downbeat tone, and its relentlessly persecuted heroine, Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," is without doubt one of the greatest novels I have ever read. And I have read a few. Tess is the only truly well-developed character in the novel, which, coupled with the fact that Hardy renders the landscape of Wessex as to make it a character itself, gives one the sense of a real struggle between humanity and nature. This, for me, is one of the great themes of the novel - the tension between nature and the artifices with which we fill our relations with other people. The beauty of Hardy's pastoral setting is never idyllic - Hardy keeps us always aware that human society, with its false moral standards and technological advancements, is ever encroaching upon the already vanished past.
As the novel begins, Tess Durbeyfield's irresponsible wastrel of a father is casually and jokingly informed by the local minister that he is a descendant of a long-degenerated and disenfranchised noble family, the D'Urbervilles, whose influence stretches back to the Norman invasion. This simple, careless act, nothing more than a name, wreaks such havoc upon everyone in the novel, that I'm actually having a hard time right now even looking at the title - the name itself, now having read the novel, is such a powerful condemnation of status, of privilege, of reputation, of all the injustices of English society from the eighteenth century through the time of this novel, almost the dawn of the twentieth. Sent by her nearly indigent parents, whose heads have swelled with the possibilities of lineage, Tess leaves her home in Marlott, going to claim kinship with the last apparently wealthy D'Urberville, in the village of Trantridge. There she meets Alec D'Urberville, who seduces her. The rest of this powerful novel shows Tess Durbeyfield attempting to piece together a reputable life out of a situation and a condition in which respectability is fundamentally denied her.
"Tess" is a novel steeped, perhaps even choked, with tradition - history, literature, theology, philosphy, economics - Hardy's frame of reference calls all of these to account through the course of the novel. Tess, ostensibly a simple country girl, is forced to reckon with the accumulated weight of human knowledge and thought, no small burden for a girl with only the kind of basic education available in a small rural town. As readers, we are asked to measure the applicability, the efficacy, of the Bible next to Shakespeare, next to Greek mythology next to art - to determine if any of these are capable of fathoming what it means to be human, to endure the myriad experiences of human life, both good and ill.
In her dealings with the changeable Alec D'Urberville, the almost-modern Angel Clare, the farm-hands Izz Huett and Marian, her poor, practically minded mother, Joan, Tess experiences so much of life, mostly of the harshest kind. For me, this is the key facet of the novel. Tess endures. Despite all of her hardships, which are hard indeed, and in the face of the worst kinds of scrutiny and deprecation, both from others and from herself, Tess exhibits a kind of composure, threshold for pain, and strength that are all quite amazing. Daniel Defoe's eighteenth-century "Moll Flanders" is the first character that immediately comes to mind, just in terms of comparable pluck in the face of such overweaning odds.
Though many may disagree with me, I think that Tess, more than simply being the protagonist of the novel, is a real heroine. She is so insistently admirable, so determined to live despite all the forces and pressures arrayed against her from the very outset of the novel, when as a 15 year old girl, she is asked to restore the family's fortunes - it is really just astounding. I regret that I had never read "Tess" before, but I am supremely glad that I have had the chance to do so now. A novel cannot get a higher recommendation from me.
on May 18, 2013
"Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is Thomas Hardy's most famous protagonist and one of literature's most tragic heroines. At first, she reminded me very much of Ibsen's Nora, but as the book came to a close I came to realize that Tess is far more emotionally complex than Nora: much moodier, much prouder, much more romantic, and ultimately much more tragic.
The story is pretty well-known to most people. Tess is a young beautiful maiden who has a lazy drunk for a father and a manipulative opportunist as a mother. At a young tender and naive age she is essentially raped by her well-to-do cousin, and it's a stigma that haunts her in the small-minded provincial town where she lives. She soon meets the man of her dreams, a clergyman's romantic son who finds a kindred soul in Tess, and while Tess does her best to maintain her distance eventually she gives way to her passion, and marries Angel Clare. Though she has lost her virginity to another man Tess remains pure and free, and against the warnings of her mother she forces herself to tell her new husband of her past. And because her husband is very young, very proud, and ultimately constricted and contained by the conservative pettiness of the people around him he decides to flee from Tess. And this sets the stage for Tess's ultimate downfall.
The themes and plot of this novel have been copied copiously in Western culture, but what makes this novel such a masterpiece is the emotional force and beauty of Tess's characters, and it would be almost impossible for anyone else to replicate the sincere sympathy Hardy has for his most famous heroine. Literary critics can always point to the depth in meaning and symbolism of the novel -- the themes of innocence, spirituality, and romantic passion course wildly throughout the novel -- but it's Tess's sense and pursuit of love, her utter and pure and completion to the man she loves, that will continue to move readers for centuries to come.
on August 23, 2012
I'm not going to write a long, flowery review. I will merely say I loved this book. I read it many years ago in school and it moved me in a way a book never had before. This book changed me from a kid that had to read, into a kid that loved to read.
When Thomas Hardy first had "Tess of the D'Ubervilles" published in 1891, the controversy that surrounded it ensured for him financial security and status as one of the most popular authors of the time. The novel's scandal was concerned with the plot itself, in which an innocent young maid is seduced by an aristocratic cad, and pays for such an indiscretion with everything she holds dear in her life. In Hardy's journal (as recounted in Margaret Higonnet's introduction in this edition) he records that one of the Duchess of Abercorn's dinner parties ended in an argument between those who believed that Tess deserved her fate, and those that sympathized with her plight. However, by today's standards (in which premarital sex barely registers an eye-blink) one can't help but wonder if such a novel is relevant anymore.
I'm going to argue, that yes, of course it is - if not simply to illustrate how lucky we are to no longer live in a world where a woman can be utterly destroyed through the hypocrisy of the society she lives in. However, there's considerably more to it than that, particularly as the remnants of this ideology remain to this day; and since one of the central themes of the novel is the negative effect of past traditions on the present, this bears keeping in mind.
Tess Durbeyfield is a simple country lass, easily manipulated and with a limited education, but with a keen intelligence and insight into human nature. However, when her foolish father is casually told by the village minister that he is the offshoot of a once-noble family, Tess is thrown into her parent's ambition mechanizations. Made to leave her home and younger siblings, Tess begins work tending chickens at a relative's house whilst attempting to ward off the unwelcome attentions of her devious cousin Alec D'Uberville. However, her resolve slips one night when she is alone with Alec, lost and (as the text suggests) intoxicated, and he takes full advantage of her vulnerability.
Having borne his child and lost it soon after (all without Alec's knowledge) Tess seeks employment elsewhere, and finds a sense of peace and security as a milkmaid in a neighboring village. That is, until she meets the parson's son Angel Clare, a very different kind of man from Alec D'Uberville. Falling in love, (along with every other girl on the farm!) Tess finds herself in a new moral crisis. Should she reveal her secret to Angel? Would he accept her if he knew? Her family (not to mention her common sense) warn her to keep her mouth shut, but can any relationship last if it is based on a lie? Shouldn't she have faith in Angel's testimonies of love to her?
However, you've probably already guessed that the story doesn't have a happy ending, and this is a tragedy in the old grand tradition. When young Tess is seduced by a man her fate is sealed. She is a fallen woman, carrying the shame of her indiscretions throughout the rest of her life. However, the novel is remarkable because of Hardy's ability to find light amongst all the grimness. In the depths of Tess's drudgery and despair, we feel her moments of tranquility and appreciation of the beauty that surround her. Likewise, in moments of joy and peace, there is the underlying dread of the secret threatening to rare its ugly head. The emotions stirred in reading this novel are relentless - not to put anyone off from reading this novel, but I was in a constant state of agitation and discomfort in reading; that's how vivid the circumstances of the novel were. I mean that as a good thing of course; books these days are like movies - you sit, you watch, you more often than not feel nothing. But I was truly moved by "Tess of the D'Ubervilles" and her story; and I can't remember the last time I became so invested in a character and her happiness. Despite the pain it brought me in reading it, "Tess of the D'Ubervilles" was worth every agonizing word.
In many ways this is a feminist novel, and although I would hate to put too modern a spin on it, it is very easy to see that Thomas Hardy's sympathies lie with Tess, writing in a letter: "I lost my heart to her as I went on with her history." It is impossible not to feel a swell of indignation when Alec D'Uberville makes Tess swear not to tempt him anymore (as if his lust for her attractiveness is somehow *her* fault!) and a sense of bitter frustration at Angel Clare's inability to accept Tess's indiscretion, particularly when he himself is guilty of the same crime. When his lofty image of Tess as his pure `child-bride' is taken from him, you can't help but feel he's doing it just as much out of injured pride than any sense of propriety.
But this propriety is all-powerful in the novel; a heavy weight upon Tess that destroys her life. Hardy brings forth the idea that this is indeed a fallen world, but that it is so because of mankind's own structures of tradition and circumstance, rather than any divine ordination or original sin. To be free of some of them is a great release, though there are plenty that remain in this and other cultures around the world. The story is one of endurance; enduring the condemnation of others, the physical trials of manual labour, the suffering of a broken heart, the terror of encroaching death. We cannot control any of these aspects of our lives - all we can do is endure them, as Tess did.
on January 12, 1999
I'm many years out of college and thought I should start reading some more of the classics. Previous favorites of mine have been The Sound and the Fury, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice. I saw Tess of the D'Urbervilles on my sister's bookshelf and for about a year I considered reading it. Finally, I picked it up and began. Wow! I read it in about three days. I never expected I would feel so much by reading this book. I cried when she baptized Sorrow herself. Her concerns that he be buried in the churchyard and her efforts to ensure he was were touching. I wanted to help Tess Durbeyfield. I thought she was a very complex character--she was sweet and unworldly but she wasn't actually stupid. And she was strong in many ways--for example, her family relied on Tess for so many things--eventually even their support. In fact, I hated her family for not working harder and making their own sacrifices. All the burden was on poor Tess. I also wanted to shake some sense into Angel. He really did wrong by Tess--although he eventually realizes this, it comes too late. The only thing I really did not care for was the sudden inclusion of a minor character (who we met earlier)into the end of the book and the implication that she would play an important role in the future of a major character. I barely knew this minor character and NOBODY could compare to Tess of the D'Urbervilles. If you are reading this to find a good book, ignore the negative reviews by high-school students and buy this book NOW. It's unforgettable.
on July 4, 2007
When I saw the depressing amount of 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews for this novel, I had to wonder what had gotten into the general populace. Then I read the actual reviews, and realized something. They are reading this for pleasure, yes - but why in the world to people turn to a classic novel for a fast-paced, action-packed story? (Yes, I quote.)
Tess's is a dark tale, a depressing tale, a tale with no perky moments to speak of (seeing as how we all know it'll get that much worse should anything good happen). The language is poetic and ethereal, with descriptions of incredible beauty that I would give anything to have written and an overtone of intense tragedy and ill-fated cruelty. The characters are all conflicted and in turmoil, oppressed by the moral standards of the day, and Tess is likeable, as opposed to Emily Bronte's Catherine Earnshaw, say. I would like to mention that I chose this book to write a ten-page analytical paper on, know it cover-to-cover, and know that it is SO much more meaningfull when one stops to take in the paragraphs that scream, "Pay attention to ME!!!" I would also mention that I am not a college professor. I read this as a high-school freshman, which goes to show that this isn't just a book for the elite.
And in relation to all the readers who feel that Hardy is a bad author? I always believe that people who act as though they can write a classic far better than the author really ought to try their hand at writing a story that will survive the ages as well as Tess. Hardy writes in lyrical prose, in similar style to his poetry, and though I completely understand wanting to read "mind candy", I don't understand expecting books accepted as real literature to do the trick. Maybe try a trashy novel first, and read Tess to cleanse the palate.
This is, ultimately, my favorite novel of all time. Naturally, I have many more to read, but of all those I have tried, I have never read another that so seamlessly combined luminous tragedy, heartwrending romance, and cruel fate in a novel as beautiful as it is painful.
on January 25, 2013
Even though the length of this book is very long, it was one of the most compelling books I have read. You are taken back in time to the 1800's and how life was lived, the wealthy and the poor. Tess is accepting of her life of poverty but her Father wants more.
He wants the life that goes with the surname so sends Tess off to meet and marry one of the d'Urbervilles so his dreams might come true. She was very innocent when it came to dealing with the aristocracy and became pregnant. She returned home, much to her Mother and Dad's disappointment and spent a great part of the rest of her life by feeling like a failure. She left home and then came the dealing with a difficult reality of numerous jobs and people who would take advantage of her.
The characters in this book are memorable and you will become part of Tess's life. A wonderful work by Thomas Hardy.