This review of what is, perhaps, Thomas Hardy’s most famous and well-received novel, has genuinely angered me as I’ve written it. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an unrelenting tale of woe and injustice, against both its heroine and the reader, and to discuss that in any degree of detail requires spoiling the event early on in the novel which precipitates the entire narrative – though I promise not to spoil anything further about the plot. Although it’s mentioned in most blurbs and synopses of the book, it’s the type of event which would serve as a comeuppance to a more disreputable heroine in a moral tale. Here, however, it’s a paragon of injustice which Hardy wields like a battle-axe in order to critique sexual morals and gender roles of the Victorian age (while also taking your standard potshots at organised religion and the ways of provincial life).
As we proceed, then, I shall lay it out here is sparingly as I can. In the first 100 pages of this book, our 18-year-old heroine is raped in a creepy woodland area by an older man she barely knows, and, just in case the tragedy of this event wasn’t already horrible enough, the rape produces a child who suffers a few short, sickly weeks of life before dying. The child is then not allowed a proper christening or funeral, so Tess has to conduct one herself to prevent the baby from going to hell. Also she names the child Sorrow, just to really ram the message home, because no part of this tragedy was heavy-handed or obvious enough, apparently.
Right from the beginning, this book is absolutely not afraid to ruffle the reader’s feathers, with the first major thing that Tess does in the story is accidentally (and gruesomely) contributing to the manslaughter of the family horse, as she falls asleep at the reins and our poor four-legged friend is impaled on a carriage going in the opposite direction. Do I mean manslaughter? …horseslaughter? I guess there’s not really a word for this horrifying circumstance, but it is important to note that Tess is barely culpable, and that the two real perpetrators here are both men who get off scot-free. Her father’s drunkenness prevents him from driving the first place, which means that Tess ends up driving instead, and the man driving the other carriage was speeding when he crashed into Tess’ horse, and simply drives away without stopping to help. Already, Tess’ function in the narrative is simply to be driftwood in the river of men’s actions – unable to control or change anything of her fate, she is a passive presence who simply reacts to the adversity she encounters rather than doing anything to change it, like a twig floating downstream. This is a recurring feature of the story which greatly infuriated me.
Tess feels that she is entirely to blame, and this guilt leads her to try and make amends by herself. This, in turn, drives her into the path of Alec D’Urberville, a man so unpleasant that he is completely devoid of anything approaching a believable personality, and he seems to crop up in the narrative like a malignant manifestation of the sins of men whenever Hardy has decided things were going just a little too well for Tess. Even Tess’ path toward meeting him is paved by the sins of men – the novel opens with a chance meeting where her father, John Durbeyfield, finds out that his surname is actually a bastardised form of the ancient Norman noble family of D’Urberville, and he takes such pride in this fact that, as a result of the financial straits a family without a horse may face, he pressures Tess into locating the nearest well-to-do descendants of the same name and plying them for funds. Alec isn’t really a descendant of this line; he has instead adopted the moniker upon moving to the country in order to lend him an air of respectability as he attempts to ingratiate himself with the upper classes in the area. To his credit, Hardy successfully uses the character here to highlight how much of a disconnect there can be between a man and his title, and the inherent irony of Alec dressing himself up as a gentleman while acting coarser than many of the local common folk is a subtle dig at the ridiculous idolatry of title-bearers who haven’t earned such esteem through their actions.
I think I’ve relayed enough of the plot now to move onto what I believe to be Hardy’s greatest success with this novel, which is his realisation of Tess. Her inner life is so powerfully and persuasively laid out for the reader that it is absolutely impossible not to sympathise with her, and her thought patterns are, for the most part, laid out with a clarity and precision which I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered in a main character. This is a double-edged sword, however – by comparison, other characters seem to be mere sketches, which sometimes works in the novel’s favour (such as during Angel’s courtship of Tess, where her possible romantic competition fail to hold a candle to her virtuousness), but often works to the novel’s detriment, such as Alec’s aforementioned lack of any depth as a character.
Furthermore, the visceral and raw descriptions of Tess’ emotions actually highlight an incredibly curious artistic decision Hardy makes when writing her character, which is to suppress her capability to think without her emotions clouding every thought and action: he robs her of the power of reason. Consider the passage where Tess talks to Alec about faith and skepticism over dogma. Not only does Hardy actively choose to conceal her arguments from the reader, but he makes it central to the narrative that these opinions aren’t Tess’, nor does she even understand them! She has simply heard Angel speak them, and then proceeds to recite them like schoolchildren recite the lord’s prayer. She is denied agency in these passages, and her appearance (and the lustful responses it incites in Alec) is instead pushed to the forefront. This may be effective social commentary on the role of women at the time, and a good way to show how powerless Tess is to effect change in her own life, but it is deeply frustrating to read in the 21st century.
Hardy sums it up best when mere pages later he describes her as a “vessel of emotion”. If that’s all you’re looking for from a protagonist, then you’ll feel right at home with Tess. But to me she felt a little empty and hollow when this was brought to light in the more academically rarified air of intense theological discussion that Hardy inexplicably decides to place her in at various stages of the story. It’s almost as if he’s wilfully trying to show up the inadequacies of his own writing, making his heroine appear far more shallow and simple than she is presented elsewhere in the book.
I could honestly have forgiven Hardy for all the heartache and misery he caused me as I read this, if he’d at the very least given the story a good ending. Alas, even here he fails – at the climax of the story, Tess finally takes her fate into her own hands, and yet her agency and her well-deserved strive to be happy is punished in a denouement which spends more time detailing the layout of a random town and the rolling hills of the countryside than wrapping up the plot. This is symptomatic of another irritating trait of Hardy’s writing: his over-description of scenery, and how much it can distract from the story he’s trying to tell. Often enough it is beautifully written, but the pacing of many crucial scenes suffers as a result.
As a critique of Victorian society, this book works wonders, but as a reading experience I simply can’t recommend it. It is too relentlessly grim, with tragedy piled on top of tragedy in a way that is so deeply unpleasant to read that I found myself dreading every page turn. Even the moments of levity in the novel simply feel calculated to manipulate the reader, to increase the impact of future tragedies rather than to advance the story or Tess’ arc. A good example of this is the near-miss Tess has with Angel at the start of the novel – the only possible function this has within the story is to create a “if only” situation in the mind of the reader (ie,”if only they’d met each other at that dance, all of the events of the book could have been avoided”), and the only possible reason for that is to depress said reader and make them wish they were reading a different book. Ultimately, I really, really wish I had.
“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”