Title: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
First line: On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy has got to be one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I had to read it in bits and pieces, at least until I reached the last 100 pages, and then I just wanted to be done. It was beautifully written (although Hardy has a tendency to go on and get a bit flowery for my taste) and I felt so strongly for Tess, hated the injustice of her life and the people who inflicted it upon her.
Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Tess and don’t already know the story – and plan to read it – then skip the rest of my review.
Tess Durbeyfield is the daughter of a poor family in England in the late 1800s. Because of the circumstances into which she was born, she hasn’t much of a chance at a decent life. Her father is a lazy drunk and her mother isn’t much better. The only thing they seem to be good at is putting out one child after another. When Tess’s father learns that their family are distant descendants of the D’Urbervilles, ancient nobility, Tess’s mother decides to cash in on the connection and sends Tess to work in the chicken-yard for her “cousins,” hoping that the young man of the house will take an interest in her.
Well, he does – only marriage is the last thing on Alec D’Urberville’s mind. He either rapes or seduces Tess (the book isn’t clear), after which she gives into living with him for several weeks, only leaving when she realizes she is pregnant. She goes back home and gives birth to a child who is taken by sickness in infancy.
Trying to start a new life, Tess goes to work on a distant dairy farm as a milk-maid, where she meets Angel Clare. Angel doesn’t know about Tess’s history, only that she is a beautiful young woman and the perfect wife for him. Tess and Angel are married, but this isn’t a fairy tale and life doesn’t end with happily ever after.
I felt so badly for Tess while I read this book. She was a complete victim, with all of the events of her life out of her own control. Her status as a fallen woman was forced upon her. She wanted to tell Angel of her past, but her mother convinced her not to. When Angel learns of her history, he deserts her to a life of poverty. And it just goes on and on, one sad event after another.
Hardy was obviously trying to make a point about the discrepancy in life for men and women, the rich and the poor – and he does so very well. Even when Tess falls in love, her husband turns out to be a hypocritical cad. He confesses his own peccadilloes to Tess, after which she feels safe telling him her own sad past. But even though he willingly went into his sexual immorality and Tess didn’t, he can’t look at her the same and abandons her without ever consummating their marriage. Yes, he does come back to her, but only after it’s too late to save her.
I’m glad I read Tess, (especially since it counts for three or four different reading challenges!), but I can’t say I’ll be picking it up again any time soon – if ever.