Book Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

tessTitle: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Author: Thomas Hardy
Genre: Classic
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.

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15 Responses to Book Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

  1. Lezlie says:

    I didn’t read your whole review because I didn’t want to see the spoilers, but I read Hardy’s Jude the Obscure not too long ago, and I couldn’t believe some of the sad things that happened in there! I’m glad to have the heads up on this one for when I get to it. And I agree with the comment on his flowery writing. It’s beautiful, but it can be too much sometimes.


  2. stacybuckeye says:

    Great review! Your sentiments matched my own when I listened to it a few months ago. Since I listened to it I may have not been as struck by the flowery language. Sometimes a gifter reader can make it all better 😉

  3. I think one of the biggest differences between the first time I read Tess at 15 or 16 and when I re-read it last year at 34 is that, as a teen, I had this romantic notion that the man who would love me would accept everything about me, including my most darkest and awful secrets… as an adult, however, I know that’s bull, and that if nothing can be done about it, it’s not always best to tell. I can see Tess’s point in needing to tell Angel since they live in a small area and eventually it’d come out. But Angel was very much a hypocrite about it.

    Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one of my favorite books, but I agree with you about Hardy being overly descriptive. 3 pages to describe the one bedroom was a bit much. I found George Eliot to have dipped from the same inkwell in that vein, only she didn’t do it quite as well.

    Great review, I enjoyed being taken back to Tess 🙂

  4. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies

    Lezlie – you’ll have to let me know what you think of Tess after you read it.

    Stacy – I have a hard time listening to classics on audio – they seem to take more of my concentration and since I usually listen to audiobooks while I’m doing housework, it makes it hard.

    Kool-Aid Mom – I haven’t read any George Eliot, yet, but I’m determined to read Middlemarch at some point. My best friend adored it, and our tastes are pretty similar.

  5. Val says:

    I’m pretty sure I read this in college…it all sounds vaguely familiar and I know I have the paperback on a bookshelf downstairs…but I don’t remember it all that much. This is no doubt a combo of the overwhelming number of books I had to read in college in too short a time, along with its incredibly sad plot. After reading so many ‘tearyourheartout” classics, I think they all just blended together into a blur of sadness that I just pushed right out of my mind…heh.

  6. Kathy says:

    I haven’t read this book, but after your review, I’m not sure it’s for me – I don’t find flowery prose very appealing.

  7. Bonnie says:

    I read (and reviewed) this one a while back, and I pretty much agree with your take on it. I thought it was a good book, but I also thought that Hardy was trying a little too hard in places to make a certain point and actually track of the fact that he was telling a story.

  8. Even though I haven’t read the book, I did go ahead and read your full review. I doubt I will read it anytime soon (not so much from lack of interest, but because it is not high up on my priority list). Isn’t it interesting the double standard some people have? It’s okay for them to trangress but not for others to. You’ve definitely got me more curious about this one, I have to say! Thanks for the great review. 🙂

  9. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies

    Val – I missed out on a lot of classics during college, because I majored in theater arts. I read a ton of plays – and most of Shakespeare, but not a lot of classic novels. I’m kind of glad, because sometimes the feeling of being “assigned” reading can take the joy out of it.

    Kathy – there were a few parts I definitely skimmed – sometimes his descriptions just went on and on…

    Bonnie – exactly! There were times when I wanted to say, “enough about the road or sunshine or whatever – just get on iwth the story!”

    LF – This book was so full of double-standards – between men and women and the rich and poor. I would not have wanted to live at that time.

  10. Deanna says:

    I do have this book on my TBR list. I am not sure when I will get to it so I skimmed through your spoiler part of the review…when I read {{ but I can’t say I’ll be picking it up again any time soon – if ever.}} I thought…hmmm…maybe I will wait a bit more before I read this book. Maybe when my TBR list is a lot smaller. **shrug** **smile**

  11. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies

    Deanna – I know the feeling of a huge, ever-growing TBR list!

  12. Emma
    Twitter: Nocternal_Kiki

    I certainly agree with you on the last bit you said. I certainly loved the book and movie, but I don’t think I’ll be reading or watching it any time soon. I enjoy a good read, and while the story was incredibly interesting, I’m not such a huge fan of the ending because it was a little bit to sad for my tastes.

  13. Egle says:

    I haven’t read the book, but watched BBC mini-series, so can’t tell a lot about long sunshine descriptions. Anyway, I disliked Angel’s character almost on the spot – such a spineless man! Preaching eternal love, but behaving like an idiot and hating Tess – for what? Yes, he was cruel, like Tess said herself. Ok, I’m talking from the 21st century point of view, oh, but still… You know, in some places I really agreed with Alec, when he tried to bring Tess to her senses after Angel’s departure to Brazil. I would never ever justify violence, but Alec at least tried to find some solution for Tess and her well-being, not without satisfying his own egoistical needs, of course, at least he was honest. Oh, but really – this Angel spoiled my Friday that I was determined to spend with a nice period drama. And the last thing – too much tears in the mini-series. Can’t stand tears, if they appear every 10 seconds.

  14. mumof6 says:

    i love this book! admittedly, it is quite hard to get into, but once you have read it several times like i have, it is great. My opinion on each and every character changes every time i read it, however, my feelings for Tess never alter. she was doomed from birth with parents like that, or should i say a mother like that! Every character in this novel has some part to play in Tess’s downfall, Hardy leaves alot to the imagination, and makes you explore all possibilities, which isnt such a bad thing, its one of those books that you could keep re reading and change your mind about. What happens to Tess is tragic, and i dont entirely blame Angel as i originally did. yes he was a hypocrite, but then standards in the 19th century were very different to what they are now.

  15. shilpa says:

    tessssssssssss ya i have read this book ahundred times.itbhave always made me cry.especially when tes was lefted alone by is a tragic story.i love tragic stories.but in end we can see that she is meeting angel so it is not tragic,in my opinion. alec ya he is a bad guy. i hate him really.if i were in the place of tes i must have killed him first time when she met her.any way nice story and of cours a nice review.