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

As the last few weeks of school are winding down, I thought I would review some of the books I teach or have taught. In high school I read (or attempted to read) Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and I swore off Thomas Hardy forever. But then life happened, and I found myself teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles and loving it. So I thought I’d share some of my enthusiasm here. The novel has been dubbed Hardy’s most accessible, and it’s free on Kindle, so feel free to give it a try.

The novel follows a young woman named Tess who tries simultaneously to compensate for her parents’ irresponsibility, forge her own way in life, and fight a series of events that suggests she was born under an unlucky star while all the while living in a society whose rules seem to contradict the natural laws of nature.

First of all, to understand the novel you must understand that it was written during the Victorian Era when society had a hypocritical enthusiasm for ensuring the purity of women while ignoring the purity of men. Hardy was also using the novel to examine his views on formal religion versus general moral beliefs as well as to examine his idea of tragedy, which comes from “the worthy encompassed by the inevitable.” For example, Hardy wrote a poem about the Titanic in which Fate prepares a “sinister mate” for the Titanic in the form of an iceberg.

The second thing to understand is that because he was writing during Victorian times, he had to confine his writing to certain (prudish) standards. For example, in the original text, there is a scene in which a man carries four dairymaids across a flooded river. This was a bit too scandalous for certain publications, and for one of his editions, Hardy was forced to rewrite the scene so that the man used a wheelbarrow to ferry the maidens across (rather than the scandalous act of actually touching four separate unmarried women!). As a result, Hardy’s language is often metaphorical, sometimes in intriguing ways.

For example, there is a scene written about a strawberry. And yes, it’s just about a strawberry. But the undercurrent of the scene could make even a modern-day reader uncomfortable. The scene establishes the alluring yet pushy nature of Alec and foreshadows the rape scene, which causes Tess’s life to spiral down in tragedy. The scene is from Chapter Five:

Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible; but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him.  He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.

“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”

“They are already here.”  D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.

“No–no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips.  “I would rather take it in my own hand.”

“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her.  When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose-trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.

What I love about the novel is Hardy’s elegant prose. His word choice is elegant yet not over-the-top, and reading his work will definitely help with SAT scores! Hardy’s sophisticated vocabulary means he can choose the exactly appropriate word for each situation. His imagery is often symbolic or suggestive, and his use of point-of-view allows him to include humor in the overall tragic work. For example, Tess’s parents are portrayed as often-drunk, childish, country bumpkins (of the Victorian British variety), allowing comic relief to break up Tess’s misery.

My favorite point-of-view shift comes toward the end of the novel in which Hardy describes a murder scene. Instead of bringing us intimately into the murder chamber itself, he shifts into the point-of-view of a woman watching a red spot on the ceiling above her become increasingly larger. It isn’t until the woman more closely examines the spot that the reader realizes the spot is blood, and a murder has taken place in the room upstairs.

I won’t go into depth in the plot here—you can go to any number of sites for a summary—but I will recommend the book for its prose, its criticism of Hardy’s society (the questions he asks are still relevant today—is there a double-standard in the way we view men and woman? –is someone with moral beliefs just as admirable as someone who follows the rules of a given religion?), and its foray into the idea of a more modern tragedy than the Oedipus of old.