“This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”
― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
A line that rather encapsulates the novel, the hobble of being alive is extremely serious for the eponymous heroine Tess D’Urberville. Whilst I would highly recommend reading the book, there is also a fairly good BBC adaptation starring Gemma Arterton, a very young and handsome Eddie Redmayne, and a convincing Hans Matherson as villainous cad Alec D’Urberville.
I have always proclaimed that I detest ‘depressing, grey’ books. They leave me somewhat disheartened about the state of both characters from the novel and the world in which we live in. Yet something about Tess of the D’Urbervilles managed to reject this theory, cementing its place as one of my favourite books. This book review/ analysis strives to explain why this book is so highly recommended by scholars and is considered one of the great classics.
Beginning in the idyllic countryside of England, the simple country life seems both sweet and dull for the Durbeyfield family, who live a modest life. The discovery that their lineage is derived from the noble D’Urbervilles elates them. Tess is sent off to meet other representatives of their family, and it is here that she meets Alec D’Urberville.
The infamous meeting of Tess and Alec is the beginning of a relationship that would spark debates between readers for years. From the offset, Alec is… dubious. He is more flirtatious than a man should’ve been in the nineteenth century, taking an unhealthy obsession in Tess and her figure. His eyes linger, his hands wander where they shouldn’t, and his actions heavily foreshadow what’s to come later on in the book.
Tess, however is innocent (particularly to the ways of men) and very beautiful, which proves a deadly combination. The other women are jealous of her and bully her. One night, they start to gang up and fight Tess. Alec comes to help her, giving her a ride on his horse. Yet instead of being a gallant hero, he deliberately gets lost in the forest called ‘The Chase’ in order to spend more time with Tess. Eventually, they stop, and Tess falls asleep in the forest while Alec goes to look for help. When he returns, they have sex.
As aforementioned, Hardy sparked one of the greatest debates amongst authors, readers and scholars with a single sex scene- a sex scene, mind you, that is so heavily vague and chaste that you might not even realise what is going on when you read it.
Herein lies the debate; whether they had consensual sex, or whether Tess was raped.
Below is the passage (which has been edited by myself to only include the sections important to this discussion).
“He could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.
Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive. As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it.”
Thus ends phase the first (the Maiden) and begins the second phase (Maiden no more) a title which not-so-subtly indicates what the ambiguous scene was actually all about.
Not quite a steamy sex scene, I know. But written in 1891 it was a subject risqué enough as is, and Hardy’s ponderings on religion, fate, and destiny are far more fulfilling than a sex scene, right? Maybe.
I have firmly and always been on one side of the great debate: Tess was most certainly raped. Throughout the book, Alec constantly makes advances, trying to kiss Tess, feed her, touch her, to which she constantly refuses him and pushes him away. She shows no affection or sexual advances towards him, and spurns his. I’m not quite sure what person in this generation thinks having sex with an unconscious woman isn’t rape, but yet there are debates that the sex was consensual. If you have read the book, or read it after this review, please let me know below what side of the great debate you are on.
After the ‘sex scene’, Tess leaves the farm and returns home, discovering she is pregnant. Unfortunately, her child, which Tess names Sorrow, dies. Tess cannot give the child a Christian burial because the child is born out of wedlock. Instead, Sorrow is buried in a little shabby bit of ground with drunkards and beggars, and Tess is left even more of a broken woman.
My great love for Hardy began with this novel when I read the protestations he makes against the vilification of women- especially fallen women, (a term which here means women who have had premarital sex or children out of wedlock.) Tess is shunned by all, even her own family, when her secret is discovered. The fact she had been raped and did not consent is of no matter to her judgmental peers, all that matters is that she has been ‘dirtied’ and ‘tainted’ by Alec, and has fallen from grace. Tess yet again leaves home and goes to work on another farm, where she befriends a couple of women, and meets Angel Clare.
Angel Clare is the son of a reverend, yet despite his father’s wishes of going into a similar career, decides to work on a farm. He is educated, kind-hearted, and loved by all. The three women that work on the farm with Tess are all madly in love with him, yet he falls in love with Tess.
Like all great love stories, theirs is a tragic one.
Tess and Angel fall madly in love, and Angel begins to persuade Tess to marry him- but she refuses, terrified of him finding out about her sordid past. After Angel’s constant pursuing of her, Tess agrees to marry him. Tormented by her secret past, Tess writes a letter, explaining everything, and slips it under Angels door.
One thing we should know by now in literature, is that letters are not reliable. Remember the letter Juliet writes to Romeo, explaining everything, but it gets misplaced and ends up being the cause of both their deaths? Exactly- letters are not reliable.
The letter slides under the carpet, not received by Angel. They get married. Tess is finally happy, and so are we. Yet this happiness is not to last long as on their wedding night, instead of doing the thing which they were supposed to do *cough, cough, wink, wink*, they instead have a long chat.
Angel tells her that he has a dark secret- he has had sex before with a woman in London. Tess forgives him easily, and is elated at his secret- as she finally now realises she too can unburden herself, and tells Angel her secret of being raped by Alec and their child dying. Instead of forgiving Tess, like she did for him, Angel rejects Tess completely.
Angel turns his back on Tess, telling her he does not recognise the person in front of him, she is changed, different, to him. He decides to leave for Brazil, and asks another woman- who, by the way- is a very close friend of Tess- to go with him.
Abandoned by her husband and once again thrust into a life of despair, Tess moves to another farm. Tess is worked to the bone, heartbroken and on the verge of death from her severe poverty. Tess hears a preacher speak valiantly about morale’s and religion and all of that malarkey.
Just when you think things cannot possibly get any worse, they do.
Who should this man of God be, this preacher? Alec D’urberville, Tess’s rapist.
Alec assures Tess that he has changed, that he feels guilty about what he did and that he has converted now to Christianity and God. For a while, it almost seems like he means it, but seeing Tess again renews Alec’s fascination with her, and the obsession to possess her begins.
Alec stalks Tess mercilessly, tormenting her about her husband abandoning her, telling her that Angel is never coming back. Tess’s mother falls ill, her father dies, and the family is evicted from her home. She writes to Angel asking for help, but receives nothing. Alec promises to help her if she becomes his.
Meanwhile, Angel falls ill in Brazil. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy this part of the book because in my opinion, Angel is just as much of a villain as Alec is. Well, maybe not on the same level, but he’s still a spineless coward who pretends to be completely enlightened and forward-thinking yet still believes in backwards beliefs that women who have sex before marriage are evil and tainted. I skim over his part every time I read it, but the jist is that Angel comes to his senses and tries to find Tess.
Miraculously, in the days without maps or iPhone, Angel finds Tess, only to find that she is living with Alec D’Urberville. Tess finally gets some of her spirit back, blaming Angel for abandoning her, with no other choice but to accept becoming Alec’s. Tess tells Angel it is too late, she has become Alec’s and he has to leave.
Devastated, Angel leaves- again, not really proving himself to be a worthy husband, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and Tess realises she still loves him madly.
Going upstairs, Tess finds Alec and stabs him to death. She leaves to find Angel as Alec’s body is discovered by a landlady, and the police start searching for Tess.
Angel and Tess go on the run and get to Stonehenge when Tess has a nap on the stones- really odd, I know, but maybe murdering is tiring.
The police catch up to them, Tess is arrested, and soon after, Tess is executed. The book ends with Angel and Tess’s sister watching and then walking off.
The contrast between Angel and Alec proves there is some similarity between them. Most people see Alec as the embodiment of evil, whereas Angel is the romantic hero. However, there are several dimensions to both characters.
Angel comes across as a fairly progressive, noble young man. He seems to represent Tess’s happy ending, though his rejection of her reveals him as a hypocrite, unable to see past his fathers evangelical beliefs of female sexuality.
Alec, however detestable, seems to have some kind of character progression. While I am in no way excusing his actions, he acknowledges the harm he has caused Tess and in his own way tries to make up for it by offering her a deal of providing for her and her family in return for sexual companionship, a relationship comparable to prostitution and/or marriage (at the time in which the novel was written.)
Alec takes on the role of husband when Angel abandons her. While Alec is undoubtedly an immoral character, it just goes to show Hardy’s complex characterisation; no man is wholly good or evil, but an amalgamation of both. It is this depth of character that make books more elaborate, more intricate than films. Instead of the tropes we receive in Hollywood films; the noble hero on a quest, the villain hell-bent on domination, we get a complex mishmash.
Not a very happy book. In fact, possibly one of the most depressing books I have ever read, yet it’s amazing. The brilliance of the novel lies within its tragedy- not simply for emotional value, but to further a political agenda on the vindication of women.
Hardy creates a lovable character; Tess is naïve, innocent, kind, almost perfect. But he thrusts her into situations that ruin her spirit, break her, and create sympathy for her. This is integral as it shows to the audience at the time that ‘fallen women’ are not creatures to be shunned from society, but normal women who have been exposed to tragedy not of their own making.
I cannot say as to whether Hardy’s writing changed the minds of many 19th century people. What I do know is that writing this novel was a profound step in literature for shedding light upon archaic ideologies regarding female sexuality. Hardy recognised the importance of the human soul, the strength of someone’s character, and within his book, valued it over their history. For that alone the book should get a high rating. However the combination of the plot, the fantastic description of English countryside’s, the characterisation of the people in the books and great discussion of philosophy all together makes a fantastic read.
The juxtaposition of Tess’s innocence with Alec’s twisted villainy, Angel’s conflicted moral’s of right and wrong and Tess’s plight as a young woman show three very different characters as products of the social ideologies of the time. Their intertwined fates provide a interesting yet tragic journey in a narrative that proves itself one of the many must-read books of all time.
I would rate the book an eight out of ten.
Explanation for the missing two points; firstly, I’ve mentioned that I hate depressing books. And this book ripped my heart to shreds. While that is what good literature does, I don’t think I could read this book again and again regularly because I think I’d lose all my faith in humanity.
Secondly, considering the book involves plotlines delving into noble lineage, rape, murder and great romance, in some places, the book is rather slow to read. Perhaps that is coming from my 21st century opinion, considering the action-packed films of today I’m accustomed to, but a little more dramatics to lift the book would be good. I would’ve liked a nice fight scene- maybe some kind of duel- between Alec and Angel, to replace some of the longer, more winding passages.
Then again, a Hardy novel without philosophical ramblings
and long descriptions of countryside would hardly be a Hardy novel.
Please read the book, or at least add it to your reading list, and come back! If you’ve read the book already, let me know what you thought of it below!