Book Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Book: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Review:
I’ll admit this: I had read MOST of this book previously. I’ve long held it to be the most depressing book ever written. I knew what eventually happened because I don’t always read linearly. But I hadn’t read it all the way through, it was on the BBC Top 100 list, and I had a quite beautiful hard cover copy in my possession. So I started reading it. About 2 months ago. Yeah, it took awhile to wade through.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I’m going to give a  synopsis. Beware if you’re going to read the novel and detest spoilers, because there will definitely be spoilers. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a novel detailing the life of Tess Durbeyfield, a young maiden in England who happens to be the eldest daughter of Jack and Joan Durbeyfield, two very lazy, lackadaisacal parents who do very little to help their family, promote their well-being or actively parent. They don’t do it maliciously; they’re just two people who are out to enjoy life (and drink and fun and merriment) and it never occurs to them that they do that at the expense of their children. Somehow, Jack comes upon the knowledge that his last name, Durbeyfield, is actually a derivation of D’Urberville, an old English landed family that is basically died out. No money, houses, or anything that would help his family remain, but Jack is overjoyed. Jack and his wife celebrate their fortune with a little too much drink at the local drinking house and Tess’ father is unable to get up early the next morning and make the delivery he needed to (as this appears to be his job). Tess decides to go and this leads to Bad Thing #1: Tess falls asleep and the horse (the father’s only mode of transportation which is vital to his job) is killed.

That leads straightway to Bad Thing #2: Tess’ parents learn of a family with the name D’Urberville a ways away and send Tess to claim relations and ask for their help. The Durbeyfields don’t know these people aren’t true D’Urbervilles and no relations (they are a family that has risen in social standing through unscrupulous business dealings and have chosen the D’Urberville name to kind of erase the stench of those dealings and the fact that they’re not Old Money). Tess goes, meets up with Alec D’Urberville, a scoundrel and rake if there ever was one, and from the moment he sees her, young and comely and innocent, he has to have her. Tess tells him her family’s woes and goes back home. She is then invited to come live at the D’Urberville house and tend the chickens. She has no idea of D’Urberville’s unseemly intentions, but is highly uncomfortable with him. He’s always trying to kiss her or get close to her and Tess does well to remain aloof and far away from him. Until one night when a series of events leads to Bad Thing #3.

Bad Thing #3: Alec rapes Tess. Truth be told, this novel was first printed as a serialized story and there are several versions, some of which call into question Tess’ involvement or fault in the situation. In some, it’s a seduction that happens mostly because she’s not aware of what’s happening. In some, he tricks her into a sham of a marriage. But it appears to me, at least in the version I read, that D’Urberville takes advantage of Tess—while she’s sleeping. Tess doesn’t remain in the D’Urbervilles’ employ for much longer and returns home, broken, devastated, destroyed.

Bad Thing #4: Tess is pregnant and gives birth to a small, sickly baby who she doesn’t even name for awhile. She takes to working in the fields, since it’s harvest time and this is a way she can provide for her family, especially since her father won’t do much and she feels she has brought shame on her family. The baby, of course, is ill and not long for the world. In a riveting, disturbing scene, Tess christens the baby herself, naming him Sorrow, scared he will go to hell because he has not been baptized. He dies, is buried in the corner of the cemetary reserved for the unrighteous, and Tess begins to look for work elsewhere. Eventually, she ends up working as a dairy maid at a dairy farm far away from her home. And there, things seem to get better. She’s good at her job, doesn’t face the gossip and scruntiny of her hometown and is free to keep all the sordid details of the past to herself. She pledges never to marry, but Angel Clare, a pastor’s son who is interning at the farm and learning about dairy farming, begins to fall in love with her. Eventually, even though Tess says she’ll never marry, she succumbs to her love for Angel and they marry.

And wouldn’t it be nice if the tale ended there? But no. Tess tells Angel about her past AFTER they have married (that night to be exact), and he’s shocked and angry, feeling like she has trapped him by not telling him before their marriage. After three days of marriage, he decides it’s best they take some time apart and sends her home to her family. He first goes to his family, then to Brazil where he plans to start his farming operation. Tess, destitute and grief-stricken by the abandonment, soon leaves her family’s home to go somewhere where no one knows her and begins working on another farm. Eventually, she meets back up with D’Urberville who has been converted to Christian living, but is pulled away by his lust for Tess and begins chasing after her again. She rebuffs him time and time again, always staying true to Angel whom she hasn’t heard from in years and is not providing for her in any way. Eventually, Tess’ father dies, her family is kicked out of their home, and Tess provides for them by shacking up with D’Urberville. Finally, Tess has become what Clare thought she was and it’s his abandonment that made it happen.

Eventually, Clare comes to his senses and comes to find Tess, only to find her living with D’Urberville. She barely talks in their short interview and tells him to leave and never come back to her. He leaves and she reacts by stabbing D’Urberville to death.

I know, right? Can’t get anymore depressing, right? Um, yeah. Have you read any Thomas Hardy? He takes depressing to a whole new level.

Tess, of course, catches up with Clare and they run from the law. Eventually, she’s caught (laying on a stone at Stonehenge, of all places) and the book ends with the reader knowing that Tess has been executed for her crime.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is indeed a classic of English lit and I think deservingly so. But for modern readers, especially those who don’t read a lot of English lit of that period, I can see how it would become a bit obtuse and difficult to finish. It took me at least three tries to finish reading it myself, and I’m a reader of English lit! And to top all of that, it’s just plain depressing. So many bad things and so little happiness. The whole book has an air of bleakness and disaster just waiting to happen.

Then there’s issues with the characters. Hardy really did build complicated characters who act out of complicated emotions and reasoning. Tess is all innocence and brokenness, complete with a touch of paganist thought and superstitiousness. D’Urberville is bad all the way through, ruled by selfishness and lust. He wants what he wants and generally gets it because people are afraid of him. Clare is the character I can’t understand, especially his reaction to Tess’ revelation. For someone who has been so generous and accepting of others, his dismissal of her because of the past and what he sees as her attempt to entrap him hurts me. Because as an invested reader, I wanted and expected more of him. I wanted the happy ending that romantic comedies and much of today’s literature has caused me to expect.

But that’s not what Hardy delivers. He delivers a story about life as he sees it: hopeless, doomed, and broken.

So, I’ll be finding some romantic comedies to watch to remedy the depressing-ness of this book. I’m glad I read it, but it’s probably not one I’ll read again! Give me Jane Austen!

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