Tess of the D’Urbervilles

What struck me most while I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the pervading duality of it. Heavy themes cloaked in poetic eloquence. A bygone taste of Romanticism alongside deplorable Realism. Tragedy seeping through the veins of love. Unending victimisation amidst the flush of life – Prince pierced at night on  the road, wounded pheasants left to die in a wood, Tess’ sleeping body stretched out for sacrifice on the altar at Stonehenge. The duality of Tess’ character itself; the presence of a certain worldly knowledge that is inseparable from her innocence and naivety.

Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes, and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.

I had been forewarned that this was a dreary book, but I found it quite summery in tone (an altogether different experience from A Fraction of the Whole); that balanced the heaviness out of it. And Hardy’s writing is so incredibly poetic.

“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”

“Yes.”

“All like ours?”

“I don’t know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”

“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”

“A blighted one.”

Strange, though, that despite this delicate balance of beauty and disillusionment, Hardy is far from subtle. I think he was a man with a sense of humour, for sure. There is a strong emphasis on specific features of Tess’ ‘womanliness’, and almost all the characters are distorted caricatures. Angel Clare (need I say more?), Alec D’Urberville with his borrowed identity and his comically villanous appearance, Joan and John Durbeyfield – simpleton mother, drunkard father.

The plot itself is rather increasingly sensational and melodramatic, which I suppose the Victorians would have liked despite all their righteous airs. The book progresses dramatically enough, with Tess’ loss of virginity at Trantridge and her equally blissful and painful romance at Kingsbere. Then, in the last few chapters, it transforms into a 19th century episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. Bloodshed! Passion! A police chase! Symbolic sacrifice!

Before I could even gasp in distaste, poor Tess was no more. Never mind the hasty execution, though. I loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and that’s that.

» This was my Dusty book for the 9 Books for 2009 project. For this particular category, we were asked to choose a book that had been on our shelves (unread) for three or more years. I didn’t have such a book, but I noticed Tess had been sitting on my shelf since February of 2008, so I put her down on my list. She was also part of my Summer Reading list, and the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.

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20 thoughts on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles

    1. zawan – while i love Tess, and was moved by the first half of the novel, i didn’t find the ending ’sad’ at all. I’m not sure if this was originally serialized, but if it was, I have a feeling Hardy was rather short on time for the last few of his submissions :)

    1. Rebecca – it really is such a beautiful book; I only hope I did justice to it. But then I always feel a bit iffy when reviewing classics. Feels bad to critique the Masters, hahah

  1. Fantastic review of Tess, especially this line: “A bygone taste of Romanticism alongside deplorable Realism.”

    I reread it about 3 years ago and it was even better than I remember. I had forgotten the lyrical quality of the prose. I remember thinking that her and Angel’s life at the dairy farm was simply idyllic, and part of that feeling was the way Hardy described it. I also remember loving the scene in which she baptized her baby–very poignant.

    1. JaneGS – oh yes, I liked that scene too. Poor Tess; I really did feel sorry for her in the first half of the novel. As for Hardy’s writing, I really wasn’t expecting it to be so poetic, so I was pleasantly surprised. I wonder if all of Hardy’s books are written like this. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see..

  2. I love, love, love Tess, and this is a great review. This, along with the BBC adaptation that just started airing in the U.S. last night is almost enough to make me put aside my TBR books and read it again. Must… resist….must…resist….

    1. Teresa – ooh BBC adaptation. I don’t normally like adaptations of any sort, but I’ve heard the Tess one is really good. Hahah well, we’ve got a long year ahead of us (361 days, I think?) so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt you that much to re-read Tess would it?

  3. I was watching the first part of the BBC adaptation and thought maybe I should pick up the book, which I didn’t pick from the elective reading in high school. Another reason I still haven’t read this book is that after the dreary The Mayor of Casterbridge, I have avoided Hardy.

  4. Tess iand Hardy are favourites of mine, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. The Mayor of Casterbridge really isn’t dreary, I’d recommend it as well as Far from the Madding Crowd and A Pair of Blue Eyes.

  5. This is a great review. Very insightful. I haven’t read the book yet but I fell in love with Hardy’s writing in The Return of the Native, another beautiful disaster of a storyline.

    1. Oh, Return of the Native – another Hardy! I think that’s what I loved best about Tess: the writing. Now that I look back on it, the characters and plot didn’t do all that much for me.

  6. Ahhh, one of my favourites… I had to study this book at school 20+ years ago, but I still have fond memories of it. I’m reading some of Hardy’s short stories at the moment.

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