Tess of the d’Urbervilles

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“This question of a woman telling her story – the heaviest of crosses to herself – seemed but an amusement to others. It was as if people should laugh at martyrdom.”

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess, a poor country girl in her late teens, is raped by a man she thought was her cousin. Her humiliation drives her away from her own town to work as a dairymaid. Deeply sensing that she is impure, she plans never to marry, but her affectionate nature leads her to fall in love with a fellow worker, Angel Clare. Throughout their courtship, Tess struggles with whether she should reveal her secret.

Thomas Hardy describes landscapes like no other author. Reading Tess is as much about the location as the characters. Hardy’s attention to detail brings life and realism to the story. My favorite selection from this particular novel of his was the description of migrating birds as “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes.”

At first I reacted negatively to the portrayal of Tess. She is above all a pure woman, which by 19th-century standards, means she must be passive and subservient. She differs immensely from the strong female characters I normally enjoy reading about from this time period–those from Brontë or Austen novels, or even different Hardy novels. Yet, while considering why Tess should have such a meek personality, I realized that this book–seemingly anti-feminist in modern times–is using Tess’ passivity to make a feminist statement. Hardy had to make Tess the stereotypical good woman of his time because if she were not, people would have rejected his message: rape is not the victim’s fault. If she had been any bolder, the audience may have rejected her innocence, thinking that she “had it coming.”

Overall, I liked this book. I did not enjoy it as much as Return of the Native, because I love stronger and spunkier female characters, but I would recommend reading both. I would recommend Tess only to older audiences though, since the material is more adult.

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