My first Thomas Hardy novel was simply fantastic. Emotionally poignant but also socially resonant, Tess of the D’Ubervilles (1891) provides an intriguing story about Victorian social and sexual hypocrisy through characters with clear flaws to recognize and appreciate. And yet, although it was clearly a commentary on the social structures and sexual morality in Victorian England, Hardy never once lectured or made his novel about those issues. At first and last glance, the book is a tender one about one poor woman and those who associate with her.
Note: this post contains spoilers for the entire novel.
Tess Durbeyfield is the oldest child in her poor rural working family, and, having been blessed with six years of school, she is also the wisest. One thing we debated in our book group last night was how many of her circumstances were her “fate” as a poor girl in rural Wessex and how many of her circumstances was a result of her poor choices.
First, the consensus was that she was a strong woman, able to persevere as she dealt with situations. Initially, we thought that she was destined to a fateful life because of her position as a poor woman. What could she have done?
And yet, as we discussed further, I pointed out that Tess had fallen asleep, causing the horse’s death in the beginning. She had decided to go to Alec’s home. Yes, she had her mother’s intense pressure to do so, but technically she could have realized the danger of doing so. (Her initial encounter with Alec should have been clue enough!) Maybe this was her mother’s fault too, for not preparing her and warning her of the ways of men. But Tess also decided to not tell Angel about her past. She decided to return to Alec. Where there other good options? No, but there were options. She chose to end up as she did.
That leads us to the next big question: was Tess rape or seduced? Obviously, in case of rape, one does not have a choice and thus, maybe I should be easier on Tess. Yet, in my perspective, I argue that it does not actually matter if she were raped or not: in the novel, what we hear from Tess is guilt. That guilt is what drives her choices.
She says at one point that she let herself be overcome by Alec. She cared for him enough, but not really that much. Yes, according to modern definitions, I suspect we could call it rape. Alec had power over hear financially, physically, and so forth. If she had not wanted a sexual encounter with him, it would have been near impossible to stop what he was evidently determined to get. Nevertheless, the crux of the novel revolves not just on the fact that Tess was no longer a maiden but that she felt she had given herself to Alec, that he was her “husband” in the Victorian sense of the word. If rape were in her vocabulary, it would have been a very different story.
The entire “old family” situation was also a fascinating one for me to ponder. Tess did not care about her connection to the old D’Uberville family, although she is interested when she learns that the Dairy is in the same region as the decrepit D’Uberville family vaults. I loved how Angel, the symbol of a progressive thinker, likewise dismisses the “old families” and yet ends up marrying into one when he accepts the poor Tess as his wife. Even more ironic is the fact that Tess herself, a “fallen” woman because of her sexual encounter, then fulfills his stereotyped understanding of a person from an “old family.”
Further, Tess’s “fallen woman” status becomes all the more significant as she lets herself sin further when she actually completes murder. This ultimate fall seemed all the more tragic to me since she seems so proud as she tells Angel, believing in her mind that murdering Alec made everything all right again. She truly lost her mind. She wanted to be accepted by Angel despite her fallen non-maiden state. In her twisted understanding of Victorian morality, murdering Alec righted that wrong.
The end was tragic. Angel arrived too late for things to be perfect and happily ever after, but I was so glad he did return. Alec was a jerk, but how else could Hardy have let Tess be with Angel, but by killing Alec off? I loved how the book ended at Stonehenge, a place of the truest “old families” of them all and I believe a symbol of pre-Christian England. Tess had been a pure Christian woman, trying to live by Victorian standards and ideals. After she murdered, it seems she was far from the Christian morality that Victorian England demanded. She rested her head instead at an ancient pagan setting instead. What an ending!
I know that this post has been rather like a ramble. But after my book club discussion last night and after reading the book in a rush to get through it (I couldn’t put it down for the last hundred pages because I was so moved), I wanted to get all these thoughts out there. There is so much more to look at in Tess of the D’Ubervilles: Angel’s hypocrisy, his brother’s hypocrisy, the other people who appear in the book like Tess’s dairy friends and family. And yet, this must be it for now. Tess is a woman I will not forget, and I look forward to rereading her story in a few years and discovering once again how Hardy manages to convey so much in such a lovely and tragic story. I can’t wait to read more Hardy.
I’m delighted that you enjoyed this so much. Opinions about it are really divided, but I think it’s a wonderful book–all Hardy’s books that I’ve read are wonderful. The whole question of choice comes up a lot in his work, and it seems like one of the recurring themes is how people at the bottom of the social ladder have fewer good choices available and are less able to recover from their mistakes. Everything seems to work against them, and there’s no way out of it. It’s a bleak vision, and not universally true, but I think there’s something to it, even today.
Teresa » I am fascinated by the fact that he was so interested in the lower classes…I’m curious to give his other works a try. I have RETURN OF THE NATIVE on my shelf and of course all of them via Gutenberg. I definitely think there is something universal about Tess’s story, even with all the different ways one could look at it. This is a book, though, that 5/5 people at our book club liked!! Which is so very rare for our group. There are usually a few strong nay sayers every month.
Wow, I never thought anything would make me want to give Thomas Hardy another try! I read The Mayor of Casterbridge in high school and absolutely hated it — I found it unbelievably dreary from start to finish. But I love this review! You make Hardy sound wonderful.
Jenny » One of the gentlemen in my book group read two other Hardy’s (not sure which) and he said he was really worried at the thought of another…he just ouldn’t take the dreariness! But then he started it and found there are some humorous parts so it was much more positive than others. Even the end of this, which really shows how she fell off her rocker, still was beautiful at the same time it was tragic. I felt like it was a good ending, considering it all. (Ah, but I feel bad when I say that. Sorry, Tess!! If only your life could have been different!)
This is one of the most powerful books that I read when I was a teenager. I agree – the issue is really not whether she was raped or seduced. That’s not what the book is about. It’s about how feelings of guilt can motivate the destruction of innocence. Poor Tess!