“Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, or Cruel Victorian Social Standards

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
350 pages (w/t notes)
First published 1891
4/5 new authors (2013 Book Challenge)


Tess was very different from all 19th century novels that I’ve ever read, particularly because of the issues it deals with.

Tess is the oldest child in the family of Durbeyfields who are a family of peasants by position. However, her father finds out that by name they are descendants of the ancient noble family of d’Urbervilles, and Durbeyfield is a corrupted version of that name. Incidentally, he also finds out that they have some remaining  family, and due to Durbeyfields’ poor economic position they send Tess to ‘claim kin’, in other words beg for the charity of their wealthier brethren, so to say. The irony is that these d’Urbervilles are fake, and only took the name for its noble history. And as a result of this igniting decision, we are provided with a plot of this unfortunate biography of an innocent village girl. Tess meets Alec d’Urberville, who is the cause of all her troubles (to point a finger at a single person), specifically an event that will be her burden for the rest of her days.

I’ve never read such an honest novel, dealing with issues that are usually avoided by Victorian authors due to reasons of contemporary criticism and moral objections… But Hardy is masterful in his way with words, he presents an honest, unashamed, yet modest depiction of a life of a woman who is not ‘pure’ by Victorian standards. Through Tess’s own thoughts Hardy criticizes the morality of Victorian society, redefines what it means to be pure, and challenges blind and pious followers of religion — who claim to be good and helping, but are first to point a finger at those who have ‘sinned’. This novel is a tragedy, full of irony, and it does not have a happy ending.

Tess is proud and mature for her age, more mature than her parents — as if the roles were reversed, but she is still innocent in worldly matters. She is abused by circumstance, and there are many factors leading to her downfall. Hardy pities Tess, it is clear, he never uses a harsh word against her, and the Reader is also filled with compassion towards our tragic heroine.

Angel Clare, the romantic interest, seems like a perfectly constructed partner for Tess — by name alone! but also as he turned away from Church work and ancestral pride to immerse himself in a farmer’s life. But alas! he is far from perfect, closer to hypocrisy and double standards, than heroism. He is not a hero, and I did not like him, despite his repentance and whatnot.

The circumstance of the ending did not impress me, although I expected it to end in that way for Tess. The details of the resolution seemed too spontaneous, like Hardy’s last chance to impress the Reader, which went wrong in my direction…

Hardy uses description to the best of his ability — at times unnecessarily, but nonetheless poetically — to such an extent that I could smell the moist filling scent of fresh milk in the dairy houses, feel the cool breeze on the fields and the gentle swaying of long grass and wheat. A writer whose other work I cannot wait to read.

But, I enjoyed the novel and the novel reading experience was a pleasure (yup, that’s an adjective, my dears)! 🙂

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4 responses to ““Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, or Cruel Victorian Social Standards

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