Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d'Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.
It’s been eleven years since I last read Tess, and from this reading it seems the tragedy and heartbreak running through the pages affects the reader much more as they mature. Hardy shows us utter devastation, injustice, and fate, all working in strange ways simply to flatten this innocent woman. I’m still suffering.
And fate is a huge element here. From her rustic upbringing, to the act which shaped her adult life, Tess is a victim of events unfolding which control her life’s path. Whether these are acts done by her, against her, around her, or without her knowledge, everything seems to converge unkindly to lead to her ruin.
The real heartbreak is that Tess does barely anything to help herself. Meek, guilty, and chained by moral code, she unconditionally continues without any true positive action, feeling sorry for herself all the while. To let herself be trampled continuously, and to be chained by social code in such a way, was maddening to this woman of 2020. It’s pitiful and frustrating.
We see each relationship Tess has with any other person as flawed and deeply unhealthy. Her own mother didn’t take the time to teach her about men, so both of the subsequent men in her life treat her poorly, despite one of them being initially characterised as a saviour. She struggles to make friends because of her looks, she impossibly shys away from others because of her innate knowledge of her own damage, her guilt. Tess is a deeply lonely person, and it’s so miserable.
Hardy’s commentary on aristocracy and social norms here is wonderful and modern. He plainly shows us how Victorian morals affected women (particularly very good looking women such as Tess), and how the expectations of society could lead to woman’s downfall, but never a man’s.
As it’s Hardy, there’s lots of symbolism here, which is gorgeous to interpret, and would take a long time to dig into. He speaks in depth about nature, sometimes to highlight the provincial, and sometimes to create symbols of the romantic, and purity.
His writing is wonderful, and engages with me in whichever of his books I read. I love Hardy, I love Tess, and I only hope I live long enough to reread this another couple of times.
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.