Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: A Review

“Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”

Thomas Hardy’s novels are famous for their pastoral aesthetic: his poignant descriptions of rural life and his rich illustrations of the rustic countryside serve half the reasons why anyone should read his work.

The other reason Hardy is such a household name is his masterful use of realism in his novels. He didn’t sugarcoat the travesties of existence that the lower classes in Britain at the time had to go through. He showed it all – the beautiful and the ugly.

About the book:

Tess of the d’Urbervilles certainly follows in this same vein of the pastoral aesthetic. Tess Durbeyfield, a token village belle, is jarringly thrust into the amoral arena of British class-conscious society during the economic depression of the 1870s after learning about her noble heritage. The revelation is a stark contrast to her family’s present poverty and, being the eldest of the Durbeyfield children, the burden of improving their lot falls onto her young shoulders.

Unfortunately for Tess, the world outside of the village she grew up in is the world of Men – and the world of Men is harsh and unforgiving to an unlearned, naive girl. As a woman, Tess must bear with a lot – judgement, shame and injustice. Through it all, she feels it vital that she must not give up her optimism.

I suppose this is where I’ll throw down my gauntlet and admit that I don’t think that there was much realism in this novel of Hardy’s, that there seem to be some faults in the plot and and characters and something lacking in his storytelling.

Why it’s so important:

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is commonly studied as a portrait of gender discrimination in rural Victorian society. Its subtitle, ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’, is intended to be a jibe at Victorian ideals of feminine chastity and purity.

However, this becomes a point of irony in the novel: Hardy, in my opinion, was so intensely involved in trying to convince the world that women suffer disproportionately that he seems to have forgotten all about creating compelling characters and a convincing story. As a result, his female protagonist and paragon of female goodness is a two dimensional caricature of what her character could be. Hardy, strangely, seems to revel in her victimhood.

Don’t get me wrong: the characters in Tess of the d’Urbervilles start out realistic, each with their fatal flaw – that one, unfortunate blemish of character that brings dooms them but also gives them depth. However, this only works well if characters develop past this initial stage, if they follow through on an arc, changing by the end of the narrative. Hardy’s characters in this novel don’t change much; they react the same way to the same situations throughout the novel. This is a problem for the reader, who naturally wishes to identify with a character and gradually becomes invested in their success.

Ultimately, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that I don’t think this novel is very important, unless you want to read it to learn how not to write a character.

Why you should read it:

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe people out there enjoyed this book. Let me know in the comments, regardless.

But, personally, I would use Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a lesson: read it to find out why you probably don’t want to prioritize didacticism as opposed to good fashioned story-telling and well rounded characters one can root for.

Published by questingpotato

An incurable culture addict, I live inside my head most of the time and occasionally visit the internet for supplies, only to hunker down once again and think. The products of this cloistered calling include weekly reviews (on just about any media), half-decent articles when I wax philosophical, and many very spontaneous opinions, unsolicited and freely given, thank you. Occasionally I will rant.

One thought on “Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: A Review

  1. Finally got here to read your review. While reading, I thought about what you said regarding his characterization or character make up, and I believe there is truth to what you say – Hardy being so preoccupied with proving victimhood that he forgot to make up his characters realistically. He does a fine job assigning flaws to his characters, but he may have been more focused on his message this time.

    When I do read Tess again, I will look for those details because obviously I wasn’t at the time. I tend to get wrapped up in his drama – the tragedy – that I see nothing else. However, I have yet to re-read any of his books. (I’m finishing up with some of his lesser [read] titles). Next time I will go back and dive deeper. I find that I am extremely attracted to tragedy, and sadly I see in red when I read. I get wrapped up in the emotional side of the action and reactions that I miss details like characterization.

    So to answer your question, I ranked Tess high on my list because the emotional response was effective. But when I re-read it, I will keep your observation in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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