This novel is generally regarded as Hardy's finest. A brilliant tale of seduction, love, betrayal, and murder, Tess of the d'Ubervilles yields to narrative convention by punishing Tess's sin, but boldly exposes this standard denouement of unforgiving morality as cruelly unjust. Throughout, Hardy's most lyrical and atmospheric language frames his shattering narrative. The novel centers around a young woman who struggles to find her place in society. When it is discovered that the low-class Durbeyfield family is in reality the d'Urbervilles, the last of a famous bloodline that dates back hundreds of years, the mother sends her eldest daughter, Tess, to beg money from relations with the obvious desire that Tess wed the rich Mr. d'Urberville. Thus begins a tale of woe in which a wealthy man cruelly mistreats a poor girl. Tess is taken advantage of by Mr. d'Urberville and leaves his house, returning home to have their child, who subsequently dies. Throughout the rest of this fascinating novel, Tess is tormented by guilt at the thought of her impurity and vows to never marry. She is tested when she meets Angel, the clever son of a priest, and falls in love with him. After days of pleading, Tess gives in to Angel and consents to marry him. Angel deserts Tess when he finds the innocent country girl he fell in love with is not so pure. ~ I am so happy that in my teenage years I found this marvellous book in a second hand book shop. Till then I was not aware of Sir Thomas Hardy. I started reading and found that it was hard to put down. Being a strong adorer of mother Nature, I was thrilled by the author's minute descriptions of nature in old England. I was dumbfounded by his observations and narration. Coming to the story, I became an immediate fan of the Tess, the heroine. In other words I can say that her character has changed me and my personality. Her simplicity, innocence, perseverance, dedication and most importantly her love made me to be always like her in my daily life. Instantly Hardy became my favourite author and I never stopped reading almost all of his novels. Every person who likes romantic novels must read this novel first. I will never forget Tess in my life.--Submitted by Velijala Phanindra Charya, India
When people dear to us experience misfortune, we may offer them sympathy even as we might be thinking their misfortune was partly their own fault. The Tess novel is largely about a wonderful girl we may come to care a lot about who suffers great hardships. We're led to believe these misfortunes were all the fault of others. Hardy's brilliant writing contributes to the understanding that all of Tess' troubles are the result of bad luck, social injustice and a cruel fate. Tess' miseries and how she bears them seem to exalt her to sympathetic readers. But, what if Tess' choices made at least some of her hardships likely? Perhaps the most prominent of all Tess' qualities is her uncompromising virtue, a choice. All choices have consequences, including doing the honorable thing. Tess knew she risked everything in her wedding night confession, but she chose to do it because she preferred to risk her happiness and fulfillment rather than compromise her sense of honor. Her choice not only had devastating results for her, it also made Angel miserable. Most of us regardless of how honorable we imagine ourselves, temper our honesty an ethical behavior somewhat to assure our well-being. We all tell white lies, partial truths rather than the whole truth and justify it all thinking if there's no real harm done there's no foul. Tess won't compromise her virtuous conduct to her well-being, and the result is her misery. She bears it so stoically it seems she takes her hardships as if they're due. But these hardships don't result from any compromise she's made with virtue. Rather, her hardships result from not compromising her virtue. One moral of this novel might be that to survive satisfactorily in her world (and ours) requires some balance between virtue and personal well-being. Perhaps Tess would have done better to move a little towards Joan's example. Both she and Angel might've been happier for the difference.
When it comes to Tess' villains, the usual candidates are Alec, Angel and Joan. Alec the obvious melodramatic villain. Angel doesn't intend to be cruel to Tess, but he makes her more miserable than anyone. And then there's Joan who sets up Alec to ruin Tess partly to bring some money into the Derbyfield household. It's easy to condemn each, but Hardy provides enough character development to invite our empathy. Each villain had his or her reasons. Joan and Tess as young women were much alike in full bodied sexual appeal. Also, both were born into a low social rung with little opportunity to advance. But, with some luck and willingness both could advance using their sexual appeal to bond with men of higher rank. Joan took this route, but Tess wouldn't consider such a scheme. Parents often don't understand their children and in that difference parents tend to assume parents know best. Moreover, parents tend to assume responsibility to bend their child's thinking to their, not out of malice but in genuine conviction it's their responsibility. Joan was convinced Tess had a great opportunity to bond with the wealthy Alec, not just for the sake of the Derbyfield household but for Tess' benefit, also. By Joan's standards the plan blossomed. However, by Tess' thinking, incomprehensible to Joan, life with Alec was intolerable. That Joan set Tess up for her ruin was villainous, but not all villainous acts merit condemnation. The underlying reason for Joan's villainy, her not understanding Tess and assuming she knew best, is common to all parents. Most of us can't condemn Joan unless we're willing to condemn ourselves.
One of Angel's responses to Tess' wedding night confession was that there had been a "grotesque prestidigitation." The implication was that he'd been duped into marriage by Tess’ clever deception. In the fire lit room in a mansion with just the two of them it's initially puzzling that Angel would use the word prestidigitation, which Tess surely didn't know, instead of words expressing the same meaning she would have understood. The answer may be telling. In his phrase "grotesque prestidigitation" he's really not talking to Tess but to himself or some imagined body in his mind. Being a conformist to his society's standards and now in a situation where he finds his wife, marriage and plans suddenly at odds with society's approval, he's desperate to exonerate himself and remove himself from the "intolerable" situation. It's as though he's saying, "I've been scammed. I’m a victim. Don’t blame me, it’s her fault." From this moment through most of his time in Brazil, he continues in this attitude. After months in Brazil he briefly comes across another Brit to whom Angel discloses his troubles at home. The fellow responds that Angel's made too much of Tess' blemishes and that others in similar situations have accepted, understood and had happy marriages. In a fairly short time Angel reforms his thoughts and returns to Tess as soon as he’s able. While many suggest Angel's mind has been broadened, more likely the stranger simply convinced him society's judgment on Tess wasn't as harsh as he had thought. Angel isn't more broadminded, society is. What the story reveals is that Angel puts society's judgment ahead of his own, if he has any. What's essential to Angel is society's judgment he's a respectable man, and to keep that reputation he's willing to sacrifice his marriage and even Tess. Whatever Angel does, in his mind society's jury is constantly judging him. Where Tess sets nothing above her love for Angel, Angel sets nothing above conforming to society's judgment. He'll be the same with Liza-Lu and all the others in his life.
Hardy may have crafted the Tess character to make a statement about unjust social standards in his time, but he made the character so appealing many readers might feel the novel was really about her. Upon the novel's ending, readers might well wonder who Tess really was, what was her reality, her meaning in her time and her meaning to contemporary readers. On the one hand Tess wants to be known as just Tess, a young woman of the impoverished Wessex laboring class. On the other hand she can seem to be something closer to an earth goddess such as Artemis or Demeter. Following the heart wrenching final chapter in which she's executed, it might seem to some readers that her death left a spiritual emptiness in her society no one else could fill. Either she was a spiritual essence or she symbolized one. I hope Tess readers will offer their thoughts here.
Tess' killing of Alec is perhaps the most puzzling part of the novel. Readers can't help but think that if Tess had simply walked away from Alec and could've lived long and happily with Angel. If Tess felt Alec would be a continuing danger to her marriage, she surely knew that killing Alec meant her marriage would only last a few days and her life would end in about a month. Professor James Heffernan, an English literature scholar, thinks he has the answer. He says that Alec had taken possession of Tess' soul and finding the need to break that possession, Tess believed nothing short of killing him would work. Heffernan's answer is put forward here to generate comments. Do you agree with Heffernan that at the time of her cohabitation with Alec he possessed Tess' soul? If you disagree, do you think Tess' soul was still her own and was it likely to remain so? I have my own opinion to share if we can get some interest on this thread.
As we all know, near the novel's end Tess kills Alec, reunites with Angel, the two live in a room at a vacant mansion (Bramshurst Court), and part at Stonehenge. In these few days Tess believes she's experienced the bliss for which she longs. A new interpretation of Chapters 57-8 seems reasonable and is suggested. In this interpretation, after rejecting Angel and killing Alec, Tess remains in her lodging a relatively short time before being captured there by police. The intervening events Hardy described were all a dream state fantasy in which Tess only imagines her happiness. Supporting this interpretation is that during this imagined episode, Tess seems to have no purpose other than to be with Angel in the moment, avoiding thoughts of the past, the future and exterior world. At Bramshurst she keeps to a darkened bedroom. Hardy is describing an essentially spiritual existence in which there's only she and Angel expressing their mutual love. What Hardy describes is perfect fulfillment without clutter, but as we know realistic fulfillment comes imperfectly and not entirely as we imagine. Tess' happy moments, entirely imagined in my view, can't have a future because she's certain that when Angel objectively takes stock of her he'll despise and reject her again. She's now not only a woman with a blemished premarital past but an adulteress, a virtual prostitute and a murderer. Angel might be more enlightened than earlier, but Tess is justified in thinking Angel can't accept her now. In reality she can't chase after Angel because as much as she longs to be with him, his rejection of her would be unendurable. By Tess relying on her fantasy of fulfillment rather than attempting the impossible real one, a reader's appreciation of her terrible misery is deepened and intensified. In believing her fantasy was real, Tess reveals to us how emotionally withered and damaged she's become. She reminds us of the fatally wounded pheasants whose agonies she mercifully ended by breaking their necks. Tess gladly anticipates the same from her hangman.
Except for the last few lines of the Tess novel, we might summarize the whole story as a description, with some theatrical license, of the terrible life and fate of Wessex laboring women. They live in bare subsistence vulnerable and dependent upon the wealthy who often use them like momentary disposables. Life begins with hope and ends in misery both for themselves and those dearest to them. But, in the last few sentences we have Liza-Lu paired with Angel. A new cycle of womanhood is about to begin either to resemble Tess' miseries or, something happier. Hardy is leading us to wonder if and why Liza-Lu's life might be different than Tess'. A marriage between Angel and Liza-Lu might be happy firstly because Liza-Lu is much like Tess at 17 but without Tess blemishes imparted by Joan and Alec. Secondly, but equally important, is that Angel has ethically evolved since his appearance at Talbothays. Thirdly if these two marry, it'll be a marriage likely based in friendship rather than passionate delusion. More than describing the awful fate of Wessex working class women, Hardy's pointing us towards something better and offering us reasons for optimism. His key messages might include (1) don't base a marriage decision on passion, (2) don't be obedient to societal standards that're unjust and hypocritical, and (3) find meaning in life beyond your own skin. She might have had an unsuccessful life in terms of personal happiness, but in bringing greater happiness and hope to those dearest to her she lived the good life beyond her own skin, which to Hardy is a measure of the successful life.
Some Hardy scholars write that a major parameter of Tess and Hardy's others writings is his philosophical thinking. It's a little hard for us in the twenty-first century to grasp much of this because while philosophy was of much interest a hundred and more years ago, it's not to us now. Obviously, to gather the most complete understanding of Tess requires us to understand Hardy's thinking. Without suggesting I'm any kind of authority in this subject, my understanding is that Hardy and many serious intellectuals on his time believed that as society was evolving, man's character was evolving in step. There was a belief that this evolution progressed through phases that were termed religious, metaphysical and sociological. In the sociological, the highest level, people were more in charge of their own fate. Hardy believed, as did Leslie Steven, the philosopher who influenced him most, that within the sociological phase a person should strive for values of "loving-kindness" or "altruism." The idea was for man to put less importance on himself and his own happiness and more into attempts at well-meaning toward others. In this aim, the link we now accept between living a good life and happiness is disconnected. A good (i.e. altruistic) life is one that might be unhappy. In this belief, a variant of the better known Utilitarianism, the altruistic man would see himself as part of all other beings and less an independent social unit for pursuit of his individual happiness with relative indifference to others. Regardless of whether we today accept any of this thinking, it does help understand Hardy's characters, particularly his principle characters such as Tess. What may seem unwise behavior in Tess makes more sense if her personal happiness wasn't intended to be her foremost goal. If we can understand her as a person who evolved striving to benefit the lives of those in her world without determined focus on her own happiness, her behavior makes more sense. In the final phase of the novel, Hardy terms it "fulfillment", which seems strange since she's lost her last chance for happiness and her future. Hardy, however, sees her self-sacrifice and final arrangements for Angle, Liza-Lu and, indirectly, her family as an altruistic fulfillment--a phase in which she's used her life to do all the good for others she possibly can. (Some of us might feel Alec got the short end of her benevolence). Whether or not any of us find this supposed philosophical parameter of the novel credible, it does seem reasonable that understanding the novel requires more an understanding of what Hardy intended, a product of the thinking of his time, and perhaps less emphasis on the thinking of the twenty-first century, from which we modern readers are a product. Hardy, after all, would probably find it as taxing to understand us and our times and we do him and his times.
Some Tess readers say Tess made bad choices. What do you think were the choices she made and which do you think were poor ones? My view is that the only choice Tess made in the novel was her murder of Alec, which was probably made in the moment but done deliberately and was premeditatedly. All the other choices she made were choices of necessity. Probably her fatal flaw was to love Angel, but in my view who we love isn't a matter of choice. Once in love I'd argue most of us are not responsible for our actions. Boldwood in Far from the Madding Crowd would probably agree.
What would have happened if Tess's bad luck had changed at Wintoncester? It seems quite likely she would have received a reprieve and possibly even a parole after a number of years (see here) No doubt Angel would have hired a good lawyer to defend her case. Would he have stuck by her though, or would he have divorced her while she was in prison? He would not know how long she would be in jail, and he had the grounds for divorce. Surely he would not divorce Tess and then marry her sister (especially as marrying a sisten-in-law was illegal). I read in the library that Thomas Hardy said that Angel would eventually have started taunting Tess for her second fall if she had lived.
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