Tess of the D’Urbervilles

I recently finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or, as I fondly call it, Tess O’ the Dubes. I was surprised at how much I liked this book. I once had to read Return of the Native for summer reading in high school and HATED it, and unwisely swore off Thomas Hardy ever since. I realize now my dislike was probably due to youth, and the fact that I waited until the night before the first day of school to begin reading. That, and I don’t think it’s considered one of Hardy’s best. Regardless, I loved, loved, LOVED Tess.

Nothing I can write about this book will do it justice. I think when people think of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it’s the plot that arrests their memory or attention. That was true of me too…all I really knew about it was that a) she got raped and b) it was very sad. But this book is so, so much more than plot. First of all, I found it incredibly easy to read. In fact, the opening pages were so surprisingly accessible that I kept checking the cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally bought a modern translation or an abridged version.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the character of Tess herself…I’ll admit, it took me a little while to warm up to her, since she isn’t at all like the female characters I typically feel affinity with. All of my favorite literary heroines, as unique as they may be, are to some extent cut from the same cloth. Many of them love to read and write (Jo March, Betsy Ray, Anne Shirley, Cassandra Mortmain) and almost all of them are the spunky, brave, intelligent sort (Kit Tyler, Polly, Katherine Sutton, Amy from The Ordinary Princess, etc).

Tess is neither a great reader nor great writer (though through no fault of her own; perhaps such aspirations would have developed if she’d ever had the opportunity), nor is she what I would call spunky. However, she is certainly brave, and while not stereotypically intelligent, she’s not dumb. Tess has all the qualities that sound boring or vague on paper – sweetness, kindness, goodness, moral integrity, self sacrifice – but are really rather wonderful when witnessed in real life or enacted in actual circumstances, and Thomas Hardy shows these qualities at work so believably.

Which brings me to perhaps what is my favorite aspect of the book, and what makes it so good: the incredibly authentic and heartwrenching emotions of the main characters. Though most of the book is from Tess’s point of view, we do get a significant portion from Angel’s point of view, a smaller bit from Alec’s POV, and snippets of the thoughts and feelings of other more minor characters as well. Like I said, in trying to describe this book to someone (as I tried to my roommate, and failed), one would inevitably describe the various plot points, and it would end up sounding like a melodramatic Victorian novel. But again, it’s not the circumstances that make this book a classic, it is the characters and their incredibly well-wrought emotions. If you’ve ever loved anyone who hasn’t returned your love, at least not to the extent you need them too, then Tess’s love for Angel Clare will ring painfully true. And the characters are not without their complexities: even the villian Alec had earned some of my sympathy by the end of the book.

On top of all this, the book only gets better as it goes on. Though I was hooked pretty much right from the start, I had no idea while reading the first two sections how much more I would love it when I finished the last page.

This book will at first upset your heart, then make you believe it’s on it’s way to being mended, and finally, break it irrevocably. That being said, it is so, so worth the read!

*These pictures are from the most recent Masterpiece Theater adaptation, which is what inspired me to go out and buy this book in the first place. I have yet to watch the second half, but so far so good!