Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Durbeyfield’s life changes forever when her father learns that he is descended from the noble D’Urbervilles. After discovering that he has some wealthy D’Urberville relatives living nearby, Tess is sent to visit them in an attempt to improve the family’s fortunes. While there she is taken advantage of by Alec D’Urberville and returns to her parents pregnant. A few years later when she falls in love with Angel Clare, the parson’s son, she is forced to decide whether to trust Angel with the truth about her past…

It seems that people either love or hate Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Among those who hate it the main reasons for disliking it appear to be that the book was too dark and depressing, or that Tess was too passive and weak. Although I can understand these complaints, I personally fall into the group of readers who loved the book. I don’t have a problem with a story being tragic, melodramatic or depressing as long as it’s well-written. And Hardy’s writing is beautiful. With other books I am often tempted to skim through pages of descriptions of trees, fields, sunrises etc, but Hardy’s portrayal of nature and the English countryside is so poetic I wanted to read every word. Be prepared, though – you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about milking cows, threshing wheat and slicing turnips!

It’s true that Tess doesn’t stand up for herself enough – there were plenty of times when I wanted to scream at her – but I mostly felt sorry for her. She was young (sixteen I think at the start of the book), innocent, naive, and didn’t have the best family life, with a father who was often drunk.  It seemed that everything that could go wrong for her did go wrong. More than poor Tess, it was Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare who both really infuriated me – and I actually thought Angel was worse than Alec in some respects.

The injustice of a society with different sets of rules for men and women, Christianity vs pagan symbolism, the Industrial Revolution, and the class system of Victorian England are some of the interesting topics this book covers. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the ending – the final chapters just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel.

So, if you haven’t read this book yet give it a try – you might hate it…but you might just love it like I did.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classics/Pages: 464/Published:BBC Books (Random House)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1891)/Source: Library book

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16 thoughts on “Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

  1. Lua says:

    As long as it’s well written with a unique voice and a strong plot, I also like reading tragic, melodramatic stories… And I’ve always wanted top learn more about “milking cows, threshing wheat and slicing turnips!” so this one sounds like a book I might enjoy:) Thanks for the great review!

  2. Mae says:

    Oh, I thought Angel was much worse than Alec. Alec was an outright rogue but he was honest about that and he did show some responsibility to Tess, in his own way. Angel ended being an utter hypocrite and then abandons Tess. But yes, I felt angry that Tess didn’t stand up for herself but I also did admire her strength for following what she thought was the right path – although it did begin to border on sadistic self-punishment (none of which is her fault) which says a lot about society.

    Did you see the new adaptation? I recently watched the older one with Justine Waddell and loved it. I like Hardy. I just started reading Jude the Obscure.

  3. Susi (The Book Affair) says:

    I had mixed feelings about Tess. I felt a little annoyed at how much Hardy himself loved Tess and he tried everything that is humanly possible to ‘sell’ her to the reader. It felt so forced that I didn’t really like her. Plus, I’m in camp ‘She let him on’, even though I know most people are in camp ‘He raped her’.
    And you’re right, Angel is the biggest hypochrite in history.
    Plus, Hardy’s very lengthy descriptions of scenery, despite being normal and common in Victorian Literature, were way too much for my taste.
    The book was alright, but not one of my favourites.

    The newest adaptation with Gemma Arterton comes very close to the original. I quite liked it, even though the problems with the characters and me not liking them remained the same.

    • Helen (She Reads Novels) says:

      I still can’t really decide what I think happened – at first I thought it was definitely rape, but then as I continued reading I started to wonder…

      I didn’t see the new adaptation but I’ve heard good things about it.

  4. Jo says:

    Ah, Proably my favourite book ever! I love both the themes and the writing.

    I’m not sure it’s very clear whether Tess was raped, or some form of wiling party to the event, but I also don’t think it actually matters that much. I think she was taken advantage of, and that as a woman, the consequences of that left her with little choice in her life, especially considering her need to be brutally honest with Angel.

    And I agree that Angel is so much worse than Alec because he at least has no pretences as to what he is, and why he does what he does. He does look afer her, even though all on his terms.

    Glad you enjyed it, think its coming up time for a re-read of this for me soon.

  5. chasing bawa says:

    I went through phase of reading Hardy at school because some of my friends were studying ‘Far From a Madding Crowd’ and I loved ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ the most. It was so sad and poignant and utterly cruel. I recently saw the TV adaptation with Gemma Arterton which I thought was pretty good too.

  6. Mel says:

    I really enjoyed your review of this novel. I read it many years ago but remember it very well and did enjoy it. And yes it is sad but I think your point is right, Hardy is writing about the difficult position of women in those times, particularly women without money.

    A book I read recently that reminded me of Tess was The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. Some of his themes are similar and Barry also writes beautifully. Have you read it? I reviewed it at:
    http://melbooksnstuff.blogspot.com/2010/05/sebastian-barry-secret-scripture.html

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The Secret Scripture yet, but I’ve read some good reviews of it recently. It definitely sounds like something I would enjoy.

  7. Caroline says:

    At first I couldn’t make up my mind whether she was raped or seduced, but looking at the evidence, she was probably raped (initially), and then later realising what Alec had done, Tess let him seduce her, since she’s already a ruined woman. There might have been some physical attraction despite her mental revulsion of him.

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