I’m gonna start by saying that despite popular opinion that anything by Thomas Hardy is pretty hard going, Tess of the d’Ubervilles is worth every ounce of perseverance- by the end of the novel, my heartstrings were in shreds and of all the things I felt for Tess, “the fallen woman”, sheer admiration took precedence over pity.
Hardy makes it clear that from the moment Tess encounters Alec, a distant relative of the Durbeyfield’s, her fate is sealed. Upon visting the d’Ubervilles in the hope that her family’s poverty may be alleviated, Tess is manipulated and ‘disgraced’ – “an immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Tantridge poultry-farm”.
Far from Tess’ troubles ending there, she is racked with false guilt that threatens any chance of future happiness with Angel Clare, with whom she has fallen in love. Herein lies the desperate tale of woman with a ‘shameful secret’, incompatible with the harsh sensibilities of 19th century society.
In many ways, Hardy is cruel writer. Tess, the endearing, innocent victim of the novel, faces unimaginable hardship, and just when you begin to hope for Tess, her past seems to continually haunt her. The result was anger, sadness, pity and admiration for Tess’ strength to carry on through it all.
So, given that the narrative arc of Tess of the d’Ubervilles seems pretty bleak, is it worth the heartache?
The answer is an unequivocal, yes! Hardy’s novel is not just the story of Tess herself, but a scathing critique of the adversity faced by women in similar situations, of society’s blame and judgement, as well as the inequality of double standards, and the crippling poverty faced by many at the time.
It is written with care and compassion – I would urge anyone who hasn’t already, to find a copy and settle down with Hardy’s novel through to the bitter end (just make sure you have a few tissues at the ready)…