Tess of the d’Urberville: a Pure Woman Faithfully Presented by Thomas Hardy is telling us the story of Tess Durbeyfield who is the last generation of an extinct noble family the d’Urberville. How when a barely 16 years old she is raped and gets pregnant and the sorrow and joys that stem from this one event. It is the premise really to the entire story.
It wasn’t an easy book to read: Tess’s life is a sad one and she seems a bit like the sacrificial lamb at the altar. She’s the oldest child of a family of too many, she’s burdened with the responsibility of taking care of everything: her parents rely on her and she feels it her duty to help them. She feels guilty for what happened to her – as many victims in fact – and accepts that the man she loves should despise her because of what happened to her.
I’m not sure whether Hardy was trying to make a case against Victorian society and its double standard when it came to sexual experience but the book is almost violent in that regard even if there’s no actual violence described. Arguably the double standard remains today. After all, one calls a man with multiple conquests a Casanova, but a woman will be called a slut or a nymphomaniac. Or worse.
In this case though it’s worse because Tess is raped. And she’s still considered guilty. And it defines her life in so many ways it’s hard to escape that truth throughout the book, even when she seems to recover from the pain it caused.
I struggled with it: certainly because I’m a woman of the 21st century. Because I know women who have experienced what Tess did and who still try to live with it. Because it’s a suffering that I feel deep inside my heart.
And maybe I struggled with it because I wonder if some day we are not at risk of returning to this state of things: I’m not likely to forget the fact that the Magdalene Sisters Covent existed until the 1990s, that rape was considered a misdemeanour until 1994 and that the term ‘rape’ was only used for vaginal penetration until about the same year in French laws.
The writing is powerful in many ways. Short sentences for the most part but filled with metaphors and evocative imagery. Sometimes it’s poignant really. I know today authors are told to ‘show not tell’ but Thomas Hardy has a way of telling you that is just as effective and sometimes even more than showing it. The subtlety of reference to the rape may have had to do with censorship but the sentences evoking it are simple yet compelling.
There seems to be some critics of modernity. The way Hardy speaks of machinery and modernity as if it were some evil evolution of things, whereas Tess is more in sync with nature and purer for it. Sometimes she really seems more connected with nature than the human race: she’s first seen during a festival that appears to be dedicated to Ceres, then there’s the work at the dairy farm, which is a happy and fertile time for her, and the night at Stonehenge.
The times where her life is associated with nature seems happier than those associated with modernity or society… if it makes sense.
In some way Tess of the d’Urberville reminds me a bit of Fantine from Les Miserables, except the young French girl chose to have a relationship with the man who left her when she was with child. It is still cast a light on people’s prejudice and on the darkness of the victims’ lives.
There are other themes in the book that one could look at, but this one overwhelmed everything for me. And made the book a tough read. But a worthy one. That a man of this era could somehow comprehend the pain, the shame of a victim while seeing that sometimes the need to live and love helps surmount the suffering. Hardy is a wonderful advocate for Tess in a way and that’s part of what makes the book great.
The only thing I guess is that Tess somehow remains a victim throughout the book: maybe that’s what makes her pure I don’t know. The choices she makes sometimes don’t seem logical (in reason or emotion) but maybe it’s due to the differences between then and now. She sometimes seemed to me like she went with the flow – for lack of a better expression – or let others decide for her rather than take her destiny in her own hands. When she does make a choice for her own sake, it seems to be the wrong one for which she blames others.
Still no doubt it should be on the list of 100 books to read before you die even if it’s a challenging book to read. Somehow I found it more challenging than any of the ones I read before. I wanted to hate it because of the helplessness and how depressed it made me feel. At the same time, I can see what an avant-garde book it must have been for those who thought he was criticizing society. Do pick it up.
Have you read it?
What did you think of it?