Every summer I read a classic that I have never read before, and since I'm planning to visit Southwest England soon, I felt I should read a novel that takes place there. Descriptively written, with romance and suspense, Hardy portrays Tess as a beautiful, young woman born in poverty with a title that ends up doing her more harm than good. Tess, at the start of her tale, is moral, hard-working and loving, and through no fault of her own, she is forced to face hardship and tragedy. Hardy demonstrates what can happen to an innocent, trusting girl in a man's world.
If you want a quick, light read, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is not it. However, if you're looking for a beautifully written novel that captures life in rural England about 150 years ago, give Tess a try.— Nancy Randall
Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Though now considered an important work of English literature, the book received mixed reviews when it first appeared, in part because it challenged the sexual mores of Hardy's day.
Hardy's writing often illustrates the "ache of modernism," and this theme is notable in Tess, which, as one critic noted, portrays "the energy of traditional ways and the strength of the forces that are destroying them." However, Marxist critic Raymond Williams questions the identification of Tess with a peasantry destroyed by industrialism. Tess is not a peasant, she is a school educated member of the rural working class: she suffers a tragedy through being thwarted, in her aspirations to rise and her desire for a good life, not by "industrialism" but by the landed bourgeoisie (Alec), liberal idealism (Angel) and Christian moralism in her family's village.
Another important theme of the novel is the sexual double standard to which Tess falls victim; despite being, in Hardy's view, a truly good woman, she is despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage. Hardy plays the role of Tess's only true friend and advocate, pointedly subtitling the book "a pure woman faithfully presented." However, although Hardy clearly means to criticise Victorian notions of female purity, the double standard also makes the heroine's tragedy possible, and thus serves as a mechanism of Tess's broader fate. Hardy variously hints that Tess must suffer either to atone for the misdeeds of her ancestors, or to provide temporary amusement for the gods, or because she possesses some small but lethal character flaw inherited from the ancient clan.