Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented is a novel written by one of England’s classic literary geniuses, Thomas Hardy. It was published in its book form in 1892 and had initially received a lot of mixed reviews because it challenged the morals and patriarchy of late Victorian England. In time, however, it has grown to be considered a major 19th century English novel and Hardy’s most celebrated fictional masterpiece.
The protagonist, Tess Durbeyfield comes from an impoverished family who find out that they are related to a noble family, the D’Ubervilles. Her father, determined to rise, socially and financially, from the discovery of this connection, sends Tess off to live at the D’Uberville mansion and gain the favour of the noble family. However, it later turns out that the family are not D’Ubervilles at all, but in fact the family of a rich merchant who simply assumed the surname. This twist is only the first of a series of twists that changes the story of the novel, and Tess’s life too.
The story starts off when Tess is just a 16 year-old, naïve girl. Her character is intelligent, beautiful, and sensitive, with a deep sense of morality. Over the course of the book, her personality develops as she learns about love, life, and all of its hardships. She is faced with a lot of tough choices that result in life-shattering consequences because of the puritanical, patriarchal society that England was back then. While the book takes us on a journey through Tess’s life, the reader tends to relate and almost form a bond with the character, sympathising with the difficulties she faces and feeling anger toward the characters who wrong her. It is just as much an emotional experience for the reader as it is for Tess herself as we delve into the recesses of her mind and heart.
In addition to the emotionally sensitive content of the storyline, the novel is a great piece of commentary on the social standards of Hardy’s day, the rigid class system, and the austerity of the average Englishman in regards to chastity, poverty, and aristocracy. The protagonist’s and two other main characters’ lives take drastic turns and eventually crumble solely because of society and its pressures. Had the same incidents taken place in today’s England, the plot development would have been completely different owing to the broadened view of society toward women and classes. In spite of her intelligence and education, Tess is forced to work as a farmhand and milkmaid due to the family she was born into. And in spite of her beauty and elegance, she is cast away by the man she loved because of the deceitfulness of another man when she was much younger and more vulnerable. The stark contrast of what she could have been had she lived in a more open-minded, accepting society to what eventually became of her in the book is heart-breaking.
Although, the novel is a work of fiction, it was, and to this day is, the reality of many young women. Tess is not wholly innocent, as no human is, but she tries and fails to make her life and that of her family better. She makes her fair share of mistakes and bad decisions but they could have been avoided or at the very least, dealt with, had she lived at a different time or in a different place.
Whether or not one may sympathise with Tess, the book is in itself worth a read. It is very insightful on the beauty and flaws of human nature. On how we, as a species, tend to judge others with a different yard scale than we judge ourselves. It is also a striking portrayal of masterful character development and a thought-provokingly great read. --- Tanya