Edited with Notes by Tim Dolin and an Introduction by Margaret R. Higonnet
Student Review by Christopher Turner, University of Bath Spa
Thomas Hardy’s romantic novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, caused an abundance of controversy on its serial publication in 1891 due to its stark depiction of immorality. Sensitive, naive and vulnerable, Young Tess Durbeyfield sets out under the influence of her poverty-ridden family to seek kinship with her so called relatives, the aristocratic D’Urbervilles. However, assumptions collapse: Tess receives no portion of the family fortune her father is convinced exists and her vulnerable nature is taken advantage of as she is maliciously raped and impregnated by her conniving ‘cousin’ Alec. From that moment on Tess’ path is one that requires the utmost strength and, when finding true love in a passionate man, Angel Clare, she is faced with the decision of revealing the past that haunts her in hope of attaining true happiness.
A strong attack on conventions, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, concerns itself with thematic issues such as identity, one’s place in relation to the natural world and the nature of perception and appearance. During the novel Tess exclaims to Angel, ‘what was the past to me as soon as I met you? It was a dead thing altogether. I became another woman filled full of new life from you’. Hardy, here in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, views the self not as an absolute and reducible essence but rather one of mutability, one that changes through time and space. Thus Hardy immediately diminishes concepts such as classification and stereotypical generalizations. Tess is not presented as a conventional romantic heroine that is being courted by a chivalrous prince, but rather one whose attributes – such as strength, determination and kind-heartedness – allow her identity to mutate and grow according to the situations she is faced in. Angel Clare, who aspires to be the conventional lover that sweeps Tess of her feet, is not steadfast in his sentiments towards her as over time they transform and place him in a position somewhat far removed from that of the heroic lover. On a surface level readers can enjoy the torrential and dramatic love story presented by Hardy. However, the author’s characterization ultimately leaves the reader questioning deeper issues that dive below the surface of narrative. If Hardy’s characters mutate, change and develop as the world around us does then what truth is there in reducing things to labels and classifications when we are surrounded by continual change?
The temperamental tones of the novel promise to offer something for everyone. At times the novel delivers outright comedy which is then followed by the pathos of tragedy. Hardy’s style, here, is a fusion of many contrasted elements such as light and darkness, melodrama and anti-romance, Christian and pagan morality. The novel is a casket which will satisfy a diversity of tastes. Anyone interested in the English countryside, or the natural world in general, will rejoice as Hardy’s characters struggle, in a Darwinian sense, for survival. Fans of works such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, the Romantic poets and theoretical interests in Feminism will find themselves at home with Hardy. A novel for everyone, Tess of the D’Urbervilles remains regarded, amongst critics and readers alike, the most powerful and effective masterpiece of Hardy’s vast oeuvre.
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