Saturday, July 7, 2018
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Signet Classics) by Thomas Hardy (Signet)
A heartbreaking portrayal of a woman faced by an impossible choice in the pursuit of happiness
When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D'Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her 'cousin' Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future. With its sensitive depiction of the wronged Tess and powerful criticism of social convention, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, subtitled "A Pure Woman," is one of the most moving and poetic of Hardy's novels.
Based on the three-volume first edition that shocked readers when first published in 1891, this edition includes as appendices: Hardy's Prefaces, the Landscapes of Tess, episodes originally censored from the Graphic periodical version, and a selection of the Graphic illustrations.
Reading Tess's story is a good reminder of how the prospects for women's lives have improved dramatically over the ~140 years since it's setting in the 1870's. Raised in an impoverished family, Tess Durbeyfield is sent to spend time with the D'Urbervilles in hopes that she can lay claim to some of the family's wealth. She finds that she is not related to that family, and in her innocence of the ways of the world (and of men), she is taken advantage of in the worst way. Returning home with her reputation in shambles, she decided to eventually leave home once again to go to a place where no one knows her so she can start over. She becomes a dairymaid at a remote farm and makes friends with several of the other maids, as well as a devout young man, Angel Clare. Tess' sordid past continues to haunt her, and she struggles to find a safe place in the world where her past secrets can be left behind.
Hardy's stilted, occasionally flowery and overly verbose language sometimes makes it difficult to discern exactly what is going on, but the cloak of bad luck and misery never seems to be far from Tess. Her hopes and dreams are constantly dashed, and it is difficult for her to know who to trust.
I know that this novel is frequently assigned to high school students, which seems surprising due not only to the mature content, but also the length of the novel and the antiquated language. However, there are a number of strong themes throughout the novel that still resonate today, particularly the double standards that apply to women: a pure woman faithfully presented.