Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy, Tim Dolin, Margaret R. Higonnet Before i get into my review, I just have to say I've enjoyed myself immensely reading this. I gladly participated in a buddy-read to increase my exposure to Literature of the kind and had no expectations. Tess as a character will always stay with me, I have admiration for her struggle though not for her choices. Thanks Kim, Tracey, Hayes, and Jemidar for keeping me company !

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Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles was written in 1891 Victorian England with the world of the agrarian counties as a backdrop. Its reception during a time when societal conventions leaned towards the conservative was controversial. As a result, Hardy’s vision of Tess was censored to better accommodate public sensibilities. This “piecemeal mode of parturition” of a character he held in high esteem was frustrating to him.

We’re introduced to Tess Durbeyfield as a farm girl, daughter to a drunkard vainglorious fool, a status-conscious mother, eldest of five and congenial friend to most. “A fine and handsome girl-not handsomer than some others, possibly- but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape.” At odds to her humble place in society, she possesses a healthy sense of pride and ‘proper’ behavior.

Tess’s journey begins when the family’s roots are discovered to harken back to the old Norman days. Penniless though they may be and low in stature, this does not stop her status-hungry mother from sending Tess to ‘claim kin’ with their wealthy D’Uberville cousins. I believe this was a pivotal moment in Tess’s evolution as a character as she goes against her instincts and submits to her mother’s wishes out of a sense of misplaced guilt.

Her previously sheltered life in Marlott now starts to crumble for her true roots are never revealed to the invalid matriarch of the family and she is instead relegated to the role of servant and made the subject of unwanted sexual advances by the D’Urberville heir, Alec, which ultimately culminate in her rape. From this moment on, the issue of her purity and guilt over its loss take centre stage directing the course of her actions and the tragedy that is the rest of her short life.

After fleeing the D’Urberville household Tess finds a position as a dairy maid where Hardy introduces the quasi-modern Angel, a son of an Evangelist minister and avowed non-conformist learning the agrarian trade. His single-minded pursuit of her leaves Tess in ecstasies of guilt as she is torn between keeping silent or revealing her secret. This omission of her ‘pure’ state until after the wedding leads to abandonment by her husband in spite of ardent pleas for forgiveness.

This moment forms a crucial part of the story as it allows us to become better acquainted with the extent Tess is willing to go with respect to her pride and guilt, and Clare with respect to his convictions that facts are facts and Tess’s impurity will always remain thus. When they do allow themselves to deviate from this dogma, Tess expresses her sentiments beautifully in 2 diametric letters and Clare returns to collect his wife only to find that timing has once again betrayed them. She is now living with Alec D’Urberville as his wife, having been persuaded that Clare would never return for her despite her steadfast faith in him.

Finding her true husband in these circumstances leads to Tess breaking free of her guilt, shame and yoke of victimhood to exact her revenge upon Alec by killing him in a moment of passion. A brief and almost magical seclusion together is shared by the couple before they are found out with Tess saying “It is as it should be, Angel. I am almost glad, yes, glad. This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me! I am ready.”

“I am glad you like Tess, though I have not been able to put on paper all that she is, or was, to me.” This was an often quoted comment by Hardy. His complex feelings for Tess as a woman, use of beautiful descriptions of nature to help us inhabit the world of Tess while couching deeper meaning to the narrative, and almost feminist elements underlying the tragedy of Tess all serve to make this not only a fascinating glimpse into late 19th century England but also highlights the importance of his work to expose the readership of the time to larger questions of morality and purity.