As I mentioned in my May wrap up post, June is my birthday month. As a gift to myself, I was determined to find some classics left on Classics Club list that I have the best chance of enjoying. Out of the seven (!) books left, Tess of the D'Urbervilles seemed like the best option. I've read a handful of Thomas Hardy books in the past. A few were before I started blogging, but more recently read Jude the Obscure and Under the Greenwood Tree. While the latter one wasn't my favorite, I did like Jude the Obscure. I know that Tess is somewhat similar to that one (at least in misery quotient), so I decided to give it a go.
The plot of the novel follows a young woman named Tess Durbeyfield. As the story begins, she is sixteen years old and living with her family in the small English village of Marlott. Her parents are simple and often drunk, and as Tess is the eldest and the most responsible, she ends up taking on a lot of the household work and childcare for her numerous little siblings. When an accident with the family's horse threatens their meager income, Tess is forced to take an outside job minding the poultry at the house of a wealthy family several miles away. At her new place of employment, she meets a son of the household named Alec D'Urberville, who instantly begins pressuring her for a sexual relationship. He is older than she is and merciless in his campaign. Tess, being a virtuous-minded young lady, continually resists his advances. Eventually however, Alec manages to get what he wants. The text is vague on whether he rapes Tess or not - it is implied in some parts, and then in other sections of the book Tess speaks of "giving in" to him. In any case, Alec takes advantage of her youth and inexperience with men and then refuses to marry her.
Outraged with him, Tess quits her job in his household and returns home. Before long, she discovers that she is pregnant. She has the baby, a little boy she named Sorrow, but he dies as an infant. Tess is thrown into deep despair over both the loss of her son and the loss of her virtue. She is now a disgraced woman. In an effort to try and get a fresh start somewhere else, she travels to a distant dairy farm and takes up work as a milkmaid. At this farm she meets Angel Clare, a provincial gentleman in the process of learning to be a farmer. The pair are instantly attracted to each other and fall in love. Before long, Angel asks Tess to marry him, but she continually refuses him. She knows her background makes her unfit for marriage to an upstanding man. Angel won't be deterred though, and after asking her again and again, she finally gives in. On their first night as a married couple, Tess tells Angel about her past, hoping he will be understanding. Instead, he instantly abandons her and travels overseas to start a farm in Brazil.
From that point forward, Tess is thrown into a life of misery and hopelessness. While Angel assures her she can apply to his parents for money at any time, her pride stops her from taking advantage of his offer. Instead, she takes on a life of difficult, unceasing labor on various farms. She desperately hopes that Angel will return one day and forgive her, but as the months and years wear on, she begins to lose faith in him. Eventually, the man who first took advantage of her, Alec, returns and begins to pursue her again, this time with tempting offers of marriage and financial stability for her and her family, whose condition has continually worsened in her absence. Tess is torn between her desire to wait for Angel, the true love of her life, to realize his love for her and come back, or to give up on him and accept the tempting offer of immediate security from Alec. Her indecision and desperation eventually drive her towards a shocking act that will seal her fate.
Figuring out how I felt about this novel was a little tricky. On the positive side, it was classic Thomas Hardy. The writing was beautiful, it was easy to read, and the world building was excellent. I truly felt like I was in the English countryside while reading. The characters were well developed too - it was easy to sympathize with Tess and feel disgusted by both Alec and Angel. What I didn't love so much was the pacing. This book was nearly 400 pages long, and the parts where big plot events happened felt very far apart from each other. Most of the novel was composed of descriptions of farm processes and Tess' abject suffering. They were beautifully written descriptions of farming and suffering, of course, but it did feel very slow throughout the story. I set myself a goal of finishing 50 pages a day throughout the duration of my reading, and while I was able to do that comfortably, I never felt motivated to go any further than that. It was good, but it wasn't exactly a page turner.
Hardy explores a lot of social issues throughout the text, including the impact of mechanization on the farming industry, city life versus country life, and the sexual morality of the time period. It was the last topic that interested me the most, and happily, I was okay with Hardy's treatment of it. I've written quite a bit on the blog about being displeased with parts of classics that haven't aged well. I've been going through an unlucky run of really racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic novels lately and it's driving me crazy. Here, it was different. The characters in Tess are undoubtedly misogynistic as part of the plot, and you can tell Hardy is against that. He unequivocally depicts Tess as being wronged and treated unfairly by both Angel and Alec. Her tragedy is due to the shortcomings of an overly moralistic society, and not due to anything she has done "wrong." In fact, Hardy even goes a step further and shows examples of both of the men in Tess' life committing the same type of acts that they vilify Tess for, highlighting the double standard between men and women. I was quite happy to see an author advancing a forward thinking point of view here. Honestly, it was a relief. Obviously, his treatment of the topic wasn't perfectly modern, but it was clear his heart was in the right place on the issue.
So ultimately, Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a good read for me. There were parts that were very slow and monotonous, but the beautiful writing and exploration of social topics helped to balance that out. I think that Jude the Obscure will remain my favorite Hardy novel for now, but this one comes in second and is a worthwhile read for people interested in literature of this time period.