Author: Thomas Hardy
My Rating: 4/5 stars
After having been 'forced' by uni to read quite some novels, lately I have finally been having time to read some for leisure. As I missed reading real British classics, (having followed one course on American literature, and another on detectives) I chose to pick up Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is set in Victorian England.
I had read a synopsis which said something along the lines of: "Young Tess Durbeyfield finds out she is actually a descendant of a rich family and sets out on a journey to find her true heritage". Although I had been warned this would be an incredibly depressing novel, this blurb sounded more like an adventure story. What could go wrong on her quest? Perhaps some love-issues, I thought. And so I started reading.
In a sense, I was right. Most of the severe dramatic occurrences had to do with romance. However, usually I experience these tragic elements in books or films much differently as I tend to get bored with the characters and tell them to suck it up; there are worse things in life. I think it was due to Hardy's writing style that I did not feel this way when reading this novel. The dialogues are especially beautifully written and you can truly feel the emotions which felt with each sentence, or word even. When I had lost track of where the story was headed (which happened quite often too, because to me Hardy's way of describing events is a bit more difficult to follow), a conversation would suck me right back in.
Conversation is also the vehicle which Hardy uses to give depth to the characters. He does not really describe the personalities, he rather lets them speak for themselves. As a reader you get to judge for yourself whether you like them. Hardy's point of view is entirely left out. Of course, by discussing matters as he does, his footprint is definitely perceptible, and for his time, I found him very open and perhaps even feminist. This is not the only way he distinguishes himself from other authors: at the time the novel was published, he received great critiques concerning his disdain towards religion.
Although reading the story only superficially will already give you great insights into the Victorian time period - especially in terms of inequality of gender - looking at it in greater depth will offer you many different symbolic ways of looking at things (I will talk about this in more detail in the spoiler section of this entry).
I do not want to spoil too much for those who have not yet read this book, and therefore the 'review' part will stop here. So please, do not be put off by the depressing nature of the story: it has so many beautiful things to offer. I've never enjoyed such depressing events more.
For your own sake, if you ever plan on reading the novel, do not read further than this.
This novel is full of symbols, themes and motives, but most of them are rather 'in plain sight'. We can all see that Hardy addresses the inferiority of women, and although he does not really speak his mind, when Angel does not forgive Tess for having intercourse with another man before him, while he did exactly the same thing, we readers cannot help but feel angry towards the man. Some themes, however, are not visible to the bare eye and requires the reader to do some dissecting.
One could claim the novel is a critique on society as a whole. The main characters, Tess, Alec and Angel would symbolise groups in society - the lower class, the higher class, and the intellectuals. The lower class is suppressed by the other two, although the higher, non-brainy class, is slowly being taken over by the lower as they are starting to develop. The fact that Tess, in the end, does not succeed taking over Alec completely because she is arrested, indicates this change of class is only set in motion but not yet completely perfectly executed. This idea of class change is all throughout the novel, of course, as it already started out with the Durbeyfields 'upgrading' to D'Urbervilles. Tess' father even insists on people calling him Sir from that moment onward. This could symbolise people no longer just accepting the role society gives them - they want to make name for themselves (although that is highly arguable in the case of the Durbeyfields as they are still using a family name to gain respect).
As I mentioned before, the best parts of the novel, to me, were the conversations. The way in which Hardy expresses the characters' feelings in the conversation is just wow. I don't think I've ever felt so moved by something as simple as love problems. The parts in which there were no conversation were to me often quite confusing, and Hardy probably did so on purpose. When Alec takes advantage of Tess, we never really get to know whether we could actually call this rape or not. While Tess appears very passive in the beginning, this is not the case, she is constantly making decisions, and although they are not always, in fact hardly ever, the right ones, at least she decides for herself. That is why I find it really hard to believe that Tess did truly not object to Alec's advances. As the chapter is so unclear, and actually most of the details are left out, I find it extremely difficult to judge what happened. If in fact Tess did consent to the intercourse, the novel suddenly turns a lot less dramatic. That is why I like to believe that she was raped - otherwise I may get the 'get over it' feeling again.
The final chapter is the most beautiful chapter of the novel, even though it does not contain any speaking at all. It is the only moment in the novel when something happy happens which cannot be ruined anymore as it is the last sentence. Even though Tess is pronounced dead in this scene, it indicates a prosperous future: there was never any hope for Tess to succeed in life, but there is for the younger generation - a bettered version of herself, namely her little sister 'Liza-Lu.