When I find I’m forcing myself to read a book rather than actively enjoying it, I do my best to stick it out and finish it. I don’t feel that anyone can truly judge a book unless they have finished it. Often times, it remains painful and the only satisfaction is with myself for not having given up. Other times, I’m glad to have pushed through it because I am surprised. Such was the case for Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Tess is the unfortunate eldest daughter of John Durbyfield who one day learns he is most likely one of the last descendants of the old and formerly honorable D’Urberville line. When his pretensions send him looking for connections with those he thinks are related, he sends young and beautiful Tess out to seek what she can on their behalf. Tragically, nineteenth century England proves to be a dangerous place for one so young and beautiful and Tess attracts trouble and returns home in disgrace.
After getting by such a trying and shameful time, Tess once again leaves home and tries to leave her past with it as she finds seasonal work as a milkmaid. She finds more than just work as she draws the attentions of Mr. Angel Clare, the son of a prominent preacher. But however much Tess regrets her past, she will not let herself forget it no matter how much it might make her miserable.
For the first third of the novel, I found myself considering how many other tales of fallen women have been written and how many were written during the nineteenth century. What kept jumping to my mind were the contrasting tales of Tess Durbyfield and Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter fame. Both are tales written by men about the social conditions of women. Though they were written a few decades apart and take place during different centuries on different continents, both highlight the injustice of societies where women are blamed and punished socially for an act of both the sexes.
Where I ran into trouble and even the promise of a good analytical comparison failed to keep my attention focused was after Tess revealed her history to Angel. I have a difficult time reasoning away my indignation over such blatant hypocrisy especially when it is followed by extravagant and drawn out displays of stubbornness, self-pity and self-punishment. She not only refuses to defend herself against anything he says, she goes further in her self-reproach bringing it to the ridiculous.
Though Tess’ attitude was enough to make me nauseous, I was encouraged by the fact that the omniscient narrator’s tone was more formal but almost as disgusted with her view of her circumstances as I was. This carried me through the dreary hundred or so pages of whining until Alec D’Urberville’s return when Tess once again became a character I found engaging. Her refusal to speak up for herself ceases when confronted by her chief tormentor and restores a sense of life to her character. The novel’s final two parts are the most engaging and surprising with an ending that had me raising my eyebrows. I don’t necessarily think it was the right way to end the book, but at least it was unexpected and entertaining rather than just plain depressing (though I’m sure there are many who truly sympathize with Tess and would consider it a sincerely depressing conclusion).