Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Classic Pastoral Tale with a Hint of Proto-Feminism

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Rating: Red StarRed StarRed Star

Category: Classics

Format: Audiobook

Content Warnings: Sexual abuse and victim-blaming, poverty

Synopsis:

When John Durbeyfield learns that he is descended from a grand ancient lineage known as the d’Urbervilles, he sends his daughter Tess to their nearest relations in the hope of claiming kin and improving his family’s prospects. As the family sinks ever-further into poverty, she is only too aware of the keen urgency of her mission.

However, Tess knows nothing of the world outside her village, or the attention she draws by nature of her youth and beauty. Her experiences at the d’Urberville house will leave her torn between preserving secrecy – and her reputation – or risking honesty with the people she loves most.

Review:

First Page Impressions

The rural setting of Tess of the D’Urbervilles made me nostalgic for the time I spent working on farms as part of my veterinary training. Not those horrible factory farms, but traditional family-run affairs where the only equipment you’re given is wellies and a dog, the animals all have nicknames, and the grandma brings out bacon sandwiches when the vet visits!

I appreciated the beautiful writing style that helped fuel this nostalgia. Not only did the vividness apply to Hardy’s carefully rendered landscapes, but the author is attentive to the nuances of character too.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

However, as I continued to listen to this story I found myself feeling deflated by it – Hardy’s tale is pretty unrelentingly bleak. Tess is also passive and accepting of her gloomy fate, which makes her difficult to root for as a protagonist.

“Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks”

I couldn’t help but compare Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Far From the Madding Crowd, the other Hardy novel I’ve read. The latter has its ups and downs, but is less depressing overall, and the character of Bathsheba is much more self-determined than Tess.

Mood

Tess of the dUrbervilles by Thomas Hardy Mood Cloud

Diversity and Representation

A patronising tone towards women pretty much comes with the territory for Victorian literature, but in spite of this, Hardy does make an effort to depict the double standards women were subject to in this period.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy Quote


Fund Literacy, Care for the Environment
Themes

  • Gender
  • Sexual power dynamics
  • Nature
  • Class
  • Fate
  • Family
  • Memory and time
  • Love/marriage
  • Justice

Beyond the Book

Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891 but many of its themes, particularly those surrounding sexual assault and rape, still resonate today. Hardy accurately represents the trauma of victim-blaming before this term even existed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Tess’ problems begin when she leaves her humble village to claim kin with the d’Urbervilles. Does Hardy have a conservative message about class and ‘rising above one’s station?’
  2. Many reviews classify Alec d’Urberville as the ‘bad guy’ and Angel Clare as the ‘good guy’. Do you agree?
  3. Could Hardy’s nostalgic portrayal of rural life be accused of minimising the hardship of this existence for many workers?

Favourite quote:

“In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say “See!” to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply “Here!” to a body’s cry of “Where?” till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome, outworn game.”

Read if: You are intrigued by a classic pastoral tale with a hint of proto-feminism.

Buy Now on Better World Books:

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If you enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles why not try The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë?


Have you read Tess of the d’Urbervilles or anything else by Thomas Hardy? What did you think? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!


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11 thoughts on “Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Classic Pastoral Tale with a Hint of Proto-Feminism

    1. Thank you for the comment Joyce! 🥰 I think I’ll save Jude the Obscure for when I’m feeling very resilient then! And I never fully qualified as a vet – I dropped out halfway through my training to pursue my love of books. Now I hope to become a librarian – bit of a radical career change but I’m happy and that’s the main thing 😊 Hope you are well X x x

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  1. Hello Florence, thanks for this review. It has made me think more generally about this novel within the context of other Victorian novels about fallen women. Tess is by far the most bleak, but it is just one of many examples I could think of from the top of my head where the women are all punnished in some way, either by having to undergo a horrible death, or be packed off abroad and essentially hidden from view and other members of society. Hardy did have a degree of compassion for Tess, but he couldn’t allow her to live, as he seemed torn between wishing to highlight hipocracy and double standards, whilst still clinging in some way to the attitudes of his time. All in all, a somewhat convoluted novel in its message with a rather unsatisfactory heroine.

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    1. Thank you for interesting comments Alyson 😊 You’ve really made me think about the ending and how Hardy can’t fully break away from Victorian social attitudes. And I agree with you that Tess as a heroine is a bit of a drip!!! X x x

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    1. Thank you for the kind comment Gilana! ☺️ I really enjoyed Far From The Madding Crowd and would recommend it, more so than Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I hope you enjoy it if you get around to reading it – you’ll have to let me know what you think! X x x

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  2. I’ve never read any Hardy, but meant to start with Jude the Obscure. I might wait a bit – not really in the mood for a bleak read at the moment. Did you prefer Far From the Madding Crowd, I have seen other reviewers saying that.

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    1. Yes, I would definitely wait until you feel in the mood for some heavier reading! I did prefer Far From The Madding Crowd – it’s less depressing and I connected more with the characters (although that’s just my opinion of course). Looking forward to hearing how you get on with any Hardy titles if and when you get around to them! Take care 🥰 X x x

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