Tess of D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of The D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
Published 1891
The Classics Club II

I am still shaking from this tragic story. My reading experience was a cross between Doctor Zhivago and Grapes of Wrath

But unlike Grapes of Wrath, I did not hate it.  Instead, I was emotionally invested. (Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath angrily provoked me.) But I think I know why people dislike Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Now, I am going to share the plot, including some spoilers, but not the ending. 


Tess is a beautiful, poetic young lady, unlucky to be the poor daughter of a drunk, unemployed father and an anxious mother. When her parents learned that they were descendants of an honorable ancestor of a similar name, whose well-off relations lived some miles from them, her mother sent Tess to make an introduction, in hopes of getting a job -- or a husband, which ever was more convenient.

Instead, Tess met an arrogant male relative, Alec, who gave her a lowly job on the farm, and then took advantage of her innocence. He certainly was attracted to her beautiful physical image, but her feelings for him were never mutual. 

By the next chapter, Tess had returned home with her new baby and was an embarrassment to the community. Unfortunately, her baby died. In shame, she decided to leave home again, to make a fresh start where no one knew her story. 

She found enjoyable work as a dairymaid and made companions. But a new man, Angel, a well-to-do son of an uppity preacher, moved to the farm. He wanted to take up farming, as opposed to college or seminary. He fell for Tess's credible pure and modest image and aggressively pursued her until she could not reject his advances. He proposed.

She expected to expose her past before they married, but each opportunity failed; even the letter she wrote explaining the truth, which contradicted her image, did not reach him in time before the wedding. 

She wanted to tell him on the day of the wedding, but he prevented her. 

Then on the night of their honeymoon, they revealed their secret sins, and Tess finally was able to tell Angel that she was not as pure as he believed. (Neither was he, but his hypocrisy was not as blinding as her impurity.) His image of her was shattered. Basically, he decided he must leave for a while. Being distraught, he left the continent! 

For at least a year he was absent from his wife, while she lived in abandonment and shame for what someone else had done to her life; she bore this heavy burden, as if it was entirely her own. 

During that long separation, she reconnected with friends and found farm work elsewhere, hiding the truth as much as she could, hating and blaming herself for her cowardly husband's behavior.

One day the farm workers were listening to a new "preacher." It was Alec, her relative, preaching repentance and obedience. He recognized Tess and was suddenly bewitched.

For several pages he begged Tess to give him a chance. He never asked forgiveness; but he wanted to make "reparations," marry her, and take care of her and her family. He never knew about the pregnancy and he expressed regret for having ruined her. Nonetheless, she rejected him and never believed his conversion. (Even I believed his conversion and thought she was being too pride-filled.)

After a few more pages, Alec revealed his true self. He was wicked, and the reader could see what Tess already knew. He was a fraud. He admitted that his religion was only a phase, and since he found Tess again, his religion was over. He resorted to stalking her.

Tess wrote a desperate letter to Angel, begging him to come home and save her from the evil that was going to ruin her (again). The letter awaited his return. And unbeknownst to Tess, Angel finally admitted he should have never left his wife. Duh.

Then, Tess's father died. Tess's mother and her siblings were forced to leave their home, and Tess with them. They tried to find a new place, but it was complicated. Really complicated.

Meanwhile, Alec relentlessly made all attempts to rescue Tess and her family; with his money and connections, his proposals to make life easier for them all were very attractive and generous. 

Because of her desperate situation - somewhere between a rock and a hard place - Tess rebelled and wrote a scathing note to Angel telling him she was done with him. Aside from the time she rightly rejected Alec's conversion as truth, this is the only other time I remember her showing any sign of strength and conviction. It almost seemed out of character. She promised to never forgive him.

Again, the note was waiting for his arrival at his parent's home.

Angel did eventually return home and immediately went on a quest to find his wife.

The reader was left to believe that Tess took Alec up on his offer to comfortably house her mother and siblings. Angel found them, but Tess did not live there with them, and Tess's mother did not tell Angel where she presently lived, but only told him not to search for her.

Nonetheless, he continued looking, and when he found her, "It was too late."


It gets worse, but I cannot finish revealing the spoilers. I personally concluded that Thomas Hardy, while alive, had zero hope in humanity. He only understood torture of the heart and soul and mind. He absolutely detested religion, twisting Scripture and mocking Christianity. He saw life as utterly hopeless.

Sharon @ Gently Mad wrote several reviews of biographies on Thomas Hardy, and they helped me understand the madness behind the tragedies. At least with Return of the Native and Far From the Madding Crowd there were somewhat happy endings after the tragic story smacked you across the face. But this one must have been written during an exceptionally bad week for Hardy. He chose not to give anyone a chance.

So am I complaining about Tess or not? No. There is deep symbolism throughout, which is always intriguing to discover and decode its meanings. Hardy likes to use natural symbols to express his ideas about human nature. In addition, it is not very difficult to draw conclusions, and I found myself writing down the next thing that would happen before I read it because it is so easily drawn out.

I also enjoyed the reading experience.  The journey is absolutely worthwhile because of Hardy's talent. Nonetheless, this ending was dreadfully insane, and the characters were dubious, hypocritical, and false -- obviously, not very likable. But I still cannot forget the reading journey, and so I will always remember this story.

Is this book for you?

Are you already a Hardy fan because you have read his other works? Then I would encourage you to read this, too, just to have the experience and knowledge of having read it. You may not like the story overall, and that is ok; but you may get something better out of it anyway.

I would not recommend this one as my first Hardy, or you may never read another. He is full of shocking revelations, and if you are unfamiliar with his ways, you may not appreciate those unhappy surprises.

Also, Hardy loves to use unique vocabulary, and that may be too cumbersome for those still becoming acclimated to his style. Some people call it "flowery" language, though it is beautiful and interesting. It only adds to the complication, though, when the author is at the same time smacking you in the face with insulting and offensive character traits and dreadful plot twists.

So tread carefully with this one.

Tess flung herself down upon the undergrowth of rustling speargrass as upon a bed. 1891


  1. Unfortunately, Tess was my first encounter with Hardy. I loved his writing style so decided to give him another try. The Mayor of Casterbridge was much more to my liking & since then I've read some others & enjoyed them. Tess was just too depressing & fatalistic.

    1. That's a good thing you appreciated his style enough to carry on. I listened to several reviews on Youtube, and if readers did not know Hardy, they ended up hating this. And then of course, there were those who LOV ED it and it was their favorite novel. I don't think I can go that far.

      I'll have to add Casterbridge to my TBR, too.

  2. Oh gee, I read this when I was only barely able to even understand what was going on. I should probably re-read, but it's so tragic!

    Also I can't remember what you disliked about Grapes of Wrath. I'll go look.

    1. Grapes of Wrath was really personal b/c it was insulting to Christianity and America. It was so mocking of America that Hitler used it as propaganda against us during WWII. And I can see why. It was also offensive to farmers, who hated it also b/c it made them look stupid and ignorant. So not only were they in a bad way during the Great Depression, but they were too foolish to even help themselves. So if you read my post, I elaborate on those points.

    2. What do you expect from a hard drinking womanizer? Like Hardy, Steinbeck created realities in his stories that proved his beliefs.

    3. That makes a lot of sense. When you are a writer, you control your narrative any way you please.

  3. Angel and Alec are among the male leads I used to think needed a good smack in the face 😞 Nothing heroic about either of them, let alone having both in the one book. Beautiful writing, but extremely sad tale that stays in your mind.

    1. A good slap is right. Very sad and so wrong. I'd love to get into Hardy's brain to understand him on this one.

  4. This one is definitely high on my TBR. I feel I want to read it even more now, knowing that it inspired so much emotion in you. x

    1. Do read this one, Jillian. Emotional readers do need to experience it. I apologize ahead of time for encouraging you to go through it.

  5. Hi Ruth! Thanks so much for giving my blog a mention! That was really nice.

    When I read Tess years ago I had not read any biographies about Hardy. Nevertheless I could see that he was contriving his characters and story line to prove his own outlook on life.

    Hardy had no ax to grind against Christianity or the Church. He had no reason to be angry. He simply embraced the zeitgeist of his time period. In a nutshell, he decided he was too intellectual to believe in God. He felt church was good for providing a moral paradigm, without which there would be anarchy, but that's as far as it went for him. He was highly contemptuous of anyone "simple" enough to actually take Christianity seriously. He was like the literary crowd he associated with.

    He felt that the Christian creed of monogamy and fidelity was source of marital unhappiness and if we could get rid of traditional marriage and simply sleep with whoever we felt like sleeping with at the time, everyone would be happy. Right. It never occurred to him that his own selfishness and unrealistic expectations of women were the source of his unhappiness.

    My first Hardy was Far from the Madding Crowd and my favorite. It's the only one with a happy ending.

    1. Ahhh, yes. He was "above" the moral religious high ground. He had the better idea to living. And I was just going to say . . . but then you said it best - about his unhappiness. I also imagine how much unhappiness he caused the women who [loved him?], because a women can not feel special or wanted when her man is only concerned w/ his own pleasures. And obviously, they weren't, though that didn't not concern him.

      Madding Crowd is my favorite, too, and Return of the Native has a happy ending, as well, but not before the reader must endure such tragedy and mire.

      You know, it is too bad that he did not figure out that his philosophy on happiness wasn't working. Sadly, I think people have the wrong idea about Christianity. There are so many bad examples of it to confuse people from the truth. But like you said, he was righteous in his own eyes, and self-righteous people are too good to consider what is truth and what is right. They already have all the answers.

  6. I only know this for a film rendition which I sort of hated (conversely, I love The Grapes of Wrath (book and movie)). Interesting, because you and I are usually of pretty similar mind. I do have this in TBR (few other Hardy as well), and your review gives me hope that I may still enjoy the read.

    1. Definitely do not skip it. Read and endure. Even Grapes I suggested that it should not be skipped. But form your own opinion, as all thinking people do. So I will be interested what you think.

      I do want to see the film edition, but I am scared to relive it. Or it may spoil my overall idea of the book. I kind of want to keep it where it is in my mind.

  7. I’ve read Tess twice now & the double standards throughout the book made me sooooo mad both times. But in a weird way I enjoyed being made angry by this book. I can’t help but think that was one of Hardy’s intentions despite his own flawed view of womankind. I think I read somewhere that he had major mother issues. Certainly all his female protagonists get the raw end of his authorial stick. Ive now read 3 of his books & not really sure I can cope with his view of women any longer.

    1. It sounds like he was a womanizer, and he probably did have mommy issues. Seems like men who do not treat women rightly tend to have mommy issues.

      But I agree. The book causes the reader to have a strong emotional reaction, and, yet, you can appreciate it for it's provocation. It's intense; and we read to feel alive, right?

      Sorry it took so long to reply, but I've been experiencing issues w/ Blogger notifying me as I receive comments on my posts. I don't know when they will get that fixed, and I just need to be diligent to check on the blog itself.

  8. *you can appreciate it for it's provocation.

    Exactly. I like it when a book pushes me into string emotions.

    I thought the blogger issues were just mine! Weird things happen when I try to comment on my phone too. So hopefully this works (I’ve learnt to copy my comment before I publish it in case it gets lost!!)