“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”
Though it was written around 130 years ago, Tess of the D’Urbervilles remains an important read, largely due to the issues that Hardy approaches throughout his narrative. This story is a tragedy, namely the tragedy of Tess Durbeyfield who we see suffer time and time again despite her pure heart and innocent intentions. Hardy’s decision to make this novel nothing but a bleak and tragic series of events serves as an effective means of critiquing Victorian society in relation to rigid morals imposed upon women, alongside issues concerning class. The multitude of issues that are explored within this novel include that of rape, the Double Standard with regards to male and female sexual behavior, religion and purity v. impurity, all of which make for a novel that was revolutionary to a contemporary audience, and one that is still important today.
Hardy creates characters that are incredibly complex and fleshed out, but are also ultimately vessels used to convey messages key to the story. Tess is presented as pure of heart, which immediately makes the readership connect and empathize with her while simultaneously allowing for Hardy to represent a message key to the novel; that society’s treatment of women regarding their sexuality will remain unfair even for the most innocent of women. Though Tess is raped, and therefore has no choice in the loss of her virginity, everyone around her including her own mother places the blame upon her and shuns her. This poor treatment by society comes to its height in her dynamic with Angel, who had given Tess hope in his promises of being different from the rest of society, but ultimately abandons her when he discovers she was raped despite not being a virgin himself. Tess’ blind love for Angel is presented immediately as being a poor choice on her part, immediately establishing a dynamic between the two which could only end in tragedy.
Alec is characterized as the complete opposite of Tess; he is a man with no good intent, and prefers instead to pursue whatever it is that gives him satisfaction, with no consideration for the damage he may be doing. He is clearly the antagonist of this story, and is used by Hardy as a means of abolishing the good guy v. bad guy conception. Hardy initially makes the reader believe that Angel is going to almost act as a foil to Alec, with Angel being as morally good as his namesake suggests (therefore, the good guy), and with Alec being the antagonist (the bad guy). However, it is soon made clear that Angel is just as bad as Alec, as is seen in his hypocrisy regarding Tess’ sexuality and his own. When Angel’s damaging idealization of Tess is finally broken down by the revelation by Tess that she was raped, Angel is seen to revert back to the societal and religious ideals he had previously claimed to have rejected. This damages Tess, and it can be argued that this damage is just as bad as that committed by Alec.
That is not to say, however, that the characters of Angel and Alec do not develop. Hardy ensures that each of his characters is developed brilliantly. We see Tess take more agency with regards to her situation, going from being totally helpless while with Alec to gaining some level of justice at the end of the novel. Hardy also ensures that Angel and Alec both develop as characters, but deliberately chooses for their development to occur only when it is too late to be of any use to Tess, therefore aiding the representation of the injustice felt by women of the time.
Alongside his brilliant characterization, Hardy also ensured that the structure of this novel aided his overarching messages and themes. Narrative gaps were purposefully implemented at the most important parts of the novel, leaving the reader to piece together the events taking place. This effectively created distance between Tess and her immoral act at the end of the novel which helps to maintain the key idea that Tess was a truly innocent character that, like many women, was forced to act in ways she ordinarily wouldn’t had it not been for the scorn of society and repeated poor treatment from those around her.
Hardy’s prose in this novel was beautiful, yet I couldn’t help but think that some of his descriptions of nature were a bit long- winded. Though I understand the importance of the establishment of Tess being like nature and representing the struggles of nature during a time of industrialization, I couldn’t help but feel that some of his descriptions of the surroundings slowed the narrative and weren’t all that necessary. This is, however, only a small issue and one that I am willing to overlook.
Overall, Hardy creates a brilliant novel that depicts the tragedy that can arise as a result of a society filled with harmful ideals. Through its unrelenting bleakness it serves to tell an important lesson on the ways individuals should and should not be treated in a society, and has become a solid favorite of mine.
“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”