What can I say about Tess? I don’t believe I could do this book justice without giving away key details of the plot, so a vague(ish) review will have to do.
Yesterday, a friend of mine (who is also an avid reader) asked me his customary question as we sat down to lunch: “What are you reading today?” My response, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” was met with a groan and an eye roll. Either he was choking on the plain chicken sandwich he likes to eat, or he was expressing his disdain for the classics. I suspected the latter. When I questioned whether he had ever read the novel – or, in fact, any of the other well-known classics – he confirmed that he had not.
I have quite often observed a reluctance to read the classics; there seem to be various assumptions that they’re “too heavy”, or “boring”, or “dated” – no longer relevant in the context of today’s society. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is perhaps one of the strongest cases to counter those arguments.
Tess’ story illustrates how absolutely unfair it was to be a woman living in a patriarchal society. Tess has strong morals and, in the beginning, is an innocent character; but one crime against Tess leads to a lifelong, internal battle of society’s expectations versus her own understanding of right and wrong. Despite being an innocent victim of the crime of a man, Tess is continuously framed as the culprit. Even the great love of her life admits that she was “more sinned against than sinned”, but this does not prevent him from blaming her for the hardship she suffered.
I could write all day about my impressions of this book… so let’s go back to some of those assumptions about classic literature. How does this novel disprove them?
“The classics are too heavy”
Not at all. The plot is so considerately structured, it’s even been split into parts (and no, I don’t mean chapters – actual parts)… so there’s ample opportunity for a break at a logical point, without losing the thread of the story. This novel isn’t riddled with Olde English either (as many people seem to assume the classics are), so it is enjoyable to read without being overly taxing.
“The classics are boring”
Never. Or at least, not in this case. I can honestly say that this novel constantly surprised me; from the very first chapter to the final page. It is an absolute must-read that had me hooked for days.
“They’re dated” or “They’re no longer relevant”
Now, here is my greatest argument for “Tess”. Whilst the issues of morality in relation to the female sex were very relevant at the time this book was written, I was startled on two accounts. Firstly, Thomas Hardy writes with astounding empathy for Tess as a wronged woman. I imagine it would have been rare, during that period, to find a man who understood the internal, moral and societal hardships faced by women of the time. If I hadn’t known who writer was, I might well have assumed this book was written by a woman; such is the depth of his empathy. Secondly, I realised that parallels can be drawn between the views of the historic patriarchal society and the attitudes still lingering in the modern day. True, we have made great progress towards equality, but stories in the media constantly remind us that ‘victim blaming’ and misogyny have not yet been thoroughly wiped from society. If only everyone could take the time to read this book – to see those themes laid out so blatantly in the open – I feel it would open many eyes to the absurdity of blaming a victim for the wrongs of an oppressor. I’m not saying the vast majority of society doesn’t know this, but I still believe this novel has an important message to share.
This book must be read.
It is gripping. It is moving. It is relevant.