Read With Me: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

When I was in high school we each had to choose a novel and write this big paper on it that was meant to test our ability to write college level papers, the assignment involving all of that pesky scholarly criticism and such. To make sure students weren't copying each other, we each had to read a different novel, and so it was that my friend and I ended up in the library one day trying to decipher what exactly counted as scholarly criticism. As we dug through the stacks, we began chatting about our respective books and my friend told me about how the heroine of his novel was a poor country girl who was raped in her youth, had a child from that incident who later died, fell in love with a good man whom she married- and whom later left her due to the aforesaid incidents, who then struggled and worked to death in the fields before giving up and going back to the rich  villain who violated her- all in order to help her family survive, before finally having the wayward husband return, murdering the villain herself, and getting put to death for the crime. I distinctly remember looking at my friend with my mouth wide open, wondering why on earth anyone would ever write such a novel, let alone read one like it. So, I swore then and there to never read Tess of the D'Urbervilles, or anything else written by Thomas Hardy.

My plan seemed to be going along fairly well- I even managed to get a degree in English Literature without having to read a single word of Hardy- until one day, I bought a boxed set of BBC DVDs and finally, on a night of unquestionable boredom, watched one of the film versions of Tess. Reader, what can I say? I fell in love. Perhaps it was the dazzling English countryside, or the splendid costumes or, more truthfully, perhaps it was that I finally saw, and began to understand, the poor push and pull on Tess and her life. Whatever ignited the moment, it lingered and I knew that someday, I would read Tess, as well as other novels by Thomas Hardy.

So, when I saw that la porte rouge was starting a book club and was beginning with Tess, I figured that the time had probably come for me to give it a go- and I was glad I did, not just the novel, but the whole book club idea. I'm a shy individual in person, yet not so much on the page, so this whole idea seemed fantastic to me and I couldn't wait to jump in. In the end, my shyness almost won out and I almost hid again, lurking around and reading posts, but conveniently forgetting my own. Yet, if there is one thing Hardy is quite adamant about in his novel, it's that there is something to be gained from venturing out of ourselves, even if it means that we are sometimes bruised and tossed about by the experience- after all, we wouldn't have a novel if Tess hadn't stepped out of doors early one morning, or been brave enough to open her heart after tragedy, if Angel hadn't learned that perhaps the idea of "damaged" is just a matter of perspective.

What I ended up really loving about this "horrible" novel was that Hardy never condemns the process of living, only the conventions and opinions we assign to it- as Shakespeare, great sage, notes "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." So, I enjoyed watching the spiral of Tess' life, and how Hardy constantly pulls in the threads of it, making us wonder how much of Tess' misfortunes are fate, societal conventions and opinions, and even of Tess' own making through lack of courage at the critical moment, or even of giving in herself to the very conventions which have brought so much misery upon her head. It really makes one think about the sources of the influences in ones own life, about the controlling factors, and about the perception of it all, and so while there were times when I wanted to throw the book across the floor, when it made me cry (when Angel left Tess), and when I asked myself again why on earth anyone would want to read this novel, I still have to say that I love Tess, in spite of myself, perhaps because there is too much of her in life itself to not love her. One of my favorite lines from the novel comes at the end of chapter 39 when Hardy writes, "In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire."

Given the way that I feel about Tess' life then, that it is both beautiful and sad, I couldn't bring myself to make the light and frothy berry and creme style cake I wanted to. Somehow, for me, the inclusion of that May-day style fair seemed to place too much emphasis on what Tess was before she met Alec, to even agree with the idea that somehow, she was damaged after him. And so when I went to make my food for Tess, I found that what I thought of most was a country style fair such as Tess might have enjoyed in the fields (although, technically some of the fruit, grapes in particular, would have been beyond her reach) or at the dairy- because in the end, I liked Tess for who she became in spite of her misfortunes, perhaps even because of them.

P.S. While every post I've read so far has been splendid, I fell in love with two in particular and would like to recommend them in case you haven't found your way to them yet: over at My Grammar of Ornament are some fabulous photos that will make you think you've stumbled across Tess' own blog; and at A New Simple Something is a wonderful illustration of Tess that I am quite smitten with- I love how Tess is a part of nature in it, not separate from it- beautiful!


onesilentwinter said...

gosh how i love your post so much. i too stayed away from Thomas Hardy fo similar reasons and when read it found myself putting it down and taking long walks to exhale all that i had taken in. i do appreciate his style of writing.

i was hoping i can share this post on read with me, please!

the Mistress of the Raven's Wood said...

Thank you for all of the kind words and of course you may use the post! Please contact me at and let me know what I need to do!

Heather said...

Really wonderful post, glad you decided to overcome your shyness, and I love that you linked that act to the book!

Susannah said...

Beautiful post and commentary on Tess! I love that you fell in love with Tess, first, through the BBC series. I often find myself falling in love with characters or re-falling in love with them through BBC dramas. Thanks for your mention of my Tess post; I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

the Mistress of the Raven's Wood said...

Nadia, Heather, and Susannah, thank you all for your wonderful comments about my post! Like I said in the post, I get pretty shy so it's great to hear such nice things when I get brave enough to step out of my shell! Sorry it took me so long to thank you properly, I've been out all week with a cold- but again, thank you, your comments cheered me as I sat in bed with my tea and sniffling!