Neither fully a woman, nor aware of the dangers of the outside world, Tess is driven by her family’s poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbevilles. However, her ‘cousin’ Alec is more interested in her body than her desperate poverty. Tess is raped. Despite Tess’ moral purity, she is stained by her sexual impurity, through no fault of her own. Tess struggles against social convention and finds comfort in Angel- a son of a clergyman who preaches against tradition, yet his own ideals of Tess as a perfect woman, a pure “daughter of nature”, will endanger their relationship, and Tess must decide whether or not to reveal her unfortunate past.
Tess of the D’Urbevilles is ultimately s “tragedy of those who escaped the imprisonment of the established convention”, as D.H Lawrence put it. Hardy portrays the Victorian convention that condemns Tess to isolation and hardship as unnatural, and the desire between two loving individuals as natural. Hardy challenges the Victorian idea of “purity” in a woman, he illustrates that purity is found not in the outcome- her sexual purity, but in the intention of a woman- her moral integrity. By narrating the life and exploring the psychology of an individual in detail, Hardy uses a microcosm of society to comment on the cruelty of a godless world- for Tess is a tragedy which cannot be fixed by divine power-, and the forces of the fates- “heredity and environment, character and society” on the destiny of the individual.
Hardy’s long and beautiful prose describes the changing landscape of the rural community and the unstoppable arrival of modernity. He captures a sympathetic photograph of rural life, the hardships and joys of rural folk, as well as the dying rural traditions. The decline of old rural life is paralleled with the decline of Tess’ ancient D’Urbeville family and Tess as an individual, which makes Tess both a personal and greater social tragedy.
Tess is a great read for anyone who enjoys Victorian literature, beautiful descriptions of landscapes, and bleak tragedies.