Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Back to the classics. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is probably one of the most famous stories of english literature. The story follows the eponymous heroine as she is coming of age. She is seduced and ruined by one man, rejected by another when she discloses her shame and then further manipulated by the first until she kills him.

This was a great book, a classic that firmly deserves to be there. For a novel of it’s age, the authorial voice is muted and much more of the characters is to the fore. Characterisation is subtle and effective. The hard struggle of life of someone in Tess’ position is made clear without labouring the point.

Naturally, the pivotal event in the first third of the book largely happens off-scene and leads to the question – is it rape? It is never described as such but I can’t help feeling that that’s because rape is defined as ‘violent stranger-danger’ and what happens to Tess is more like acquaintance rape. According to Wikipedia, as the event happens off-stage it leaves the reader to decide whether she was raped or seduced. To me this sounds like ‘either she was violently raped or she willingly (enthusiastically) participated’. My reading of the story was that she was pressurised and manipulated; her class, poverty and social conditioning were used against her to wear her down – plus, she’s asleep when Alec d’Urberville starts on her. Throughout the book Tess is painfully conscious of how she is being manipulated but unable to find a way through it.

Later in the book, when Tess has been abandoned by Angel Clare, Alec d’Urberville’s behaviour becomes abusive. He targets her and holds her responsible for his actions. Her very existence is the thing that he claims compels him to act and Hardy neatly describes a consummate piece of victim-blaming.

This is a fantastic book with many levels and written with great intelligence and empathy. Highly recommended!

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