Tess of the d'Urbervilles is not a feel-good book, which sharply sets it apart from the other 19th century novels about young women (think Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, for instance).
No, it's sad and depressing to the point where it almost makes me angry. Because poor Tess, prone to making choice that are invariably the worst for her, just cannot catch a break. Because it's like she has majorly pissed off some higher power(s) that be and they are taking revenge, giving her the most rotten luck. Because Tess seems to have resigned herself to a future with few silver linings, having learned to view herself through the cruel prism of social conventions. Because it lacks any happiness and warm fuzzies that would make you want to reread this book while curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold rainy day¹.
¹ This lack of any feel-good warm fuzzies and Hardy's relentless destruction of anything that can make Tess' life tolerable (and, of course, combined with the fact that this book apparently is on the required reading list for many high-schoolers - and we all know how intolerable the books we have been coerced to read as teens can appear) may be at least partially responsible for why so many of my GR friends dislike it - the same people who apparently have enjoyed other 19th century novels about young women.
And yet I liked it. Maybe because I read it without anyone's coercion, without being forced to see the symbolism or make analyses of the themes and all that bullshit that high school students have to put up with during the endless hours of English classes.
"Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently."
Because, all symbolism aside (blah-blah, Tess = Nature destroyed by civilization and all that), Hardy seems to be doing a pretty good job showing the stupidity of rigid morals applied to women in Victorian England - the morals and attitudes that made women inferior and subservient to men. Because quite a few things are wrong when a rapist offering to marry his victim is considered a good resolution to the 'situation' as he must be her 'real' husband because he was the first to claim her vagina with his penis, regardless of whether she wanted him then or wants him now. Because something is wrong when a woman becomes 'damaged goods' in the eyes of the society because of someone else's action - actually, when, regardless of the action, her worth is based on the state of intactness of her hymen¹.
¹ That attitude did not die with Victorian era, of course. It is still perpetuated and fed to the young members of the society. Think, for instance, of all the young adult heroines that are 'pure' by the virtue of their virginity while there always (or almost always) appears to be an evil side character - a 'slut' who dares to be sexually experienced. Guess who is invariably preferred by all the romantic interests? That's right. 'Sluts' are put in their place pretty quickly. Ugh.
Hardy does a great job portraying unhealthy relationships in this book without attempting to convince the reader that those are actually normal. I will not go into details about the unhealthiness of Tess' relationship with her rapist - that's self-evident. But her doomed relationship with Angel Clare is also painted as unhealthy and dangerous - and not alluringly dangerous, like many books are prone to depict such situations. Tess' feelings for him are blinding and obsessive - and the danger of those are clearly shown, as she is ready to lose herself in him and even die for his sake. Angel's feelings are treated equally harshly as instead of respecting and admiring Tess for the person she is he idolizes what he *thinks* she is, he creates an idea of her being who he wants her to be and in that remains completely blind to who she actually is. Hardy's portrayal of that ill-fated relationship definitely does not glamorize the unhealthy aspects of it, and I applaud him for it.
I did enjoy reading a book about a 19th century young woman who does not belong to the privileged class, and whose ideas of poverty are not simply living in a smaller cottage and not being able to attend fancy balls. I liked the idea of a woman who is capable of work and does not shy away from it; I loved how much Hardy tried to emphasize that the stereotypes of peasants as faceless mass of idiots were not true, and how he stayed away from glamorizing money and pedigree. Tess' supposed noble descent brings her nothing but pain, after all.
"She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly - the thought of the world's concern at her situation - was founded on illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides, Tess was only a passing thought."
Overall I enjoyed this book, but I'm not sure I will ever reread it, knowing now the turn the events in Tess' life take. For my pleasure reads I will stick with the happily-ever-after of Lizzy Bennet, thank you very much. But meanwhile I'll be appreciating that Hardy had the perseverance to write a non-feel-good story of bad things happening to good people, with lessons we can learn from it even now.
3.75 stars - rounding up to 4.