Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess of the d'Urbervilles


Cruelly seduced by her relative, the cynical Alec D'Urberville, betrayed by the moral Angel Clare and haunted by her guilt and shame, Tess becomes Hardy's indictment of all the crimes and hyprocrisies of 19th century England.


Few novels have had more pages written about them than Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I have only two excuses for adding to the number--one is that, in an edition like this, it is customary to have an introductory essay; the other, that I want primarily to look at a detail of the novel that has pretty well been neglected.

The novel is so direct in its appeal and unambiguous in its story-line that for many readers all commentary will be redundant. It is the story of an exceptionally gifted peasant girl of decayed aristocratic stock who is betrayed by two men: one is rich and sensuous, the seducer of her body and, for a while, of her emotions; by him she has a child which dies in infancy. The other is the intellectual, free-thinking son of a clergyman, whom she loves with her whole being, and who abandons her when he hears, immediately after their marriage, of her earlier violation. Subsequently the husband comes to understand his moral and intellectual arrogance and searches for the girl, only to find that the extreme poverty of her family bias driven her back to the other man. So strong is the girl's love for her husband, and so powerful her disgust at what the other man has forced her to become, that she kills the other man. Husband and wife, united but on the run from the police, spend a few days of loving reconciliation together before the girl is arrested, tried, sentenced to death for murder, and executed.

This plot is not particularly original in its framework, and in the end it cannot by itself account for the novel's power. Two other elements in its creation have a significant role to play: one is the integration of the characters with their environment, which Hardy achieved more fully here than anywhere else; the other is the passionate commitment to the central character with which the novel is written. This combination offers the most deeply moving reading experience that I know.

Perhaps this is all I should allow myself to say--but the temptation to go further, to explore some of the implications of such a summary, is too strong. I want to concentrate upon the first, the most easily assimilable face presented by the novel to the reader--though one that many readers do not notice: the title-page. It reads:

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