Top critical review
6 people found this helpful
on 10 September 2012
Apologies for the length of this review, but it's still considerably shorter than the book and may save you time in the long run!
It all started well enough with a lightly humourous approach to Tess's father's discovery of the ancient bloodline. The plot then moved along fairly quickly to find Tess in a new position in the service of the only other living D'Urbervilles - who turn out not to be actual D'Urbervilles at all, but that's another tangent altogether. The master of the house takes a shine to our Tess and she daily encounters his attentions in pursuit of her, but she's having none of it. Thus, late one night, on her way home from the local village, the rogueish D'Urberville gets her alone and has his wicked way with her.
This is the point at which, I am sure, the reader's interest was intended to have been piqued and hereafter taken on a journey of Tess's turbulent consequential situations and emotions. Sadly, for me, this was the point where it all started to lose my attention. It really isn't clear that Tess has definitely been raped - yes, you can read through the lines and work it out but the next chapter meanders along pointlessly before we finally confirm that Tess has not only had sex (consensually or otherwise) but has had a baby as a result. Only the conversations between Tess and her mother: 'Twas not your fault', 'Aye, but I'm such a terrible person nonetheless' etc. clarify that Tess really did not welcome the physical advances of D'Urberville that night.
As if Tess wasn't getting morbid enough, the baby then dies and is not provided with a Christian burial because it wasn't properly baptised. Tess is understandably grief stricken but somewhat stoic and ends up taking work as a milkmaid. From thereon in, Tess continues in much the same vein, lamenting what a terrible person she is, a sinful woman who no man will ever love, blah blah blah, while keeping her head down at work.
Once again though, she has caught the attention of a young suitor, Angel Clare; only this time she quite likes him back. But remember, dear reader, she is a FALLEN WOMAN and must therefore rebuke all his advances! This is where it goes from slightly dull to downright ridiculous. Angel carries on pursuing her for some time, she keeps knocking him back, her roommates think she's barmy as they're all madly in love with him too, ergo she tries to push him in their general direction, so altruistic and magnanimous is she.
Inevitably, she gives in and admits she fancies him but she won't marry him because she's a HARLOT and IMPURE and he must never know! So then we trawl through another few chapters which pretty much repeat the above ad nauseum. Then she decides she will marry him, but should she tell him about her past or not? (repeat) Her one attempt to tell him is foiled by blasted artistic licence/fate and she goes ahead and marries him anyway. And then tells him. And he handles the whole situation in an unconditionally loving, non-judgmental and accepting way. Except he doesn't. Poor old Tess is fraught for days while she waits for him to decide how he feels about it all and, alas, he tells her he doesn't feel very good about it at all. He adopts a full on 'woe is me' attitude not dissimilar to his new (JEZEBEL) wife's bemoanings and buggers off to Brazil. Not before bumping into one of the other ladies who loved him so, inviting her to come with him, then changing his mind in the space of two pages. Meanwhile, the other ladies haven't fared too well in their grief at losing out on him to Tess: suicide attempts and alcoholism no less! He must be one hell of a catch!!
Anyway, the story then rambles on again, with Tess moving around the fields of Wessex like a ghost, lamenting all the while and wishing her husband would come back to her. Then, completely inexplicably, D'Urberville reappears in her life, begs her forgiveness, and asks her to come and live with him as his wife - because apparently she IS really his wife, what with him being the first to do rude stuff to her and all. Even more inexplicably, she agrees to it! Only, would you believe it? Just at that exact moment, Angel decides he's been a bit of a wally and returns to England to patch things up with poor Tess. Following a short conversation between the estranged spouses, Tess (without any description of thought pattern or motive) only goes and kills D'Urberville! She could have packed her bags and left, of course, but that just wouldn't be melodramatic enough.
Needless to say, it all catches up with her and, following a five night stay in an empty mansion and a night under the stars at Stonehenge of all places, the final page of this sorry tale sees Tess swinging from the gallows while her husband (the one she legally married, not the one she had a child to) walks off hand in hand with her little sister.
Maybe as a 21st century feminist I cannot possibly sympathise with Tess; her wet, pathetic insistence that she didn't deserve any happiness coupled with her tendency to just go along with what everyone else wanted, to increasingly stupid lengths just grated on me. I did not find any of the characters particularly likeable, or any more than 2D caricatures. Angel degenerated into a pious little upstart and the only positive came towards the end when Tess finally gets a bit indignant and writes him a letter that gives him a jolly good ticking off! Unfortunately, she can only maintain this attitude for all of five minutes until she claps eyes on him again and... well, you know the rest.
Another reviewer mentioned that Hardy wrote the equivalent of soap opera stories in his day and I only wish I had known this before I picked up 'Tess'. If you're looking for Emo-style, weak characters who take ages to make a single decision over the most minute points, Tess is for you. If you prefer strong characters, fast-paced stories and a satisfying outcome, steer well clear!!