Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy, Penquin Books, first published in 1891, 508 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

During this somewhat more relaxed season of my journey of life I am beginning to explore more deliberately the world of classic novels. I am beginning to realize, far too late in life to be sure, that well written novels communicate truth every bit as well as the more serious study books to which I have devoted most of my adult life. I am beginning to understand Eugene Peterson’s insistence that pastors and religious teachers should read novels regularly. They impart an awareness of the human condition – the paradoxes, the mysteries, the triumphs and tragedies – as it impacts people, fictional though they may be. Indeed, a good novel helps us walk in the shoes of fellow mortals and wrestle with the vicissitudes of life that we all face, albeit in a somewhat indirect manner.

I had not really encountered Thomas Hardy since studying his epic, “Return of the Native” in High School. In recent months I have read “Far From the Madding Crowd” and now I have just finished “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” I admit that I am somewhat mesmerized by Hardy’s story telling. This latest reading, drawing me further into the fabric of rural English life in the mid-19th century, demonstrates once again Hardy’s mastery of life “on the ground” for common folk of that era. At the same time he documents, through various contacts his characters have with the wider world, how the prevailing philosophies, theologies and socio-political realities of that time impinge upon his mostly unsuspecting characters.

Tess Durbeyfield, without question the central character in this novel, discovers at the outset that she is a direct descendent of a once powerful and wealthy D’Urberville family whose mansions and other holdings now lie in ruins. This awareness plays havoc with her self-identity forged in the context of a poor rural village. It also plays a central role in her roller-coaster ride through personal tragedies and triumphs, agonies and ecstasies, love gained and love lost. One quickly becomes one with Tess – one with her tenderness and longings as well as her victimization at the hands of forces seemingly beyond her control, let alone her understanding. Irving Howe once said of her that, “Hardy watches over Tess like a stricken victim. He is as tender to Tess as Tess is to the world. Tender and helpless.”

Sometimes it seems as though the story is delayed by Hardy’s lengthy and detailed descriptions of the contexts in which his characters play out their roles. On the other hand it is perhaps on these occasions that the author’s word-crafting skills are best displayed. They form separate, yet connected, islands of linguistic marvel so that one is quite ready to forgive Hardy for not proceeding more directly with the story line. Most of these sections would be worth reading for their own artistic merit.

This carefully crafted novel gives me a deeper understanding of the notion of what the statement, “It was a page-turner” means. Indeed, once I had immersed myself in Hardy’s British country side as it must have been nearly two hundred years ago, I had little ambition for fulfilling the domestic roles to which I am committed until I had read the last page. When I put the book down after finishing it today, I found myself somewhat unwilling to re-emerge into the 21st century. At the same time, I was acutely aware that life in the 18th century had touched me profoundly a few centuries later.

Read this book while you still have a chance. I you don’t you will never know what you missed.