My opinions on Thomas Hardy’s classic story Tess of the d’Urbervilles can perhaps be best described as “complicated.” For various reasons, this was decidedly not a book I enjoyed reading. Nonetheless, I still understand the reason for its influence, respect the skill that went into writing it, and fully believe it deserves its status as a work of classic western literature.
Beginning with perhaps the most consistent factor that contributed to my irritation with this book, I found its writing style to be plodding at best and nearly infuriating at worst. I must make it clear that I understand the subjectivity of this critique; typical writing technique has doubtlessly changed dramatically in the many decades since the work’s initial publication, and elements that I find unenjoyable were likely widely liked and accepted. However, while reading I couldn’t suppress the urge to pull out a pen and cross out all the superfluous words or even rewrite entire sentences (this coming from a person whose writing is frequently acknowledged as being somewhat meandering and wordy). As much as I dislike using the word “boring” to describe any literature, classics in particular, Tess of the d’Urbervilles truly tested my commitment to that philosophy. Still, there were a few standout examples of scenes in which this style worked in the story’s advantage, mostly when the author was trying to convey a sense of dread, suspense, or anticipation prior to a major event.
Regarding the content of the book itself, my feelings become a bit more nuanced. I can’t deny that this story was genuinely able to induce a powerful emotional response, mostly manifesting in the sheer detestability of one Alec d’Urberville. Unfortunately, most of my other responses to the events of the book were likely not the intended ones. The second half of the book essentially boils down to a constant string of escalating misfortune for the titular character, eventually culminating in her death by hanging. This undoubtably had the intended effect of creating sympathy for Tess, but after a time this omnipresent misery became not just tedious, but comedic. After a time, this rendered Tess to a thoroughly flat character, one who seemingly only existed to be used as a plaything by the universe itself.
I didn’t enjoy Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I simultaneously find myself harboring a begrudging sense of respect for it. Despite the tedium of the writing style and narrative, the story is undoubtably successful at doing what it tries to do. Tess is a very sympathetic character, and in this case her relative blandness works in her advantage. My first instinct when writing a sympathetic character is to give them a likable personality or compelling goals so that, when bad things happen to that character, the audience feels bad for them. Tess goes about this somewhat backwards. We don’t feel bad because misfortune befalls a person we like, we feel bad because misfortune befalls someone who so clearly deserved none of it. Whether that character is likable or not is largely irrelevant, and that appears to be the point. Tess doesn’t have to be Tess, she could be any woman made to suffer horribly for events beyond her control, and a complex endearing personality would only detract from that core idea. This is the story’s strongest element, and this is why it’s remembered all these decades later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not a classic because of the way it’s written or the strength of its protagonist, it’s a classic because of the ideas it presents. In the case of a story like this, I say with no small hint of vexation, that’s what really counts.