Tess of the D'Urbervilles
by Anthony Domestico
The 1891 publication of Thomas Hardy’s penultimate novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman, was met with a great deal of controversy. Having previously appeared in a censored, serialized form in The Graphic, early readers and critics were not ready for the full novel’s portrayal of female sexuality, religious skepticism, and scandalous violence. It is a work filled with beautiful evocations of landscape and horrific descriptions of deaths, with acute psychological insight as well as the sense that individual psychology matters little when confronted with an impervious universe. The contemporary readers were right on one count: reading Tess for the first time is truly a disturbing experience. The novel tells the story of Tess Durbyfield, the passionate daughter of a tippling peddler and his simple, forgiving wife. After the family discovers their connection to the previously noble, now decrepit D’Urberville family, Tess is sent off to the D’Urberville mansion, a house owned by a nouveau riche family who has legally changed its name to D’Urberville but has no real connection to the ancient clan. While Tess’s ostensible purpose is to tend to the blind Mrs. D’Urberville’s collection of birds, her family really hopes that she can ensnare Alec D’Urberville, Mrs. D’Urberville’s lascivious son, as her husband and thus remove her family from rural poverty. After repeatedly rebuffing Alec’s advances, Tess is raped and conceives a child. Leaving the mansion and returning to her family, Tess has a son who she names Sorrow; he dies shortly after birth but not before Tess herself baptizes him. She eventually falls passionately in love with and marries Angel Clare, the fastidious, unbelieving son of an evangelical preacher. When Tess reveals her previous sexual history on their wedding night, Angel abandons his wife, moving to Brazil to try his hand at farming and leaving Tess to make her own way by working on various...
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