Tess of the D'Urbervilles Introduction
In A Nutshell
Welcome to Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the world's most jacked-up novel about a girl who gets raped and impregnated by her fake cousin, buries her illegitimate baby semi-illegally, gets spurned by her new husband because she tells him she was raped (nice dude, eh?), stabs the guy who raped her... and gets arrested at Stonehenge. Oh yeah, and then gets hanged.
No, we're not joking. No, we're not embellishing. Yes, this is by far the most metal-as-%@*$ synopsis of a Victorian novel ever.
You might imagine that a stab-happy chick who hangs out evading the fuzz at Stonehenge would be leather-clad, have a side business as a bounty hunter, or at least would be a total dirtbag. You'd be wrong. The titular Tess is a total sweetie who has very bad luck.
And yes—this is a Victorian novel (overrun with the Victorian Era's stifling manners, stifling corsets, and stifling social contracts), but it's also Victorian novel by Thomas Hardy.
No, not the guy who played Mad Max. Thomas Hardy was an English novelist and poet writing at the end of the 19th Century. But he did have one thing in common with Mad Max: he was a total rebel. Thomas Hardy's willingness to challenge contemporary views of sexual morality and marriage made many of his novels super-controversial when they first appeared.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles was no exception. Pearl-clutching abounded. People probably literally swooned. But get a load of how messed-up Victorian ideals were—it wasn't Hardy's willingness to describe the rape, but his defiant insistence that Tess herself remains pure in spite of it, that made the novel controversial.
Tess was first published in 1890, but Hardy had been working on it in some form or other since about 1887. The manuscript went through a lot of different versions, and the controversial bits made it difficult for him to find a publisher. The publishers who rejected the novel put it more or less bluntly, the consensus was basically that Tess (both the character and the novel) was too sexy to be put in print. The sexiness made it immoral in their eyes.
But after it first appeared as a serialized novel, Hardy was given the opportunity to publish Tess in book form. In the 1891 book version, he added the subtitle ("A Pure Woman"), defiantly defending the purity of the heroine in spite of her rape. Can we have a standing ovation for Mr. Hardy, please?
Why Should I Care?
We've come a long way since the Victorian Era. And thank goodness. We're rid of corsets and top hats. We're rid of gloves. Waltzing is no longer scandalous. Our Valentine's Day cards are significantly less creepy.
We can laugh at all that antique ridiculousness now. Oh, those hilarious Victorians! With their swooning! And their dangerous medical fads! And their double standard that dictated that men who had sex were "virile" and women who had sex were "whorish"!
Huh. That last one is actually a little too close for comfort, even now. Sure, we tend to have a more equitable understanding of sexuality these days (thanks, Magic Mike XXL!) but that double standard still persists with a vengeance.
It's a sneaky understanding, but it's still pervasive. Even heard a guy who likes sex referred to as "thirsty" and, in the same breath, heard a woman who likes sex referred to as "down"? One of those adjectives is active, friends, and one of those is passive.
Or maybe you've been made aware that hemlines above mid-thigh mean that a woman is "asking for it."
Or—and we're getting into Real Talk territory here—what about the understanding that women can say no to sex... until both parties are naked, at which point she can no longer say anything but "Yes, please"?
Which brings us back to Tess of the D'Urbervilles: a novel that not only exposes so-retrograde-it-makes-steam-come-out-of-our-ears sexual standards, but also challenges them.
That's right. Our friend Thomas Hardy started raising questions about the wholesale condemnation of women who had sexual experiences and the huge honking double standard applied to men who did the same thing.
He basically creates a literary neon sign that says "This is ridiculous and evil!" when Angel is allowed to sleep with some random woman before marriage, while Tess’s coerced near-rape is somehow supposed to mark her as damaged goods forever.
By really amplifying the beats of the traditional “fallen woman” story—complete with a totally over-the-top drawn out death—Hardy sticks his finger in the faces of his contemporaries to essentially say, "Can we move along the path of progress, please?" This attitude made Hardy insanely controversial in his day.
Reading Tess will remind you how far we've come in terms of gender equality. But it will also—and this is the bigger reason why you should care—show you that the best way to fight injustice is to set up a mirror to it. Sure, it will create controversy. But it might also bring about some much-needed change.