When I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I was nineteen years old; every fifty pages or so I would let out a sound of frustration, slam the book shut, and fume silently with my arms crossed for a few minutes before sighing and picking it up again. Tess made me angry. Six years and a whole lot of gender studies later, this book makes me furious.
And that is a good thing.
Thomas Hardy had a habit of writing controversial novels that were difficult to get published; his work was considered obscene and publishers did not appreciate the way he questioned the dubious morality of Victorian society. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he took the familiar trope of the fallen woman and turned it on its head, not only showing the utmost sympathy for his main character, but also defiantly giving his novel the subtitle “A Pure Woman.” His book was one of the first books, if not the first, to call society out on its hypocrisy towards female sexuality and the matter of rape.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an incredibly important book and is more relevant than ever in the ongoing rape culture debate. Tess is told that she asked for it, that she dresses provocatively, that she seduces people by making eye contact. Sound familiar? Hardy put Tess through all this misery to make a point about how the Victorian conservative attitude towards female sexuality was incredibly harmful towards women, but it is eerie to see how we can still see similar struggles today. It’s difficult to read about Alec’s aggressive advances without remembering the Blurred Lines debacle of 2013, for one. Hey hey hey.
This book is at times almost unbearably painful to read and will leave you sad, frustrated, and angry.
“Fun” fact: in Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele is sent a 1891 edition of Tess by Christian before she signs her BDSM contract with him. The gift comes with notes that quote two of Hardy’s lines: “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me?” and “Ladies know what to guard against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks.” In Hardy’s book, these are the words that Tess cries out to her mother after she’s been raped. I would like you to think about what this gift implies for a minute, really let it sink in. Yeah. Not so sexy now, is it?