This time of year I work long days helping with harvest on my dad’s farm. The tractor I drive pulls into an expansive cornfield, surrounded on three sides by colorful timber. As I look down the rows I can see the orange and red leaves of the fall trees peeking over the tops of the tall corn. The work is hard, and not what I had in mind when I earned my English Education degree.
But when I took the job on my dad’s farm, the women in my family were not surprised. Growing up, I was surrounded by women who didn’t really fit into stereotypes and the social constructs to which they were expected to comply. I was taught that women could stand on their own two feet, tackle whatever challenge faced them, and make their own decisions. When life presents circumstances where it’s best to work as a farm-hand, you do what you have to do.
Such was my personal context as I dove into Tess of the D’urbervilles. The novel has been on my need-to-read list since college. I knew the story was going to be good, but I had no idea the setting and the heroine would be so relatable for me. I did not expect Tess to be a farm girl and for Hardy to appreciate and celebrate nature the way he does. I was pleasantly surprised.
But I was also surprised when I found myself wishing Tess would just go along with society’s demands. If she just did what was expected of her, she would avoid so much rejection and exclusion.
Wait. I was raised to know better. My impulse disgusted me, and I sheepishly saw how easy it is to be drawn into the mainstream when society’s pull is so powerful.
Thankfully, Hardy portrays Tess as she should be portrayed: Not giving into the unreasonable demands of society. But instead as a woman of strength.. and a life of value.
“Tess was not an insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life – a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself.”
About the Book
Tess of the D’urbervilles is one of Thomas Hardy’s last novels, written with the intention of causing a bit of a stir among the middle class. As the story opens, Tess is around the age of 16, the oldest of a slew of children to John and Joan Durbeyfield. Durbeyfield is the family’s last name, but the story opens with John discovering that his family name actually had been dumbed down from the powerful and esteemed family name D’urberville. This causes his pride to soar and while he was already prone to laziness and drinking, now he is convinced that manual labor is beneath him. Unfortunately, manual labor is exactly his vocation and here the story really begins as we watch Tess shoulder the responsibility of providing sustenance for her family.
Tess is not so simple as her parents, but does inherit a bit of pride. This is exactly what Alec D’urberville is facing when he thinks he can sweep in and seduce the beautiful, hardworking Tess. She has been sent by her family to his to ask for a bit of “family” compassion and hopefully some work. Alec and his mother are financially well-off and offer her a job, which she takes. But she does not take so kindly to Alec’s advances. Her refusals surprise and annoy him – “You are mighty sensitive for a cottage girl!” – and only drive him to desire her more.
You Really Should Read It
Hardy’s original title for the book was A Pure Woman: Faithfully Presented, but with haughty Alec around, poor Tess does not feel pure for long. You can imagine what follows. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say, Tess’ story has just begun. As she faces the reality of her situation, she does not see compromise as an option, but remains steadfast that she does not LOVE Alec, nor does she want to even look at him after what he has done to her. Her pride, self-worth, and integrity drive her to make decisions that do not bend to society’s expectations. And you won’t believe what happens next.
By the way, Hardy’s portrayal of Tess DID raise some eyebrows. In fact, it is believed the criticism he faced was a leading factor in Tess of the D’urbervilles being one of his final novels. But, I love that Hardy looked straight in the eye of the prevalent double-standard of his society, and stared it down with the realities of what women were facing as they struggled to walk the demeaning line of “purity.”
My Own Take-Away
Readers who approach Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles today, certainly do so from a different starting line than the reader who waited for each chapter in a series of installments in The Graphic (a Brit illustrated newspaper) in which it was first published in 1891.
On the other hand, there at the end of the Victorian era, as those readers faced the looming and developing Industrial Age they were faced with all sorts of questions, not the least of which involved social, moral, and religious constructs.
Hardy uses Tess’s life circumstances (and other significant characters) to show the harshness of life and question the intentions of a Creator. From the very beginning, when he introduces us to the Durbeyfield family, the author intentionally identifies this point of contention:
“…six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.”
Right away when Tess has to face the reality of her impurity, she begins to question those things she once believed faithfully. And as more unfortunate events unfold before her, the narrative sends our eyes to the sky in a pleading and bewildered cry: why?!
“She – and how many more – might have ironically said to God with Saint Augustine: ‘Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou has permitted.’”
As the book continues to unfold, characters continue to question the rationale of a God and a Savior and instead lean towards intellectual reasoning to make sense of things. Meanwhile, as a believer who knows the Truth about God’s grace and mercy, I’m reading Tess and feeling so frustrated with her religious misunderstandings. The Truth of freedom in Christ existed long before Hardy wrote his controversial novel. But it is clear as the book moves on that our beloved characters are confusing social expectations with Jesus Truth and they come to some misguided conclusions. The irony is that during the entire second half of the book, if the characters understood the truth about God’s grace and forgiveness, it would be such a different story. And maybe that is partially Hardy’s intention: that the reader recognize the damaging power of society’s powerful constructs, while reality sits nearby ignored and neglected.
As I soak up the natural beauty surrounding my farm work today, I ponder Tess’ character. Her purity, much like the countryside that surrounded her, was stolen and abandoned. Her concept of self was beaten and abused. But you will love the story of her struggle to reclaim a life of love and faithfulness. You will celebrate her strength and her pride as she seeks to hold on to the truths she seems to know deep down inside.
Bonus Reading and Resources
Having a little bit of background on the world of agriculture in the mid-late 1800’s, is a bonus for understanding the setting of this book. Check out this article on Nineteenth Century Britain blog.
Read the Wikipedia article about the novel and Thomas Hardy for some insight too.
Angie has been blogging since 2008 and is a regular speaker at local women’s events, providing encouraging messages of God’s presence in our daily lives. In a life before 3 kids she taught high school English. Now she works part-time on her dad’s farm and manages her family of 5 with her hard-working husband. They live on 3 acres in rural IL where she continues to write devotions after the kids go to bed. Read about her adventures and find encouragement on her blog Home Building at www.angiejeanwagner.com.