Why Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a classic

What we anoint as “classic” often says more about our modern sensibilities than it does about the book itself. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is no exception.

Tess is a damn good tragedy, full of pathos and cruel irony. I promise you many tears at the end, not just for poor Tess but also for the hypocritical society that inflicts so much suffering on Tess. Just being a good yarn (albeit a sad one) isn’t enough, however. It is the continuing relevance of Tess that elevates it to its lofty position in the literary canon.

Tess explores two issues we’ve struggled with ever since its publication: the human encroachment on nature and women’s place in society. Both of which are fodder for literary critics and English teachers.

The Tragedy of Nature Overthrown

Tess is perhaps the ultimate pastoral—bucolic if you want to get fancy—novel. It’s a sad ode to the forgotten countryside.

Thomas Hardy published Tess in 1891 as England—along with much of the Western world—had been upended by the Industrial Revolution. The massive urbanization has made its mark on the countryside in which Tess takes place. Even though there is little direct description of the cities teeming with people and machines, its presence is known through the description of how farm life bows to the needs of city folk.

The one concession Hardy makes to farming’s rapid industrialization is his portrayal of the grain fresher:

Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve–a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining–the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves. A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve.

— Chapter 47

This beastly mechanical creature goes on to kill a man in a burst of poetic irony that Hardy loves so much.

Through his mind-numbing depictions of farm life—from milking to clearing the fields—Hardy shows an intimacy and respect for nature. Farming and working with nature is hard but honest labor. These depictions forces the reader to ask: What happens to us as we lose touch with the earth that nourishes us? Hardy’s answer isn’t a happy one, since he’s a bit of a Negative Nellie.

How much can we forsake nature before we lose our connection to it—maybe even our humanity—is still a question we struggle with. So says the person who is typing this out on a newfangled computer and hasn’t ever plowed a field in her life.

The Tragedy of a Good Woman

For a dude in Victorian England, Thomas Hardy has earned some serious feminist cred.

Tess isn’t just any woman. She’s a damn good one. She goes to get work to help her family when their horse is killed in an accident. She stands up for her beliefs. She resists the lascivious advances of Alec D’Urberville, a libertine to end all libertines, because she’s just not that kind of girl. She confesses a dark secret that jeopardized her chance at love because of her innate honesty. She even prostitutes herself to save her family.

Every single one of those ostensibly good deeds bite her in the ass. Every one. She gets raped, abandoned by the love of her life, and forced into becoming a man’s kept woman. As such is the fate of a good woman in Hardy’s Wessex.

With his penchant for tragic irony, Hardy illustrates society’s hypocrisy when it comes to women. Although Tess has been raped—and therefore spoiled according to Victorian social norms—she is still pure of the heart and the mind. The book’s subtitle of “A Pure Woman” is no accident. We cannot say the same for the men in the book, especially Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare.

This is enough to make a modern-day feminist squee. So much oppression. So much gender injustice. So much to discuss!

As much of a downer as Tess is, it’s still shockingly relevant today. That unto itself is the ultimate downer.