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Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy

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Plot Overview

Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, a rural region of southwestern England that was to become the focus of his fiction. The child of a builder, Hardy was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to John Hicks, an architect who lived in the city of Dorchester. The location would later serve as the model for Hardy’s fictional Casterbridge. Although he gave serious thought to attending university and entering the church, a struggle he would dramatize in his novel Jude the Obscure, declining religious faith and lack of money led Hardy to pursue a career in writing instead. He spent nearly a dozen years toiling in obscurity and producing unsuccessful novels and poetry. Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, was the author’s first critical and financial success. Finally able to support himself as a writer, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford later that year.

Although he built a reputation as a successful novelist, Hardy considered himself first and foremost a poet. To him, novels were primarily a means of earning a living. Like many of his contemporaries, he first published his novels in periodic installments in magazines or serial journals, and his work reflects the conventions of serialization. To ensure that readers would buy a serialized novel, writers often structured each installment to be something of a cliffhanger, which explained the convoluted, often incredible plots of many such Victorian novels. But Hardy cannot solely be labeled a Victorian novelist. Nor can he be categorized simply as a Modernist, in the tradition of writers like Virginia Woolf or D. H. Lawrence, who were determined to explode the conventions of nineteenth-century literature and build a new kind of novel in its place. In many respects, Hardy was trapped in the middle ground between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between Victorian sensibilities and more modern ones, and between tradition and innovation.

Soon after Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) was published, its sales assured Hardy’s financial future. But the novel also aroused a substantial amount of controversy. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles and other novels, Hardy demonstrates his deep sense of moral sympathy for England’s lower classes, particularly for rural women. He became famous for his compassionate, often controversial portrayal of young women victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of English social morality. Perhaps his most famous depiction of such a young woman is in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This novel and the one that followed it, Jude the Obscure (1895), engendered widespread public scandal with their comparatively frank look at the sexual hypocrisy of English society.

Hardy lived and wrote in a time of difficult social change, when England was making its slow and painful transition from an old-fashioned, agricultural nation to a modern, industrial one. Businessmen and entrepreneurs, or “new money,” joined the ranks of the social elite, as some families of the ancient aristocracy, or “old money,” faded into obscurity. Tess’s family in Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustrates this change, as Tess’s parents, the Durbeyfields, lose themselves in the fantasy of belonging to an ancient and aristocratic family, the d’Urbervilles. Hardy’s novel strongly suggests that such a family history is not only meaningless but also utterly undesirable. Hardy’s views on the subject were appalling to conservative and status-conscious British readers, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles was met in England with widespread controversy.

Hardy was frustrated by the controversy caused by his work, and he finally abandoned novel-writing altogether following Jude the Obscure. He spent the rest of his career writing poetry. Though today he is remembered somewhat more for his novels, he was an acclaimed poet in his time and was buried in the prestigious Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey following his death in 1928.

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