Author: Thomas Hardy
Length: (editions vary) 592 pages
Notes: This is set in the same universe as many of the other Wessex novels (Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd, etc)
The novel opens in rural, agrarian England of the nineteenth century--poor, uneducated, and in the midst of a summer celebration. The father of one of the girls dancing is told by the local parson--p'son, according to many characters--that he and his family, the lowly Durbeyfields, are in fact direct descendants of the d'Urbervilles, who were once a powerful family. As soon as the elder Durbeyfields are aware of this and that a rich family nearby are named d'Urberville, they send Tess, their daughter, to meet them and see what can be done. Tess' father is frequently shiftless and drinks what he has, and so the family is always in need of money.
Tess does find work at the d'Urberville mansion, though she does not know that Alec d'Urberville and his mother are not kin--they took an old surname in an effort to distance themselves from the past. One night as Tess is returning from a village gathering (she has moved to the estate), she is 'saved' from a potentially brewing fight between her and another woman from the estate by Alec. He rides aimlessly along, stopping in the middle of the wood. In the middle of the swirling fog and mist, the reader is left to decide (in the words of Wikipedia, no less) whether Tess was seduced or raped.
I knew the ending to this (I'd read this book before), but I had not grasped the implications at the time. It is a story that leaves you quite ready to believe that the world is hostile and cruel; this book is shelved as tragedy. All of the characters are flawed, but Tess stands out as perhaps the really only good character--not weak like Fanny Price (I know, opinions differ). She receives the full brunt of the shaming that comes from having children out of wedlock, but she continues on. Almost all the characters are distinctive, and many of them are symbolic--Tess is purity, of course, but also the unsophisticated and kind peasant.
I wish I could throttle Alec d'Urberville, preferably while he was talking to Tess, and perhaps shake Angel Clare--the vicious missed opportunities and misunderstandings are painfully important. If only the book had ended in the middle (as he is describing the events at Talbothay's dairy), it would have been a sweet little story; by extending past that and adding the latter half, Hardy took what might have been any run of the mill book about finding true love into a novel that stands out. It is the tragedy that makes this book astonishing--and at the time, the candid descriptions of rape and its implications for the victim shocked Victorian society.
The ending--oh, God, the ending--anything less striking would have been chickening out, but the desire to wail: "Why?!" doesn't go away.