What does Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy say about love and sex?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy focuses on how love and sex affect the life of a young woman, Tess, from a peasant family in the fictitious English county of Wessex. 

The basic plot of the story involves Tess, a beautiful young peasant woman attracting the attention of Alec Stoke-D’Urberville, scion of a wealthy local family. Tess romantically imagines that he might marry her, but he has other things in mind as a wealthy young man of his lineage generally does not marry peasant girls. Alec rapes Tess and she becomes pregnant with his child. The child is born but dies in infancy.

Tess leaves town and gets a job at Talbothays Dairy where she meets Angel Clare. They fall in love and marry. On their wedding night Angel confesses to Tess that he is not a virgin, but has had a previous relationship. Tess reciprocates by telling Angel of her rape and pregnancy. Despite the fact that Angel voluntarily committed what was then considered the sin of fornication and that Tess was raped, Angel is horrified to discover that his wife is not a virgin, and leaves for Brazil, showing us that despite his claims to be an enlightened thinker, Angel applies a double standard to men and women in terms of sexual behavior. 

Tess is left in poverty, and Alec reappears, eventually seducing her by offering her the money she so needs. Angel returns and recoils from Tess in despair. Tess murders Alec, and has a short and brief reunion with Alec before being caught and hanged.

Sex and love both, in the novels of Hardy, have a devastating effect on the lives of the poor. In the plots of most Hardy novels, a consistent narrative arc involves peasants whose attempts to improve their lives are derailed by love and sexual desire, which descend upon them as an irresistible force. In Hardy, love across class boundaries always has dire effects on the members of the lower classes. Women tend to pay the greatest penalties for loving unwisely.

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