Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a great success, marred only by controversy over its frank treatment of sex and its pessimistic view of life. After a little over a year, more than twenty thousand copies of the book had been sold. Undoubtedly, sales were inflated by the curious who wanted to know what the controversy was about. Several foreign language editions were printed as well. While a popular success, critical opinion was mixed, with commentary ranging from highest praise to deepest contempt. Both the Anthenaeum and the London Times highly recommended the novel, but for different reasons. A critic in Anthenaeum not only found the novel "well in front of Mr. Hardy's previous work," but also praised the novelist's creation of Tess, "a credible, sympathetic creature." The same critic, however, did regret Hardy's excessive "use of scientific and ecclesiastical terminology." A reviewer in Times was moved by the story and praised Hardy's effective criticism of Victorian moral standards. On the negative side, a critic in Saturday Review, while identifying Tess as the most true to life character in the novel, found the other characters "stagy" or "farcical." He objected to what he saw as Hardy's excessive concern with descriptions of Tess's appealing physical attributes and deemed the story improbable. The critic admitted that even with a poor story, good technique could have saved the novel, but "Hardy, it must be conceded, tells an unpleasant story in a very unpleasant way." Public sentiment was such, however, that the those who disliked the novel felt outnumbered. In Longman's magazine, Andrew Lang found the characters in Tess to be "far from plausible," the story "beyond...belief," and Hardy's use of "psychological terminology," unskillful, but resigned himself to the fact that "on all sides—not only from the essays of reviewers, but from the spoken opinions of the most various kinds of readers—one learns that Tess is a masterpiece."

According to novelist and critic Albert Guerard, Hardy critics before 1940 seemed to chide Hardy for many of the same points of style that later reviewers found admirable. That year the Southern Review celebrated the centennial of Hardy's birth with the publication of an issue devoted entirely to the author. Earlier critics such as Lang and Lionel Johnson, who wrote the first book length critique of Hardy, praise his ability to describe the country folk of Wessex, while condemning his fatalistic view of life. Guerard states in his introduction to Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, that, beginning with the essays in the Southern Review, modern reviewers enjoy Hardy because of his pessimism; they find Hardy's "mismatched destinies, the darkness of the physical and moral landscapes, the awareness of dwindling energies, and the sense of man's appalling limitations... peculiarly modern." One Southern Review contributor, Donald Davidson, discovers in the fatalism of the novel, as well as in Hardy's controversial closing paragraph about "The President of the Immortals," reflections of Hardy's interest in the folk ballads of his native Dorset Davidson contends that fateful coincidences are comparable to the supernatural occurrences that frequently occur in the ballads and that Hardy's closing paragraph functions merely as a closing statement to the novel much like a traditional ballad ending. In Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad, John Holloway disregards Hardy's use of coincidence, saying that the scenes that might seem unrealistic are out of necessity so "in order that their other dimension take meaning, their relevance to the larger rhythms of the work, shall transpire." In Tess the "larger rhythm," as Holloway sees it, is in repeated identification of Tess with a hunted animal and a Darwinian vision that takes Tess, much like a developing species, from formation, through adaptation, to ultimate extinction. Dorothy Van Ghent notes in The English Novel: Form and Function, that "in the accidentalism of Hardy's universe we can recognize the profound truth of the darkness in which life is cast, darkness both within the soul and without"

For Guerard, "Hardy the novelist is a major transitional figure between the popular moralists and popular entertainer of Victorian fiction and the serious, visionary, often symbolizing novelists of today." Other critics also place Hardy in the doorway to modernism. Harold Bloom maintains that this is especially evident in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. "It can be asserted that Hardy's novel," he writes in his introduction to Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views, "has proved to be prophetic of a sensibility by no means fully emergent in 1891. Nearly a century later, the book sometimes seems to have moments of vision that are contemporary with us." In particular, critics have reevaluated the novel m the light of new emphasis on women rights and feminist issues. As Hardy biographer Martin Seymour-Smith concludes, Hardy's novel remains one of riveting validity even one hundred years after publication. "Tess was a woman who stabbed her husband. Then, as now, in the eyes of most judges, there is one law for men who kill their wives, and quite another for women who kill their husbands." For Seymour-Smith, Tess and her pitiful treatment by the men in her life are at the core of discovering the true importance of the work. "The question raised by the novel is this: what would a woman be if she were released from male oppression and allowed to be herself?"

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