Tess of the dâUrbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Though now considered an important work of English literature, the book received mixed reviews when it first appeared, in part because it challenged the sexual mores of Hardyâs day.
Hardyâs writing often illustrates the âache of modernismâ, and this theme is notable in Tess, which, as one critic noted, portrays âthe energy of traditional ways and the strength of the forces that are destroying themâ. However, Marxist critic Raymond Williams questions the identification of Tess with a peasantry destroyed by industrialism. Tess is not a peasant, she is a school educated member of the rural working class: she suffers a tragedy through being thwarted, in her aspirations to rise and her desire for a good life, not by âindustrialismâ but by the landed bourgeoisie (Alec), liberal idealism (Angel) and Christian moralism in her family's village.
Another important theme of the novel is the sexual double standard to which Tess falls victim; despite being, in Hardyâs view, a truly good woman, she is despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage. Hardy plays the role of Tessâs only true friend and advocate, pointedly subtitling the book âa pure woman faithfully presented.â However, although Hardy clearly means to criticise Victorian notions of female purity, the double standard also makes the heroine's tragedy possible, and thus serves as a mechanism of Tess's broader fate. Hardy variously hints that Tess must suffer either to atone for the misdeeds of her ancestors, or to provide temporary amusement for the gods, or because she possesses some small but lethal character flaw inherited from the ancient clan.
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