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Published in 1891, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles is now considered a masterpiece . In its day, however, the book was seen as shocking.
An early examination of rape and domestic abuse, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the story of Tess Derbeyfield, a simple country girl.
After a series of misfortunes, Tess is hired by the wealthy D’Urberville family but raped by their son Alec. The following summer she delivers a sickly infant who dies shortly after.
Tess later finds employment as a milkmaid. She falls in love with a farmer, Angel Clare, who is unaware of her past.
Since Angel confesses on their wedding night that he once had a brief affair, Tess tells him about the rape. This does not go over well. Angel views her as “impure”, and abandons her to try farming overseas.
When Angel returns to England, he finds that destitute circumstances have forced Tess to accept the proposition of her rapist, Alec D’Urberville, that they live together. Tess and Alec then argue, and she stabs him to death.
Tess and Angel now share a poignant if brief interlude. The couple’s final night together takes place at Stonehenge. Tess’ words there at dawn are, “I am ready.” She is captured by police and executed.
In Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy exposed the hypocrisy of Victorian morality . The appearance of respectability mattered more than genuine integrity.
The novel reveals the 19th Century sexual double standard with men admired for their philandering (indeed, exempt from any consequences of their promiscuity), but women blamed for their vulnerability to rape and seduction.
Meanwhile, domestic abuse was accepted as the female lot in life — a cross to be borne in silence.
Though Hardy does not excuse her actions, he does portray Tess as a sympathetic character. We are made aware of the pressures placed on her by family obligations and changing economic times, and the limited options available to her.
Sadly, in many parts of the world, Tess’ story remains all too relevant today.
 Wikipedia, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tess_of_the_d%27Urbervilles.
 Encyclopedia.com, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tess-durbervilles#A.
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