About five years ago I read Tess of the D'Ubervilles for the first time and then watched the 2008 BBC adaptation. I was deeply moved by them both and they even me cry. In spite of its bleak and depressing tone I genuinely loved the story. I love books that stir my emotions and make me feel. Now that I've read the book for a second time I wasn't as impressed by it. It could just be that I wasn't quite in the right mood for it but by re-reading the book I found that there were a couple of things about it that jumped out at me. Re-reading this book for a second time I found that there was sometimes too much melodrama and that the pacing sometimes meandered. There are also moments when Hardy seems downright obsessed with Tess's appearance. I get it, Hardy! Tess is beautiful! Can you stop with the excessive descriptions of her lips, eyes and hair please?! These things annoyed me. However, even though I can't say I love Tess as much as I used to, I still have a great deal of respect for the book.
Readers who dislike this book tend to do so because of the tragic nature of the story but, even though I don't think Tess of the D'Ubervilles is a perfect book, I really do believe that it's a powerful, moving and thought-provoking story. Hardy's writing is rich and beautiful and full of symbolism. Yes, the book is very tragic and things don't end well for Tess but then things don't exactly end well for the bad characters in this book either. Also, the reason why this book is a tragedy is because Hardy is using it to draw attention to the plight of women and to attack the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual politics. After Tess is raped by Alec she's no longer considered to be a pure woman by the people around her but how can Tess help losing her virginity to a man who abused her? Because the story has a very obvious point to it I find the tragedy easier to handle. Tess of the D'Ubervilles was a very controversial novel at the time of its publication and I have a lot of respect for Hardy for having the nerve to write it. We need books like Tess of the D'Ubervilles in our world just as much as we need comforting, feel-good books like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.
I will admit that Tess of the D'Ubervilles can be a very hard read at times though and that the characters make me feel very angry. Tess's parents are stupid, selfish and irresponsible. Alec is an evil, manipulative rapist. Angel Clare is... argh! This might seem very strange but the character that I hate the most in this book isn't actually Alec. It's Angel. Alec might be a terrible person but at least he knows it! Angel is such a self-righteous hypocrite! Even though Angel finally learns the error of his ways at the end, and tries to make it up to his wife, I simply can't forgive him for what he did to Tess. Easily the most aggravating part of the book for me is when Angel abandons Tess and runs off to South America after he finds out about her past. This is in spite of the fact that he'd just confessed to spending two days of drunken debauchery with a woman in London that was completely consensual and which Tess had already forgiven him for! I didn't even like Angel all that much even before he walked out on Tess - as some of his beliefs seemed extremely weird to me - but his abandonment of her made me despise him. Alec abuses Tess physically but Angel abuses Tess emotionally. It's utterly tragic that Tess is unable to see Angel for who he really is.
Tess is by far and away the most sympathetic character in the entire book but even she irritated me at times. I found some of her actions more frustrating this time around than I did previously. Although Tess is in some ways very spirited and independent, she never ever calls her parents or Angel out on their treatment of her. She's too passive. And whenever Tess is with Angel she seems to completely lose herself in him. I find that very annoying in a character! But then, as frustrating as this is, Tess is still an extremely sympathetic character and I do feel that she's supposed to be flawed. I like that. I suspect that a lot of writers in Hardy's time would have probably made Tess a one-dimensional, angelic victim but Hardy doesn't do that. He even specifically points out Tess's flaws. "Well, if Tess hadn't been too proud to have gone to Angel's parents for help..." Er, that's not an exact quote!
Tess of the D'Ubervilles is by no means a perfect book and at times I do find it rather aggravating. On reflection I don't think I can call it one of my favourite books any more. But at the same time I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for it. And I thank God that women enjoy freedoms today that Victorian women could only have dreamed of.