Jules Bastien Lepage, Hay Making

Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Instructor: Christine Smallwood
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented is a story of seduction and betrayal. Tess, a young girl from a poor family, is used first by the wealthy Alec and then cruelly abandoned by her husband, Angel Clare. But it is also a story of landscape; work and nature; Tess’s relationship with animals; motherhood; and the hell of industrialization. Though popular with readers, the book was a scandal: both for its content, which was censored upon serialization, and its style. Henry James called it “vile,” complaining that “the pretense of ‘sexuality’ was only equalled by the absence of it, and the abomination of the language by the author’s reputation for style.” Yet today, Tess is considered Hardy’s masterpiece. What was so controversial about Tess? And what, if anything, remains controversial about it now? Is it a feminist classic, an excoriation of class relations, a commentary on social scandal? How can we understand Tess of the D’Ubervilles today?

In this class, we will read Tess in its entirety, alongside contemporary and recent criticism, as we explore its treatment of what Hardy called “the ache of modernism.” We will pay special attention to Hardy’s language, and to the problems of agency and fate. How does Hardy stage Tess’s rape? What does consent look like (or not look like) in this novel? Where does Tess choose, and where do larger forces intervene to push her down? And how can we understand Hardy’s use of mythological and cosmic imagery to describe Tess’s run-of-the-mill life and all its quotidian misery? Our reading of Tess will be supplemented by essays by Charles Darwin, Raymond Williams, Émile Zola, and D.H. Lawrence; scholarship by Elaine Scarry and Alicia Christoff; and Hardy’s own poems. We will also watch Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation of Tess.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
April 19 — May 10, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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