2014: ...What? (2 stars)
2016: I remember the first time I finished this book, in bed in my college dorm room with my mouth hanging open from the moment Tess declared "I have killed him!" A second reading really was necessary to process.
I think I care more for Tess than I usually care about characters, somehow. My heart aches for her in all the ways her life goes wrong. And I cheer for her because she really is a strong and mature character. She's very well-written.
Alec D'Urberville, on the other hand is sufficiently annoying infuriating, as is Angel Clare. Alec makes me want to scream when he just won't leave Tess alone. I want to smack him. But that didn't do Tess any good... And Angel with his hypocrisy and self-righteousness... Ugh. Poor Tess. I should want Tess to find a better man than Angel, but she loves him so much, I tend to want him to come to his senses instead.
In regards to Tess' experience with Alec, the writing of it frustrates me a bit. To me, up through that moment, it is very clear that Alec raped Tess. She never liked him, never showed him any affection. She blatantly wiped away his kiss. He made her very uncomfortable. Her behavior through that point gives me absolutely no reason to believe that Tess would willingly have sex with Alec. Afterward, however, the writing makes it seem more like they had been in a relationship and she had willingly slept with him, though she regretted it later. And those two interpretations just don't jive. After thinking about it, I've decided on my interpretation. I think it is kind of both of the above. I think Alec raped her. And then because of the society she lived in, after that happened, Tess felt like she belonged to Alec or was tied to him in a way. It's even said in the book that she's more married to Alec than she is to Angel. Of course, I don't believe that, but I think that would have been her thought process. So, I think that after Alec "claimed" her, she continued working at the D'Urberville estate, and probably allowed him to have sex with her again, though she still didn't want that kind of relationship with him. Until finally, she couldn't live with it anymore, and she left for home.
Through all that, it really is a surprisingly feminist book for one written by a man in the 1800's. I should read more of his work (any suggestions?). I also think this book could inspire a really good modern film adaptation.
I think my only complaint (aside from maybe the ambiguity of the rape/seduction) is that it can be quite slow, especially during Tess' employment at the dairy. I almost only brought my rating up one star because of that, but I love Tess so much and the story itself is so beautifully tragic that I rated it 4 stars.
I want to write a better review of this book. Maybe I'll edit this sometime.