This is probably Hardy’s most famous novel, centred around one of the most well-known characters in all of 19th century literature. At a basic level of reading, this is the tale of a girl who has been wronged and her struggle to find for herself something resembling a normal life. There are some similarities with Hardy’s earlier work, The Mayor of Casterbridge, only where Michael Henchard was the perpetrator who later had his past catch up with him, Tess is very much the victim but who, in the eyes of the society she inhabits, is a pariah for what has happened to her.
One of the main themes of the book is forgiveness, but it is also a comment on Victorian moralism and pietist hegemony in the quasi-religious society at the time. The key question posed is whether or not Tess really did anything wrong that required forgiveness. In the end, she only committed one wrongful act and paid the price for that. More than that, there is also the tale of discovery and redemption for Angel Clare, who discovers that his unforgiveness towards Tess is unfounded and that his love for her can conquer any obstruction in their way.
The book is beautifully written and captures the spirit of the age perfectly. Over a hundred years since it was written, it still stands as one of the greatest works of literature in the English language.