A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess is just a humble milkmaid when the local landowner has his wicked way. Her new beau, the smarmy Angel Clare, is none too pleased when he finds out she’s already been deflowered. What is a girl to do? Bloody revenge of course, and an ending to touch the hardest of hearts.

Pulp! The Classics is an inspired idea. Who wouldn’t want to read irreverent re-tellings of classic literature that highlight their universal–and therefore, potentially lowbrow–themes? After all, with slightly different execution, Hamlet is just a revenge story, The Great Gatsby is just a crime thriller, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a forebear to Pineapple Express.

And maybe one could argue that this Tess of the D’Urbervilles cover proves a similar theorem: without Hardy’s sensitive and socially conscious artistry, Tess is nothing more than exploitative erotica. But this cover isn’t just oversimplifying the book’s themes, as the other covers in the series do; it’s actively (and offensively) reversing them. “She’s no angel”?? Tess is about a compassionate, highly moral young woman who is raped, loses her child, and is unfairly ostracized (and then executed) as a result of hypocritical Victorian sexual mores. The subtitle of the novel is “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.” It takes its name from “the D’Urbervilles”–the noble name Tess’ father vainly tries to appropriate for their family–rather than her actual name, Tess Durbeyfield, because she possesses nobility in spite of her social standing. The entire point of the book is that she is a goddamn angel, in all the ways that count.