As I anticipated, this was a difficult read due to the tragic nature of the novel.
This was my fourth Hardy after Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Maddening Crowd. While I don’t think I really loved any of these novels in the way I would reread them in the future, I did enjoy them. I appreciate Hardy’s realism in all of them. His characters seem grounded and certain situations they are placed seem true to life. A lot of them suffer because of society. They books are tinged with sadness. A lot of his characters go through rough and arduous times. While Hardy is not the most difficult to read, he is not easy because of the situations he often places his characters. His writings do tend to make you consider the characters and the society they inhabit.
Years ago, I had seen the last scenes from the 1998 TV adaptation of Tess staring Justine Waddell (adore her). This was purely by accident when flipping through TV channels. I also learned the summary of the book not long after. I avoided reading this novel for the longest time because I knew the plot and ending. When I began to read it, I had forgotten many of the finer details including the ending until just pages before it happened. It was still very sad to read though.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles has the subtitle A Pure Woman faithfully presented. I liked Tess; Hardy makes you feel for her. I really like Hardy’s female characters. They have a tendency to be independent and subversive, but oppressed by Victorian society values and mores. I find Hardy is sympathetic to women and even though he puts Tess through the ringer in this novel, he is actually giving an “impression” (his word in the preface). In this novel, Hardy explores the double standard of female and male sexuality in this book.
There are two men in Tess’s life which both ruin her in their own way. Alec is extremely smarmy, unctuous, lewd, and crude. I dreaded his scenes because he would continuously manipulate, exploit, and demoralise Tess. When he does take advantage of her, it’s awful for me as a woman, even though Hardy describes it obliquely and indirectly. It’s early on in the book too, but by that time, the reader feels for Tess. She is a victim of many things in this novel.
Later in the novel, when Alec tries to change, he seriously tells Tess to not tempt him. He says it is as if it is her fault that he is such a louse. He admits she is innocent and does not mean to do it, but he still seems to blame her for his shortcomings. It shows the hypocrisy of men and society can view the woman in these situations. He also persistently chases her even after she rejects him several times, but he is obsessed with mastering her. As an aside, I actually think some men don’t really believe when a woman says no. Maybe some women are playing hard to get, but at some point, No really does mean No.
On the other side, there is Angel Clare. Now that is a character name! I think Angel is callow and his own plot shows progression and his own wrong thinking. His wronging of Tess is somewhat understandable in light of his naivety, but it showcases how he is a man of his time as well. He is so educated that he builds Tess up to this mythic ideal, but his warped view of her also breaks down his projection and their relationship. I do wonder about his future beyond the novel. At times, I think Angel was less of a viable character, but then again, Tess is the real star of the book.
The narrator implies that the events in Tess’s life is fatalistic. Hardy writes that he did not write the book as an “argument”. There is an implication that Tess’s lineage from the ill fated d’Urbervilles sealed her fate, but I also think her powerlessness had something to do with it. She did her best to improve on her life, but was thwarted by her own circumstances and by both men. She is so broken down by all that happens by the end of the novel. It’s a struggle for her and for the reader, and the ending is a relief for both her and us.
The prose is well written. Hardy is one of the best writers of the pastoral and ruralism. He places emphasis on nature in his character’s lives and in the settings and descriptions. He is a Victorian, but he has a lot of the themes of the modernists too. Also, he was a writer of both prose and verse. It is not a surprise that he gave up novels altogether and wrote only verse later in his life.
In conclusion, I really liked this book when I read, but I won’t ever reread it if I can help it. I think it’s thought provoking especially if you are a woman. I rank it with Jude the Obscure (also a supremely depressing read) as one of the best of Hardy’s works. Incidentally, this book review is one of the longest I have ever written for a blog.
Read June 10th, 2012.