“Tess of the D’Urbervilles” — Thomas Hardy

“Tess of the D’Urbervilles” — Thomas Hardy

*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*

There is one scientific principle which has somehow managed both to penetrate my impermeable-to-all-forms-of-science mind and stay there for a considerable amount of time: that of air/water resistance. Behold, a similar literary epiphany of the most ingenious kind! However hard the author attempts to push his reader towards some realisation, the stubborn side of of me will make an equally pronounced effort to resist such an effect being achieved! Naming the saintlike husband “Angel” is not particularly subtle, Hardy. I still don’t like him.

Having said that, the figure of Alec D’Urberville did have the desired effect of eliciting extreme revulsion, to the extent that I literally shivered when he reappeared and followed her around. Poor Tess.

Brief Synopsis:

Tess Durbeyfield (not a typo, I’ll have you know, but actually a misspelling of a grand ancestral family surname around which the whole plot revolves) is the victim of several unhappy twists of fate. To cut a long story short, she’s raped by a pretend relation, her baby dies, she marries the all-too-poorly-named Angel Clare for love but is then rejected because she was raped—because being raped is obviously obviously obviously all her fault how could you think anything else and it’s 100% a reflection on the innate purity of her character—, pursued again by her rapist after her husband leaves her, and is finally hanged for killing her rapist after her husband comes back. Poor Tess*.

Small Points:

♥ I had a little chuckle to myself when the surname Hardy was mentioned as one of those which had previously belonged to an extremely distinguished family. Well, at least you don’t boast about it, Thomas.

♥ To be fair, in context of the rest of the book, I’m sure this is heavily ironic, but the presence of such sentences as “you field-girls should never wear those bonnets if you wish to keep out of trouble” makes me question whether rape culture can ever be satisfactorily removed from our comparatively modern society when it has had such an established precedent as the past. I myself am newly determined to remove my bonnet—practical and attractive—no longer. Take that, societal norms.

The Big Scoop:

Hmm. What I would say is that it’s quite hard to read a book in which EVERY SINGLE SHOOT of hope, no matter how small, is plucked from the Bough of Innocent Joy to be trampled by the Heavy Feet of Misunderstanding. It’s like the Heavy Feet of Misunderstanding can’t quite decide what they want to squish and so just go ahead and stamp on everything.** The injustice of the double standard highlighted in Angel’s treatment of Tess—he admits to “plung[ing] into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger”, only to then reject Tess completely once her position as a flesh-and-blood woman rather than his ideal is revealed—is echoed in the differing views of marriage by Alec D’Urberville (only wants to marry her because he has had sex with her) and Angel himself (only wants to marry her thinking she hasn’t had sex). To my mind, Hardy criticises both of these views for reducing the woman to sexual object alone. Good on him.

While, however, this double standard of the time is certainly worth pointing out, I felt that the rest of the story was often neglected for its sake. The deflowering of Tess takes up less than a page and, to some extent, is evident for what it is only upon the appearance of her baby in the next chapter: and yet, the rest of the novel hangs on that moment. Similarly, Tess is called back home because her mother is dying…only for her mother to unexpectedly recover and her father to die instead. Yes, his heart problem has been hinted at, but the necessary deprivation of Tess’ last male relation, which provokes her ultimate succumbing to Alec’s advances, seems a little too contrived to be entirely sympathetic.

Also, was it just me or was the whole Durbeyfield/D’Urberville malarkey only important as a means of meeting Alec in the first place? (The worst kind of family reunion, as it were.) If so, the title should not have been Tess of the D’Urbervilles but something like The Ruin of Tess or even The Utter and Heartbreaking Annihilation of Everything Good in the Lives of Tess and her Whole Family. It’s catchier too.

Rating?

5. Too constantly and consistently sad to be overly troubling, as a passive acceptance (that the destruction of everyone was imminent and inevitable) gradually overwhelmed me.

*To the surprise of exactly no-one, “Poor Tess” was my constant mantra as I read this book. Funny that.

**All metaphors courtesy of my nimble mind. With those pseudo-Hardy random capitalisations and natural imagery, who even needs to read the book?

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