Towards the end of last year I properly started my journey of reading the works of Thomas Hardy. Having read three of his books (Far From the Maddening Crowd, Two on a Tower and The Mayor of Casterbridge), I thought it was about time I tackled what is arguably his greatest success – Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Having really enjoyed what I had already read of Hardy, and knowing the great love so many people cherish for this book, I was excited and somewhat nervous to form my own opinions.
For those of you who don’t know, this story follows the eponymous Tess Durbeyfield, a young country girl. Through her father, Tess heralds from an ancient line, the D’Urbervilles. Yet as the last in the line of their family, they are now greatly declined in social position. Through her father’s misplaced pride, and arrogance of this discovered fact, the innocent Tess is thrown into the path of Alec, a wealth young man. The encounter leaves Tess a woman marked out by society, someone with a deadly secret to conceal. Later, after meeting Angel Clare, Tess is forced into a battle between her love and respect for Angel, and her fear of her dangerous past.
The book itself is formatted into what are called phases (e.g. Phase the First, Phase the Second), with each phases given differing titles. What most readers will immediately notice is the naming of the first two; ‘The Maiden’, and ‘Maiden No More’. As you can imagine, these titles suggest what takes place fairly quickly into the novel, highlighting why such a book proved so scandalous upon its publication. Despite this, the book does not actually start with the maiden in question, Tess, but instead with her father, as he learns of his grand ancestral history. Tess’s father is a strange character, a man who becomes obsessed and full of arrogance for his family’s former lofty place in the hierarchy of society. Through his growing obsession, and his treatment of family life, we gain a picture of just how far this respected lineage has truly fallen, not only in monetary value. Because of this, the book opens with a strong sense of foreshadowing, providing a reflection perhaps of how Tess could come to fall from grace, and lose her position as a wholesome women within society.
As I have emphasised before, Hardy’s characterisation is sublime, with his characters always growing into reality through their actions and his descriptions. This book is a further testament to this talent, but what I noticed more so here was the skillful symbolism which is used. Parts of this book are screaming out loud to be analysed and explored further. One such scene in particular is that of Tess’s first meeting with Alec. Red fruits are involved in the scene, providing Biblical allusions to Eve’s temptation by the devil into eating forbidden fruit and thus bringing sin into her life. Likewise, after giving her a rose, Tess is pricked by one on the chin, which is further reflective of the danger which beauty can conceal, as well as an allusion to what Tess receives later from Alec and the lifelong sting because of it. The whole novel contains a balanced mixture of both the obvious and the subtler undertones of symbolism, further enriching the experience.
Hardy’s novels are well known for occurring within his fictional setting of Wessex, and this book once again follows this formula. What I really enjoyed about this book however was the degree of intertextual references to places within Wessex found in his other novels. For example, Tess at one point heads to Casterbridge on a cart to sell her families wares. Another time, Weatherbury is mentioned. There was something really charming about this linking of worlds. In a way, it was reminiscent of similar tactics found in epic fantasies, and although this is nothing really like that, it did allow his world to come together in a come complete way.
This book would have been highly controversial for its contemporary readers, as it plays on late Victorian worries surrounding gender and social expectations. As a female, Tess is expected to behave a certain way which is deemed acceptable by the patriarchy. Her gender defines her, and limits her position within society. At no point should Tess be allowed to subvert the genders and cross into a more masculine role. As we can now see, the hypocrisies of this period were unbelievable, with the men given much more of a license to sexual freedom, as well as freedom in general. Yet, as readers will experience, society deems Tess as spoiled after various circumstances, even when these are beyond her control and she is under the will of a man. A line written within the book which really struck me, and still does now, states how :
‘The greater the sinner the greater the saint’ (p. 364).
A man could be excused for his sins,growing greater for his regret; not, however, can such a woman as Tess. As Hardy writes, ‘He who had wrought her undoing was now on the side of the spirit, while she remained unregenerate’ (p. 365).
What makes the idea of this story all the more compelling to me is that fact that Hardy gave it the subtitle of ‘A Pure Woman’. By doing this, Hardy, a male writer, makes it fairly obvious where his view of things stand, and how he does not agree with the limitations which are imposed on Tess. If I didn’t already think so highly of Hardy’s writing and ideas, this really would have swayed things in favour of him. The novel is a string of instances where Tess if failed by the patriarchy. Firstly, by Alec, secondly through societies reactions to her past, then by the man she loves, and even in a way by the Law at the novels conclusion. In Hardy, we see a man attempting to rectify this somewhat.
I know that Angle Clare is held up as a bit of a romantic hero by many, but he is by no means a perfect character. Angel, as are the rest of the characters, are extremely flawed in their actions. There were some many points where I could have screamed at him to become more than a man weighed down by the oppression of society. There were so many times where I could not believe the hypocrisy which Angel occasionally represents. Hardy himself was fully prepared to recognise his characters faults, writing of Tess’s unshakable faith in her husband that ‘the most perfect man could hardly have deserved, much less her husband’ (p. 381.). By the end of the novel, I had definitely mellowed towards Angle, and that makes the book all the more powerful, showing how things are often just too little too late to arrive.
Although they are side characters, I found Izzy and Marian, two women Tess becomes connected with, to be enjoyably complex. On the one hand, they can epitomise the worst traits associated within women, including jealousy when a mutual love interest is concerned. Hardy writes instances of this, and makes clear the rivalry which can often exist. Yet even with this, he allows these women to push past these stereotypes, proving that they are capable of holding such feelings whilst also recognising what they owe to their own sex, and the sacrifices they can make to help those who could be their competitors. Like Angel, these characters are flawed, but all the more realistic because of it.
One of the things which I believe makes this book so successful is the fact that we encounter early on such a dramatic moment. Rather than building and building the plot until we are hit with something, this crucial moment is achieved very quickly, which immediately draws us into Tess’s life. Even though such a dramatic moment occurs so soon, Hardy effortlessly sustains interest because as a reader you are desperate to know the outcomes of such an event. Of course, it is hard to talk about the effects produced by this book without alluding to its conclusion. As much as parts of me hated the ending, and the emotions it conjured within me, I can fully support the author’s choice in making this decision. To truly capture the essence of society, in all its ugly glory, the ending needed to happen, it needed to draw readers in and break their fictionalised world apart.
This book, in all of its tragic glory, really did envelope me. It is a story of love, a story of innocence lost and redemption gained . . . but at what cost? It scrutinises the ideas of fate, and the ways in which small differences can often so drastically alter the end result. It is a book which, although having a finite ending, shows readers the possibilities for different options, for a world which could be so different. I think if you love or have ever loved, this book will resonate deeply with you. Even after having the ending of this book spoilt for me, I still felt just as effected by the outcome, which is a real testament to the skill of Thomas Hardy.
What are your thoughts on this book?
Publisher: Penguin English Library