I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and completing The Return of the Native last summer only whetted my appetite for some more Hardy. If you don’t know what Tess of the d’Urbervilles is about, then you must have somehow managed to avoid, like I did, any spoilers for a text widely studied across the English-speaking world and celebrated as Hardy’s greatest work. I’m glad I came to the novel with fresh eyes.
This is, as ever with my posts about canonical texts, less a review and more simply a collection of thoughts and experiences relating to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It is equally my ode to the beauty of Hardy and an attempt to cling onto a degree of analysing literary works and characters.
Tess’ story is one of degradation and redemption, one of hardship and endurance, love and loss. Set to one of Hardy’s infamous and beautifully depicted rural backdrops, where the everyday details of the lower classes are brought to life in great detail, Tess of the d’Urbervilles questions the sexual politics of the late nineteenth century, as the Victorian era drew to a close; Tess’ treatment as a fallen woman is felt only more poignantly to a modern day female reader.
Discussing the novel with a friend equally as passionate about Tess’ downfall, we couldn’t decide who had treated Tess worse: Alec or Angel? For although Alec’s actions are undoubtedly unforgivable, and his subsequent increasing obsession with Tess more than a little perturbing, he does at least attempt to redeem himself by making her his wife, or, at least, a wife-like figure. (He is also, interestingly enough, repeatedly symbolised as the devil). Alec is completely aware of his mistreatment of Tess, whilst Angel seems to spend a large proportion of the novel unaware of his own follies and lounging around in his supposed moral superiority (despite the fact that technically, he too is as impure as Tess herself). Hardy allows the reader to fall in love with Angel just as Tess does – as he carries her over rivers and insists upon her perfection and purity – and then to slowly learn to despise him as he abandons her in light of her revelation. I certainly did not wholly celebrate a happy reunion with Angel and Tess at the end of the novel, simply because she had been treated too badly by both men, but it was undoubtedly the ending Tess longed for, and Hardy manages to give her this, as well as her own redemption for her actions.
There’s something about Hardy’s writing style which grips me, and it’s strange because it’s not the easiest of reads and it’s full of detailed description which I usually only vaguely skim over. His characters are rounded and flawed and I simultaneously fell in love with Tess’ fight and optimism, and despised her naivety and attachment to a man who, in my opinion, did not deserve her. I’m sure there is much more Hardy upon my literary horizons, poetry and prose, and I’m honestly just thankful that I got to read such a wonderful book outside of an educational context.
“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”