Tess of the D’Urbervilles

September 25, 2009 at 12:00 am 1 comment

“I feel indignant with you for talking to me like this, when you know–when you know what harm you’ve done to me! You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted! Out upon such–I don’t believe in you–I hate it!”
Reasons I loved this book:
1) Tess would have been a really kick-ass heroine if written in a different time period. As it is, she’s still pretty amazing, though trapped by her social status, her parents’ unwittingly pushing her toward danger and then blaming her when her reputation is ruined as a result, her love for one man but seduction/rape by another, etc.
Tess is certainly not the only character to be trapped by circumstance and destroyed through no fault of her own — Nancy in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist comes to mind. However, Tess is different, as she never loses an opportunity to tell her rapist, her husband, or the reader exactly how pissed off she is at any given moment.
2) Thomas Hardy is a genius when it comes to making scenery work for him. I’ve had discussions in class before about an author’s use of landscape to enhance the plot or shed light on the characters, but I didn’t really get what that meant until now. Hardy has a gift for painting a scene, making the reader see bucolic pastures, rushing rivers, tattered and half-abandoned towns, and shabby cottages too small for their numbers of inhabitants.
As for the scenery’s role in the story, one particular scene will serve as an example. Tess’s husband sleepwalks and ends up carrying her to a river near where they are staying. Hardy describes how the river parts into two streams at several points in its path, only to rejoin on the other side even deeper and more wild than before. Tess and her husband have also parted and rejoined several times before this particular moment, and through Hardy’s description of the river, the reader is assured that this will continue to be the case. At the same time, the wild rushing of the river reveals the depths of emotion the characters are experiencing, which had been concealed before. It’s a brilliant scene, and there are many more like it.
3) The novel is perfectly tragic. Hardy goes to every length to explain how even being a beautiful dairymaid can be the worst kind of tragedy there is. Even things that would otherwise seem like advantages, such as an old family name, wealthy cousins, and a willingness to help one’s family can turn into contributors to one’s destruction, if that one happens to be a woman. Not a single woman escapes entirely unscathed in this novel, and their injuries are all due to the unfair treatment they receive at the hands of men.
While that might sound like Hardy’s tragic women are helpless creatures, stumbling into trouble because they don’t know any better, that is hardly the case. The tragedy here is that these women are all independent: they work, they earn their own livings, they are physically strong, and they are generally emotionally supportive of one another. The tragedy is that despite their strengths, they are still injured by unthinking men, who drive them to alcoholism, depression, and even murder by the end.
This post simply does not do justice to the awesomeness of this novel. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of those books that makes me want to teach, if only because then I’d have a captive audience to discuss every nuance with for about three hours a week. I highly recommend reading this book for yourself, reading slowly and carefully and savoring every chapter — it’s definitely worth the time and effort.
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Entry filed under: Classics. Tags: , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  September 26, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Lovely review. Sheryl has been urging me to give Hardy a try all summer, actually, and this really makes me want to read Tess!

    Reply

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