Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
In regard to his theory of writing novels, Thomas Hardy once said that he had “just one tenet- that the story be exceptional enough to justify the telling”. Tess, an amazing story of profound complexity executed with artistic perfection, certainly meets that criterion. The spellbinding plot focuses on the issues relevant at the time of its publication in 1891: moral values, the double standard which left women helplessly suffering discrimination and abuse, declining religion, and the uncompromising social structure.
Some reviewers call Tess outdated and irrelevant… but I beg to differ. True, the rural English setting and Victorian social customs seem antiquated. How many girls get a job today milking cows or digging turnips? And it is outrageous to think about a world in which sex before marriage was disgraceful, and to be an unwed mother… unthinkable. The three primary characters, Tess, Alex, and Angel, come to life, and like a story from the bible, bring attention to the sober reality of human nature, our strengths and weaknesses, our vices and virtues. In fact, having just read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio it brings to mind his parable about how people seek life’s “truths” but then live those truths in such exaggerated form that they become grotesque. Hardy’s characters certainly did just that.
Not relevant? Even today in the 21st century many people quickly pass unwarranted judgement on others, kids still strive to please their parents, players still take advantage of naive young women, people still enter the union of marriage expecting honesty, there are still social snobs and elitists, and there are still those rare exceptions to the rule that professed love is eternal and transcends all other meaning in life.
All three primary characters had to deal with their own private demons. Tess was manipulated by her parents and seduced by Alex. Shunned by society and experiencing the tragic death of her son, she manages to pull herself together and go on with life. Her love of Angel was palpable. Her biggest fear is not of losing Angel, but of losing his respect.
Alex is a player. He lacks moral strength, integrity and harbors no guilt… and since he really doesn’t believe in God and lives selfishly for today. Alex only really wants one thing in life…. Tess.
And poor Angel…. yes I feel sympathy for him. To be true to himself he had to defy his parents and break from the family tradition of a clerical life. Turning his back on religion, he set out to prove he could still live an ethical life with high moral standards. And then to be deceived by Tess was just too much for him to deal. His lofty idealistic standards without the aid of Christian forgiveness destroyed Tess. But he suffered too… oh how he suffered.
It was interesting that Angel’s two brothers who devoted their lives to the clerical careers with the Christian church were the most unjust judgmental characters in the book.
Hardy’s tragic tale must be appreciated for the authentic flavor of the past. It’s like reading a historic documentary of rural farm life in England in the 1800’s combined with masterfully crafted lyrical prose, all in one. Who today could paint such a graphic picture of the backbreaking labor and hardship endured on the farm? And despite the dark heavy mood of the book, the ending is quite surprising. But then again – considering the characters – it couldn’t have ended any other way. Kudos to Hardy for writing this masterpiece.
Rated 4.5 Stars
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.