Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Approx. 168,000 words
On the evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged gentleman was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.
You could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.
"Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says, some women may feel?"
In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say "See!" to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply "Here!" to a body's cry o "Where?"
"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!"
As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.
Tess the too pure
When Tess of the D'Urbervilles first came out in book form in late 1891, it was in equal parts hailed as Thomas Hardy's masterpiece and condemned as a moral outrage. The latter opinion was due mainly to the novel's sympathetic treatment of the titular country girl who had sex—and a child—out of wedlock and went on to commit a greater offense. The outcry may have been fuelled by Hardy's insistent subtitle added to the novel after its serialization run: A Pure Woman.
Over the years, of course, the Victorian outrage has subsided and Tess has been been accepted as a heroine of English literature—more sinned against than sinning, as Tess herself says. Today it is difficult to read the novel without taking her side. To our sensibilities she appears only as a victim. Her struggle is easily identified now as being against a sexual double standard and an oppressive class system. You can throw a critique of religion in there as well.
So it's no longer necessary to declare oneself on the controversy of a century ago. The discussion is over. It's been decided: Tess is pure.
But that's part of the problem for me in getting behind the novel entirely. There's a third position to take on Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is not altogether positive.
Hardy does an amazing job bringing to life the rural world in which his most famous character lives. It's some of his best writing. And he delineates in excruciating detail every turn of her simple mind, as she strives to find solutions to the increasingly difficult situations she lands in through no fault of her own.
But could anyone be so good?
Even the scene of her becoming a fallen woman is fudged. The union, if you could call it that, of Tess and Alec D'Urberville is handled obliquely at best. In the various versions of the crucial passages (Hardy revised his works repeatedly after initial publication), the language suggests alternately rape and seduction.
True, whether the act was coerced or, to some degree, consensual should not make a difference to how we think of Tess. However you look at it, she was forced into her role. But the fuzziness on Hardy's part over this point shows, I think, his concern over allowing any hint of criticism of Tess to colour our impression of her. Tess often blames herself for what befalls her, but this too is presented as evidence of her innate goodness.
Tess in her behaviour is an almost superhumanly strong character, willing to to do backbreaking work for long hours to support her parents and siblings, willing to venture into unfamiliar surroundings to seek opportunity, willing to undergo any privation, including potential starvation, to do what she thinks right.
Yet over and over again she is victimized by others, mainly men. Which she accepts with only the meekest objections. At almost every point, any reader must want to shake her and tell her to speak up, to strike back.
A friend told me she couldn't get more than halfway through Tess of the D'Urbervilles because it just seemed like the same thing over and over: the woman getting taken advantage of. I think the novel is well worth reading through to the end, but I couldn't think of anything in the second half to convince my friend to carry on.
Despite the years of her incredibly hard life, Tess remains strikingly handsome, soft-spoken, and morally pure. Naively pure in all her thoughts, as if none of those things had happened to her. And, until nearly the end, she displays scarcely an ounce of resentment. A few considered words here and there in her own defence, but that's about it.
Until that climactic act when she gets her revenge. She is driven to it of course and none of us condemn her for it. Yet she must accept her punishment in the end.
Hardy is often summarized as a fatalist in his novels, which I prefer to interpret as being a hard-headed realist. And in Tess of the D'Urbervilles the plight of women in that society is depicted accurately, as far as I know. It's unrealistic to expect a pleasant or triumphant outcome for Tess.
It's not the acceptance of her fate that I find unrealistic, but her persistently spotless, unworldly character as she is put through her agonies. She's the eternal ingénue. It would have been much more realistic—and daring—for Hardy to present her case sympathetically while showing her change over the years into a less innocent, but authentic, young woman of her time.
This may also be Hardy's most verbose novel, which may have something to do with his idealization of its main character. I mentioned earlier his fine writing in the rural passages, but too much fine writing can kill a story. Especially the long section when Tess and Clare are engaged and in love, Hardy goes way over the top, reaching for ethereal experience in the countryside.
Hardy also seems to know a lot about the day-to-day lives of agricultural folk in southern England and he makes sure he passes it all on. In some ways, this is brilliant. His supporting characters are fully drawn as real people, not the country bumpkins or the simple, humorous folk of lesser writers viewing them from their carriages as they ride between urban centres. Remember, Tess takes place in a period when the great majority of people live in the country. The full range of humanity is offered to Hardy as subjects and he does them justice that's unusual for the time.
The description of their daily work fleshes out the narrative, giving them a rare dignity in fine literature. But Hardy goes too far in his minutiae about farming, much like Melville going on about whaling in Moby Dick.
Worse though is Hardy's propensity to moralize at length. I have not noticed this in his other novels. Perhaps it stands out more in Tess because this work so obviously deals with moral issues. Or perhaps Hardy takes the pulpit more extensively in this work to counter the expected reaction of some readers that the book is immoral. In any case, it seems that every few chapters, he has to pause and give his authorial view on what's happening, to express the anger or ethical insight that Tess does not.
If Hardy is a transitional author between the Victorian and later eras, as I've argued elsewhere, Tess of the D'Urbervilles may be his most representative novel. I appreciate its clear-eyed critique of the old world but while reading it I yearn for a more streamlined modern approach that would make the message, so to speak, implicit in the story, dialogue and characterizations.
And for a Tess more of this world.