Note: There will be spoilers
in this review; one cannot talk about Tess of the D'Urbervilles
without discussing its tragic plot.Tess
has been a breath of fresh air in my literary choices lately. Before reading this novel by Thomas Hardy, I thought I had read all of the most depressing novels in literary history; boy was I wrong. Hardy constructed his literary anti-heroine out of depression and affliction; he placed her in a time of misogyny and hypocrisy. If Tragedy and Melancholy were to procreate, Tess would be their offspring. She is a pitiable creature bounded by the broken fabrics of fate.
The whole tragic story of Tess
started because Tess' simple father, John Durbeyfield, discovered he is of the d'Urberville bloodline—a once respected and revered ancient family. To think that this one ripple of information caused a tidal wave of destruction in Tess' life is astounding. If Tess' father had never discovered this, Tess would probably end up living a happy mediocre life; but things couldn't be that easy for Tess Durbeyfield.
When Tess has to eventually seek out her living "relatives" because of a tragic event, she meets Alec d'Urberville; Alec is my most hated literary character ever. His raping of Tess prodigiously inflicted the depths of my pathos; my emotions were altered so greatly that I wanted to jump into the novel and give Tess a huge hug. When Alec raped Tess, he stole more than Tess' innocence; he robbed her of her faith in humanity. Not only is this scene tragic, but it is also subtle; if somebody hadn't told me Tess was raped, I would have never guessed she was. I also noticed in this passage—which I'm about to share with you—a hint of Hardy's loss of God:
D’Urberville stooped and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears. . . . But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.
Hardy wanted to show us with this scene that there are just some unknowable forces in our lives that we cannot control. Whether I believe that or not doesn’t matter; the way Hardy presented the idea should be applauded.
From this scene I also had an epiphany: even though Alec raped Tess, she is still as pure as the day she was born. I come to this fact because of the novel’s subtitle: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented
. Even though Alec took Tess’ innocence, he could never take her purity with his malicious and insidious actions. Purity is an eternal substance you give up on your own will; it can never be stolen.
In the next scene, there is a quote that I revere: “It was beautiful to Tess today, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing
, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.” Wherever there is good in the world, there will always be an evil and insidious presence waiting to corrupt it. The good people in the world must stay obdurate, or else evil will prevail.
What really frustrated me throughout the novel were Tess’ subsequent actions after this tragic scene. She digs herself deeper and deeper into an abyss of misfortune with her malleable mind. Her way of thinking is shaped by her ancient d’Urberville family’s motto: “It was to be.” Instead of retaliating against fate, she seems to accept it; instead of exposing Alec’s wily actions, she decides to only tell two people—who did nothing to bring Alec to justice; instead of standing up to her future husband Angel’s ludicrous and unjust thoughts, she tends to break down and accept his cynical attacks; and instead of learning from her past and becoming stronger from it, she stays myopic, which estranges her from her soul.
Now to discuss the infamous end of the novel. Whereas most people detest the ending because of its epic tragedy, I tend to love it and hate it at the same time. Since Tess murders Alec and administers justice, she is able to allow herself to blossom; she is finally unfettered from his malevolent presence. I am even content when she is executed for her murdering of Alec. What really infuriates me are two things. The first is Tess’ brevity of happiness. When she finally liberates herself from Alec, she gets to experience sublime happiness with the metamorphosed Angel; this tragic creature—who throughout her whole life experiences wrong doings and depression—finally gets to be happy. But only after a couple of days of being happy, her life is cut short. If she had been executed many years later for murdering Alec, I would have been all right with it; but because she only gets a few moments of ecstasy in her life, I feel so much empathy towards her. Secondly, when I found out Angel married Tess’ sister, I wanted to hurl the novel across the room. I can’t even create words to express how mad I was at this.
But now in retrospect, I find the tragic ending is apt. The majority of the novel is full of melancholy, so why shouldn’t the end be just as tragic? Hardy sure knows how to stir his reader’s emotions.
As a final thought, I want to congratulate Hardy for his pastoral scenes. Hardy transports me from a world of urbanity and modernization to a world with undulating hills, grazing animals, and hazy atmospheres. I am tempted to purchase a house in a rural area in the future, where I can ultimately harmonize with nature and be transported to Hardy’s idealized world. If only Wessex were a real place.