Sunday, 24 August 2014

'Tess of the D'Ubervilles' by Thomas Hardy (1891)

Synopsis: Tess Durbeyfield is the beautiful, eldest daughter of a poor West Country family. At the beginning of the story, Tess's father is informed by a local parson that he is descended from an aristocratic Norman family called the D'Ubervilles. After the unfortunate death of the family horse, his wife manages to persuade Tess to seek out a wealthy widow called Mrs Stoke-D'Uberville. They mistakenly believe this woman to be their relation. Tess's mother believes that if Tess "claims kin" that she'll be put in the way of genteel folk and will be bound to marry a gentleman. The very first person that Tess meets at the house is Mrs Stoke-D'Ubervilles's son, Alec. Tess's beauty immediately captivates Alec so he arranges for Tess to have a job at the family estate. Tess feels uncomfortable with Alec's attentions but is too innocent and naive to know what Alec really wants from her. Alec then takes advantage of Tess in the most shocking way possible: he takes her out into the woods one night and rapes her. Tess returns home and gives birth to Alec's child. Several months later the baby dies. Tess is then able to find work at a dairy farm. The farm is on the other side of the county where her past is unknown. Tess then meets a handsome and liberal-thinking young man called Angel Clare. Angel is a parson's son and is in training to become a gentleman farmer. Tess and Angel soon find themselves falling in love with one another and marry, but Tess is torn. Should she follow her mother's advice and keep her past a secret from her new husband or should she confide in the man that she loves?

About five years ago I read Tess of the D'Ubervilles for the first time and then watched the 2008 BBC adaptation. I was deeply moved by them both and they even me cry. In spite of its bleak and depressing tone I genuinely loved the story. I love books that stir my emotions and make me feel. Now that I've read the book for a second time I wasn't as impressed by it. It could just be that I wasn't quite in the right mood for it but by re-reading the book I found that there were a couple of things about it that jumped out at me. Re-reading this book for a second time I found that there was sometimes too much melodrama and that the pacing sometimes meandered. There are also moments when Hardy seems downright obsessed with Tess's appearance. I get it, Hardy! Tess is beautiful! Can you stop with the excessive descriptions of her lips, eyes and hair please?! These things annoyed me. However, even though I can't say I love Tess as much as I used to, I still have a great deal of respect for the book.

Readers who dislike this book tend to do so because of the tragic nature of the story but, even though I don't think Tess of the D'Ubervilles is a perfect book, I really do believe that it's a powerful, moving and thought-provoking story. Hardy's writing is rich and beautiful and full of symbolism. Yes, the book is very tragic and things don't end well for Tess but then things don't exactly end well for the bad characters in this book either. Also, the reason why this book is a tragedy is because Hardy is using it to draw attention to the plight of women and to attack the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual politics. After Tess is raped by Alec she's no longer considered to be a pure woman by the people around her but how can Tess help losing her virginity to a man who abused her? Because the story has a very obvious point to it I find the tragedy easier to handle. Tess of the D'Ubervilles was a very controversial novel at the time of its publication and I have a lot of respect for Hardy for having the nerve to write it. We need books like Tess of the D'Ubervilles in our world just as much as we need comforting, feel-good books like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.

I will admit that Tess of the D'Ubervilles can be a very hard read at times though and that the characters make me feel very angry. Tess's parents are stupid, selfish and irresponsible. Alec is an evil, manipulative rapist. Angel Clare is... argh! This might seem very strange but the character that I hate the most in this book isn't actually Alec. It's Angel. Alec might be a terrible person but at least he knows it! Angel is such a self-righteous hypocrite! Even though Angel finally learns the error of his ways at the end, and tries to make it up to his wife, I simply can't forgive him for what he did to Tess. Easily the most aggravating part of the book for me is when Angel abandons Tess and runs off to South America after he finds out about her past. This is in spite of the fact that he'd just confessed to spending two days of drunken debauchery with a woman in London that was completely consensual and which Tess had already forgiven him for! I didn't even like Angel all that much even before he walked out on Tess - as some of his beliefs seemed extremely weird to me - but his abandonment of her made me despise him. Alec abuses Tess physically but Angel abuses Tess emotionally. It's utterly tragic that Tess is unable to see Angel for who he really is.

Tess is by far and away the most sympathetic character in the entire book but even she irritated me at times. I found some of her actions more frustrating this time around than I did previously. Although Tess is in some ways very spirited and independent, she never ever calls her parents or Angel out on their treatment of her. She's too passive. And whenever Tess is with Angel she seems to completely lose herself in him. I find that very annoying in a character! But then, as frustrating as this is, Tess is still an extremely sympathetic character and I do feel that she's supposed to be flawed. I like that. I suspect that a lot of writers in Hardy's time would have probably made Tess a one-dimensional, angelic victim but Hardy doesn't do that. He even specifically points out Tess's flaws. "Well, if Tess hadn't been too proud to have gone to Angel's parents for help..." Er, that's not an exact quote!

Tess of the D'Ubervilles is by no means a perfect book and at times I do find it rather aggravating. On reflection I don't think I can call it one of my favourite books any more. But at the same time I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for it. And I thank God that women enjoy freedoms today that Victorian women could only have dreamed of.

Rating: 4/5


bookwormans said...

I also feel a much stronger dislike for Angel than for Alec. His hypocrisy is downright sickening.

So glad I finally read this book this year! So sad yet so wonderful.

Hannah said...

Ooh, I'm glad I'm not the only one! I seriously consider Angel to be one of the most unlikeable characters I've ever come across!

'Tess of the D'Ubervilles' is brilliant but I think it's one of those books that I have to be in the right mood for to appreciate it as much it deserves.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking I should re-read this, what with living in Thomas Hardy's old house and all, but I HATE Angel Clare! SO! MUCH! HATRED!!!!! (sorry House...)Has anyone read any of his other works? If so, what would you recommend?

Lianne @ said...

I love classics, but this has to be one of the few titles that I've been actively avoiding, lol. Dunno if I'll get around to reading it eventually, but I skimmed your review and greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book! :)

Hannah said...

Ms MRPles - Is that you, Michaela? Have you changed your blogger name?

Anyway, as for your question, I've read 'Far from the Madding Crowd' but didn't like it. It does have a happy ending but I found the story very unmemorable and I couldn't care for the characters. Or you could try 'Under the Greenwood Tree' perhaps - which also has a rare Thomas Hardy happy ending.

Liane - Aw, thanks! I would say that Tess is worth a read but read it when you're in a good mood. I try to read sad books when I'm feeling happy and happy books when I need some cheering up.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ms MRPles is me! I mean Michaela! In the process of starting a new blog and thought it time for a change of online presence.
I'll say this for Thomas Hardy- he really thinks up good titles for his novels. I particularly like "Far From the Madding Crowd" in that respect.