The Book – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is an exquisite work of art by Thomas Hardy. When it comes to media consumption, my tastes are hardly that of a cultural elitist.
As far as novels go, I am more likely to favor lurid-covered pulp fiction rather than the socially approved literature that marks one as a reader of serious status.
All the same, I am not a complete hairy-knuckled Philistine. There are classic works that have touched me intensely so that I rejoice in their splendid perfection. This is one of those stories.
“Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang, and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.
She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly—the thought of the world’s concern at her situation—was found on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.”
The Beauty and Sadness
Thomas Hardy was a maestro of prose, not overly purple, using his descriptors with care, each clause an effective addition to what words had come before. Like most Victorian authors, he is moralistic, but his morals differed quite a bit from the accepted norms.
His themes were not as simplistic as “Be kind to the poor lest ye suffer for all eternity,” but much deeper ideas. What is love? What is marriage? What defines an honorable man or a virtuous woman? Has man set up impossible ideals that can never be obtained? Is the guiding hand of social norms more like a chokehold upon the innocent?
And so much more.
To a people in an era defined by a rigid structure, Hardy’s works were blasphemous.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles tells the doomed tale of Teresa Durbeyfield, a possible descendant of the Norman raiders of old. But Tess is no noble lady, just a poor girl from an ignoble family, her father a drunkard, and her siblings numerous. There is nothing particularly special about Tess except for a rough, sensual type of beauty. Indeed, the “hero” of the story overlooks her the first time he sees her.
From Angel Clare’s decision to ask the wrong girl to dance with him to Alec d’Urberville’s pursuit of Tess as she walked past his carriage in the dimming light, to the scene where Tess, all alone, baptizes her dying child, to humble domesticity with Angel and Tess, to the blood dripping from the ceiling in the hotel, to Tess’s fated, tragic end, all these visions together create a mesmerizing, yet, quite frankly, depressing, saga.
Why did this book stick with me? I’ve seen it in several forms, movies, miniseries, etc., so it must resonate with many others. It is a heartrending book about a nobody who was never meant for anything more than a meager existence and yet her heart ached for so much more.
It’s a story filled with “If only.”
As Tess says before her doom:
“This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much.”