Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess was next:

So I decided to keep going with Thomas Hardy for a while. This seemed to be the obvious next step. It didn’t move me quite as deeply as Jude did, for some reason, but I’d have to say, objectively, that it’s just as fine a novel.

Tess is a peasant girl whose layabout father has just discovered that he is the last of the ancient noble line of the d’Urbervilles (corrupted by his time to Durbeyfield). This gives him airs, and when a sudden disaster puts them in economic difficulty, Tess finds it her responsibility to seek out a wealthier branch of the line and ask for assistance. Thus she meets Alec d’Urberville, whose father, a self-made man, had forged ties with the supposedly-defunct d’Urbervilles to give his family an air of respectability. Alec takes Tess into service, rapes her, and then she leaves him.

She goes home, where she has his baby and refuses his offer to marry her—she’s incensed at his cavalier treatment of her. The baby dies, and after about a year of seclusion, Tess realizes she’s a burden on the family and goes to work on a dairy. Here she meets Angel Clare, the third son of a very conservative parson. Angel is a freethinker who has elected to become a gentleman farmer instead of a clergyman like his father (his father won’t send him to the university since he won’t toe the line, doctrinally, so he really has no choice but to learn how to support himself); he’s at the dairy to learn that aspect of farming. Soon he falls in love with Tess (who he’s seen once before, briefly, at the beginning of the book—she remembers, but he doesn’t). He’s taken with her pure peasant virtue, and refuses to take no for an answer. She loves him, too, but knows that he’d reject her if he knew about her past, and resolves to reject him. But he prevails, finally, and then prevents her when she tries to tell him before the marriage.

Finally on the night after the wedding, they confess their past sins. He admits that he dallied with a woman in London right after he lost his faith. She forgives him frankly, and then tells of her past. He goes ballistic and leaves her, blind to his own hypocrisy.

For a year she scratches out a living, while he’s off experimenting with farming in Brazil. She becomes worse and worse off financially, while her pride prevents her from appealing to his parents, who never supported the match and to whom she’s never even been introduced. Finally Alec comes back into the picture—at first he’s a religious fanatic, having been converted by Angel’s father, but then his love (lust?) for Tess reasserts itself and he tries to get her to come with him. Finally, when she’s given up on Angel ever returning, and her father is dead and her mother and siblings made homeless, she gives in to Alec. This is when Angel chooses to come back and declare that he’s forgiven her. Too late. This drives her out of her mind, and she stabs Alec to death. She and Clare enjoy a week’s happiness on the run before the cops catch up with them at Stonehenge.

So, clearly it’s an indictment of traditional English Christian morals, which allow a man, be he a scoundrel like Alec or just a headstrong gentleman like Angel, to sin and get away with it while condemning a woman to a lifetime of shame for something she didn’t do willingly in the first place. As such, it’s a powerful book. It’s also a very perceptive look at Angel’s particular brand of hypocrisy—you can see it coming a mile away but it’s still effective when it gets there.

There are other aspects that I didn’t pick up on as readily—Hardy is allying Tess with the old pagan nature-spirit aspects of the English peasantry, those things that are prior to the Christian overlay. There are some mythological overtones that I didn’t quite get.

It’s also a detailed look at how the country ways were changing in one particular stage of the industrial revolution—he’s very detailed on farming techniques and how they affected social patterns. It’s here in particular that I could have used some notes—the Pan edition I read is a reprint of an annotated version, shorn of the actual notes—it leaves spaces where the asterisks were, and sometimes the telltale asterisks

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