Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tess, Tess, and more Tess

Tess of the D'Urbervilles:

A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented

by Thomas Hardy


Normally, I will avoid spoilers on this blog, but as I tried to decide what to say about Tess I came to the conclusion that the best discussion on this book must include the whole book. Hopefully, being such a classic work of literature, most have either read it or have heard how it ends. Also, this blog got kind of long on me. I won't always be this long-winded but I had a lot of thoughts on Tess. Forgive me!


Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the story of a young woman named Tess Durbeyfield whose (poor working class) family discovers that they are descendents of a once great and rich family (the D'Urbervilles). Tess cares very little about the discovery, but her parents are thrilled and determined to use the knowledge to better their situation in life. They send her to visit some existing D'Urbervilles and claim kin, hoping to start their family on a path to better times. Instead, Tess herself starts down a path that leads to her complete ruination.

She begins to work for the D'Urbervilles, caring for their chickens. While there, she gets to know Alec D'Urberville (hereafter referred to as "jerk-face Alec") who - to put it delicately - robs her of her virtue. Tess returns home a complete mess. She bears a child, who dies shortly afterwards (and never contacts jerk-face about the baby - which I don't blame her for). After a short period, she leaves home again to be a dairymaid. She meets Angel Clare, an idealistic young gentleman who is trying to learn the art of farming. They fall in love and despite Tess's guilt about her past - and her attempts to inform Angel about it - they get married without Angel knowing the truth. After they get married, Tess confesses, and an infuriated Angel abandons Tess to go establish a farm in Brazil.

In the meantime, a hurt but too-proud-to-ask-for-monetary-help-from-the-in-laws Tess finds work at a farm under brutal conditions. None other than jerk-face Alec shows up, deciding he's madly in love with Tess. He begs her to come live with him as his mistress. Eventually he coerces her into doing so. She gives in mainly to help her now-widowed mother and multiple siblings. Of course Angel realizes how wrong he was, returns, seeks out Tess and is turned away by her. Tess finally snaps. She's lost the man she loves and can't bear to live with the man she hates, so she kills jerk-face Alec and runs to catch up with Angel. Angel is shocked but runs from the police with Tess. Eventually, though, they are caught and Tess is sentenced to death.

Those are the facts. Now let's talk.

No doubt about it, Tess's story is disturbing. Thomas Hardy subtitled his book "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented" and I agree with him. Aside from her one act of violence, as I read the book I couldn't help but agree with Tess's every move. In my mind I viewed her as pure. Her intentions were always good. That's what maybe makes this story so disturbing. She's not a villain with a clear tragic flaw. Not a "Hi, my name is Voldemort and I'm incapable of understanding love." If Tess had a tragic flaw, it would be being a victim or striving to do the right thing. Which really doesn't count. It makes a person wonder, could I become like that, if the wrong circumstances occurred?

It reminds me of the story of Oedipus, who tries to avoid an oracle's prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, but ends up doing so in the end (thanks to a mix-up at birth which made him confused as to who his parents really were). Is the world really out to get us? Is it really inevitable that some people will destroy themselves even if they are trying their best to do the right thing? This is where I actually find Tess's story to be comforting. Why? Because I don't personally believe it to be possible. Forgive me for waxing spiritual for a moment. I do believe that there is a God who love us and that we are His children. I do believe in a certain scripture in Corinthians that promises us we will not be tried more than we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). What a relief! I got the feeling that Hardy does not believe in God. I don't know, maybe because all three main characters embrace religion, only to completely discard it at various points of the book. I'm just grateful that I am blessed with my Christian convictions.

Let's look at Tess from a different angle. In reading a bit more about Thomas Hardy, I discovered that as well as being a naturalist, he was also a nature-lover. He was very anti the modernization of the world. Looking at Tess through his perspective I spotted an amazing amount of connections to nature in his book. Almost every major event in the story takes place out of doors. We have woods, farms, cows, chickens, birds, and rivers. When Angel first falls in love with Tess, her beauty moves him to call her Artemis (goddess of the hunt and the moon) and Demeter (mother of Persephone, whose sorrow about her daughter being with Hades during the winter is the "real" reason the seasons change.) The first time we meet Tess, she's doing a May Day dance, and the last time we see her she's laying down on an altar at Stonehenge, tired from running from the police (May Day and Stonehenge = serious paganism and nature worship). There are many other such details as well. I stumbled on an opinion online that some believe Thomas Hardy was writing as if Tess were the earth herself. Think about it... The earth being robbed of her innocence, being forsaken by those who profess to love her...I can see it. Not that the story is less tragic after we dehumanize it.

To sum up, Tess is some heavy lit. It's not my usual read. I disliked the story itself, but loved how much it make me think after I'd finished it.

Coming next, something significantly lighter (with a rather shorter review, I'd guess). Inkdeath! I'm almost finished.

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