Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

Spoilers be nigh.

I read this in high school (sort of), which may explain why I hated it so passionately. I think the only thing I ever read in school that I didn’t hate with a passion was Romeo and Juliet (and I was apparently very lucky about that – I understand school usually does a number on Shakespeare for people, too). I remember reading R&J upside-down in the living room armchair, enraptured by and a little drunk on the language. (The latter might have been partly because I was upside down, of course.) All I remember about Tess is the sick feeling of depression when I finished. (Which, given the circumstances, means that this was a remarkably poor choice of books for me at that moment in my life. Why did I never have a decent English teacher? Where was Robin Williams when I needed him?) I remember that, and had a vague presentiment that Tess would hang at the end of the book, but I was fixed on the idea that she must kill herself – somehow I completely forgot about the murder of Alec D’Urberville. And never have I been more delighted by a bloodstain in my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I chose audio format for this buddy read with Kim and Hayes and Simran and Jemidar (thank you, my friends!), and I’m glad I did. Not only do I think the world of Simon Vance (whose voice for Angel Clare almost seduced me into forgetting how worthless he was and made me want to forgive him. Almost), but the dialect in print was very likely one reason I loathed this book lo! those many years ago. Vance’s compassionate reading was very likely one big reason I did not loathe this book this time. His feminine voices aren’t the cringe-worthy things many male narrators produce – his Tess, light and with just the right amount of accent for whatever circumstance, became Tess for me.

The men in this book remind me of Ricky’s film about the plastic bag in American Beauty, without the beauty: a gust of wind, and the bag soars up; the air stills and the bag drops. A breath, and it skitters to one side; a draft, and it slides to the right. Every change in the wind sends these men in another direction, with another disposition – ecstatic, righteous, lust-filled, angry, depressed… sometimes several of these in one chapter. Alec D’Urberville seems to go from lusty jackass to proselytizing jackass in the blink of an eye, converting like an impressionable child based more on the demeanor of Parson Clare than on what he said – and then, of course, one look at Tess flips him right back again like a light switch: up = hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, down = creepy, creepy rapist. Angel Clare … Oh, where to begin? His treatment of Tess – and then his change of mind, and then his change back, and then back again, and his offhand devastation of Izz Huett … his flip-flopping makes your average politician look like a model of unswerving determination. The man up and sailed to Brazil on the strength of a travel agency sign. Brazil. It’s not like going to Brighton.

There is one man in the tale who has a more consistent character: Tess’s father. He’s a lazy stupid drunk, and that never changes. He seizes on a straw in the wind to – in his and his wife’s minds at least – lend countenance to his innate laziness. His concentration never wavers from the skellintons in the ancient tombs and all that is, he thinks, due him as the descendant of same. He’s an ass, and worthless as a father, a husband, and a human being, and I hate him deeply. I think I hate him more than the other two, even.

The person I don’t hate, and this shocks me, is Tess. Poor Tess. She didn’t want to be put into the position her parents shoved her into – which resulted in her rape. She certainly didn’t want anything to do with Alec D’Urberville, but unfortunately she fell asleep, poor little bint, and unfortunately he was a thorough-going bastard. Throughout the book she does the best she can to prevent situations – but it’s an ineffectual best, and she is overruled and overpowered and left bleeding by the worthless men in her life, father, “cousin”, beloved.

There were several aspects of her situation that I was surprised at, because it was as if Hardy smoothed the road for her a bit. I was surprised when the Durbeyfield neighbors did not shun Tess after the birth of the baby; I fully expected her to be spat on. They were not wholly forgiving (as witness the family’s eviction after the father dies), but much better than I expected, to her face at least. I was shocked when the baby died – I fully expected him to be a growing millstone around her neck, much harder to get past than a history including a dead child. I was surprised once more when, Izz and Retty and Marian having all also fallen in love with Angel Clare, they decided that they did not and could not hate Tess for being the chosen one, and – whatever damage they did her accidentally – all remained her friends throughout. Even Clare’s parents became more kindly disposed to her (which is made into a point against them, in a satirical way, but would have been a good thing for Tess if she could have taken advantage of it). It seems to me that a great many authors would have chosen to isolate Tess, make it their poor beleaguered lass against the world, saved only by the love of a weak man who then also turns away from her; that Hardy chose a more realistic route is a huge point in his favor.

There are times when it’s nice to have a faulty memory. I re-read this book as if it were the first time, and I’m glad of it – I had no idea how everything would turn out, and I was freed to hope for the best even while I (with that one partial memory in mind) feared the worst: I did know it was not a happily-ever-after book, but the details were drowned in the past. The language, while slightly purple in places, was beautiful; the story genuinely moved me. I could not be more amazed. (Buddy reads FTW!)


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