Tess! Probably the Best Novel Ever Written

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891

CW: sexual assault

Stop! Go read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Or reread it if it has been a few years since your last visit to Marlott, Tantridge, Flintcomb Ash and Talbothays. You don’t need to be here. You need to be reading Tess. This book is a masterpiece. A sad, frustrating, beautiful masterpiece that will rip your heart out. I just finished rereading it and I am feeling very forlorn, but the journey was aesthetically enriching and spiritually fulfilling. When I read a particularly beautiful phrase that I want to remember and return to, I dogear the page. If you just cringed, get over it; they are my books and I can crease the pages if I want to. Tess is probably my most dogeared book. Go read it. Please.

Ok, now that we have all read Tess, let us proceed to discuss its splendor. What makes this book so great?

Style Of course, the paramount reason for loving Thomas Hardy is simply his skill as a writer. He turns a beautiful phrase. Even his lesser works have exquisite moments for the lover of a great sentence. In Tess, though, you can feel that he is more emotionally invested in the characters and the message. His skill is put to its highest use. Pretty much. I do like Far from the Madding Crowd more than Tess, but not necessarily because I think it is a better book. Simply a matter of preference. I will say, that if there is any flaw in the novel, it is that the style is not quite consistent. The segment when Angel Clare visits his parents seems like it came from a different book. But we will forgive Hardy this tiny failing, because as a whole, the novel is divine. If you have already read the book (and you have, right, or you would have stopped reading this post) you can open to a random page and read a random sentence and just marvel at how lovely it is and how perfectly it propels the reader toward Hardy’s ultimate vision.

Mood Big mood in this one. Later in life Hardy’s cynicism, atheism and bitterness at the injustice of the world took center stage in his writing. You could argue that Jude the Obscure is the more bitter and cynical text and you might be right. However, as much as I love Jude, Hardy’s tough kernel of existential despair is woven into the narrative, the characters and the plot more effectively in Tess. From the beginning he builds the feeling that Tess did not ask for or call the tragedies of her life down upon herself. For example, this description her childhood “If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them—six hapless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.” Tess’ experiences are so harsh that she comes to “hear a penal sentence in the fiat, ‘You shall be born.’” Like I said, big mood.

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Themes There are a number working together, including my favorite Brit Lit theme: paganism versus Christianity. He introduces Tess performing a May Day dance. Profligate Angel sees the women of Marlott dancing and the minister’s son cannot resist the chance to whirl about with the maidens. Later, denied the opportunity to baptize her bastard child, Tess wakes her little mystic siblings from their slumber and performs a ritual more sacred, because it is not sanctified by any judgmental, patriarchal church. That moment makes me so proud of her. Mystic, precious Tess. I am also proud of her when she writes that letter to Angel asking him “Oh why have you treated me so monstrously, Angel! I do not deserve it!” Of course you don’t, you pure and perfect soul! And when she murders Alec. I know, blee blah, murder is wrong. But, he’s just a character, not a real guy. He had it coming, and I am proud of her for doing it. Fight me. There are a lot of women in Victorian novels who should have murdered evil, controlling men who they couldn’t escape from, but their authors weren’t bold enough. Hardy and Tess are bold enough and I love them for it. I have strayed away from the point of this paragraph, which is paganism. When Tess and Angel make their sweet, babes-in-the-woods-style, attempt to flee from the law and end up sleeping on a slab at Stonehenge. . .is that not the best, most romantic place for those two characters to end up? It is. Perfection. If I had a time machine, I would go hug Thomas Hardy for providing me this and other moments of pure artistic pleasure.

The original title was Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman and I wish publishers would print the entire title. At this point in his career Hardy could find publishers willing to print his blatant attacks on Victorian sexual mores. He could even call a fallen woman “pure” right in the title. This man was doing the work of divorcing women’s spiritual value from their so-called sexual purity. In the 19th century! What a mensch.

When Alec reappears in Tess’s life and starts imploring her not to “tempt” him, as if her very existence is a sin, Hardy writes that “there was revived in her the wretched sentiment that had come to her often before, that in inhabiting the fleshy tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her, she was somehow doing something wrong.” Did you think you would hear an anti-body/slut-shaming PSA from a Victorian man? I never expected such a thing, but here you have it. Hardy makes it clear that Tess is just out in these fields trying to survive when along come these men accusing her of sin just for inhabiting the body and face she happened to be born into. You didn’t do anything wrong Tess! You never did one wrong thing.

Consent Since Tess was first published readers have questioned whether the sexual encounter between Alec and Tess was consensual. It is a bit confounding. In my opinion most of the textual evidence points to rape. However, I am not sure how to square that with the smaller amount of contrary evidence. Also, Thomas Hardy wrote in a letter to a friend that “it was a seduction, pure and simple.” He may have seen it as consensual, but by 2019 standards, it certainly was not. Tess denied consent for his sexual advances on many precious occasions, and there is no true consent between an employer and the employee who very much depends on him for her livelihood and the survival of her family. Anyway, even if she had enthusiastically consented, Angel Clare would still by hypocritical trash for treating her like tainted goods. I hate him so much. Let’s talk about that.

Angel Fucking Clare Least favorite literary character, no contest. I am so angry at this man. I know, there are far more evil and destructive characters in the canon, but it is in the name: Angel was supposed to be better. His fascination with Tess’s country maidenhood, her supposed virginity, her sexual purity is repulsive. When she reveals her past, he says she is not the same person that he married. To him, her virginity is her identity. What a piece of absolute trash this man is. What kind of bullshit, worthless love could be shaken by her story? Obviously, she is the same person, you giant douche. Oh, I get so mad. I want to push him down a long, steep hill studded with rocks and cow plops. I really love Thomas Hardy, though, for shaping Angel’s past to illustrate what a cruel hypocrite he is for deserting Tess. Angel is no virgin. More importantly he has some objection to the teachings of the Anglican church (I can’t be bothered with figuring out/remembering what he objects to, because I hate him, and he is not worth my time) that prevent him from becoming ordained. When it comes to the Church, he is capable of rejecting conventional wisdom to the detriment of his prospects. But, when it comes to trivia like Tess’s sexual history, he can’t see past his bullshit social conditioning. Angel Clare is the worst. Also, he clearly didn’t love her for her own dear self, because he never bothered to learn about her family. If he had done so, he would have known better than to abandon her to share their ill-fortune. I hate him so much.

Hardy tries to redeem Angel at the end of the story, which is a mistake, in my opinion. He should have just killed that asshole off. I do appreciate that Angel stays by Tess even though she is a murderer, but I cannot stomach the thought of him marrying Tess’s little sister. He does not deserve Tess. He does not deserve an approximation of Tess. You might be thinking that we cannot know that Liza-Lu and Angel end up together, but I have read enough Hardy novels to know that marrying a man to the younger sister of the woman he first loved is absolutely something he would do. Yuck.

Pastoral Perfection Hardy stands out among Victorian authors because he wrote about country living from experience. His descriptions of life on a rural farm have an authenticity that George Eliot never approached. The atmosphere in Tess and the setting . . . absolute perfection. Just read this description of Tess trying to get closer to Angel’s harp playing: She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights, which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved by him. Ah! You should be crying. From pure artistic pleasure. That is the most perfect sentence. I love the snails beneath your feet, Tess. I do. And the cuckoo-spittle on your skirts. Angel never deserved you. I need to stop. This story is so sad. Tess! Why did you have to do this to my emotions, Thomas Hardy?

Final thoughts: It’s a masterpiece. Obviously. Read it. I am still crying. Because of Tess. And because of the cuckoo-spittle.

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