The Books: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (Thomas Hardy)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

TessDUrbervilles.jpgTess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin Classics) – by Thomas Hardy.

Tess is one of those books I was forced to read in high school. Unlike Tale of 2 Cities or The Great Gatsby I did NOT, as a teenager, take to Tess. As a matter of fact, reading that book was the ultimate in drudgery for me at the time. Years passed – and I remembered NONE of it. Nothing had “taken” in my head. Starting in 2001, I decided to go back and re-read all of those old books I had been forced to read for class in high school. Not in order, and not all at once … as a matter of fact, I am still working on the list. (I recently re-read Billy Budd, for example). So I re-read The Scarlet Letter, and Moby Dick (holy Mary mother of God), and many others. It’s been a great project – I’m really happy about it – because these are great novels, and many of them were wasted on me as a 15 year old. I still think Billy Budd is simplistic and boring … but I NEEDED to go back and confront the book again.

I re-read Tess in 2002 – and I remember talking with Maria about it (she loves the book) – and I was raving about how I felt like I had never read the book at ALL … because I was having such an intense and great experience with it … it seemed like a totally different book from the one I had read ‘lo those many years ago. And I said something like, “I totally can’t put it down …” and Maria said (and this phrase stuck with me): “It’s a page-turner, it really is.”

That’s what I had certainly missed back in high school, for whatever reason. And as an adult, yes – I found this book to be an almost horrifyingly compulsive page-turner. I knew it would not end well – mainly because it’s Thomas Hardy, a gloomy angry personality on his BEST days. So as you flip through those pages, moving on towards the irrevocable end … you can’t stop yourself from trying to peek forward, to see what will happen – to see what is up next … even though you know it’s all going to be bleak and horrible. And what a terrible terrible thing it was … the way the world treated Tess. There is nothing good about it. Nothing redeeming. Hardy did not forgive, Hardy is not Dostoevsky … Hardy, at times, even as an old man, seems baffled at the world’s cruelty. Not baffled in a naive way – he certainly understood the world to be a brutal place, and that’s what he wrote about. In obsessive detail. But he still seems capable of being surprised by it – at least on behalf of characters like Tess. The story is peppered throughout with paragraphs of longing sadness, of regret – an omniscent voice wondering: “What could Tess have become if the world had been a different place?” Hardy is an omniscent type dude – as a writer he created an entire world (“Wessex”) – and even during his lifetime literary “Wessex tours” began, for fans of the books to come out and see the countryside Hardy had described so intimately. His eye for detail – it’s like you get to know every field, every hedgerow. The garden in front of this house, the small clump of trees on the way out of town … etc. It has the detail of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with the maps and the signposts … It feels like if you were dropped down into Tolkien’s world, you’d be able to figure out your way around, just because he has described it so well. Hardy’s world is the same way.

The thing you really are left with, though, in Hardy’s “world” – is the lack of God. Books have been written about this, and about Hardy’s disillusionment – and even though church is mentioned at times in Tess, and the beauty of nature – which could be seen to have a spiritual component, and all that … God is not present. Hardy wrote a poem called “God’s Funeral” which pretty much states his view on the matter:

I saw a slowly-stepping train —
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar —
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard: —

‘O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

‘Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

‘And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,

‘Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

‘So, toward our myth’s oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

‘How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

‘And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?’…

Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: ‘This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!’

I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
‘See you upon the horizon that small light —
Swelling somewhat?’ Each mourner shook his head.

And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best….
Thus dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

The world is not just. Nothing makes sense. Anyone who tries to make sense out of the random cruelty experienced by Tess from almost Day One of her life is a fool. A delusional fool. Remember the last scene of Tess? After wandering through the countryside, camping out in empty mansions, hiding in inns, sleeping in haystacks … Angel and Tess, in the dark of night, walk across a field … they can’t see where they are going – but they become aware that there is some sort of stone column – they feel it with their hands. They wonder … is this a “Temple of the Winds”, they ask each other. Gradually, they realize that they have come across Stonehenge. They are so exhausted that they lie down on slabs of rock, surrounded by the upright stone slabs – and sleep. This is where, of course, it all ends for Tess. Stonehenge – an obviously pre-Christian site – almost pre-historical – mysterious, just THERE, we can only guess at why it was created (or, like the tour guides at Newgrange, in Ireland: “Well, nobody knows, love …”) … but it sure as hell has nothing to do with Christianity. Hardy chooses to end his merciless book THERE. It is where Tess can sink into the slabs of stone, and where truth can finally be told. I mean, it’s obvious. Hardy was not afraid of being obvious in his hatreds. There’s a reason why Tess was such a scandal at its original publication.

Nobody likes to be told they are a fool. And Hardy, with his books, did so over and over again. Time has obviously vindicated him. In the introduction to my copy of the book, by Robert Heilman, he writes:

In 1895, at the age of 55, Thomas Hardy gave up novels for poetry (which occupied him steadily for the remaining 33 years of his life). Rarely has a writer ended a career, or a phase of it, more triumphantly. In his last ten years as a novelist Hardy published three great works of tragic hue: The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886; Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891; Jude the Obscure, 1895. The artistic achievement of thewse works was not immediately matched by the admiration of the world, for Tess and Jude offended many readers by the sense of disaster dominating them and by their treatment of sex; but the novels gradually won popular as well as critical esteem, and they are now generally ranked among the major works of nineteenth-century fiction.

One of the things that makes Tess stand out from other books of its kind (because let’s remember that Hardy, with his plots, was not reinventing the wheel. The plot of Tess is basically a “modern” plot, a seduction novel, a story of virtue sullied, of trials and tribulations. People had been writing books with the same plot as Tess since the 1700s – and these books, now forgotten, while Tess remains, are really the birth of the modern novel). But anyway, one of the things that elevates Tess from the herd of other books with similar topics and structures – is that the three leads (well, and everyone in the book – but mainly the three leads) – are so individual, and unexpected. They live and breathe. Alec is not just a rapist, a blackguard. He truly believes that Tess could be had. Hardy makes the point over and over again that Tess has the body of a well-developed woman – yet in her heart she is still a girl. But men only saw the body. And so Alec rapes her. BUT. Not to excuse the horror of that – because Hardy sure as hell doesn’t excuse it – it is Tess’ ruination – but Alec is not a snarling villain like you see in silent movies. He is not painted in black and white terms (although you despise him for his actions). And Tess is not JUST a damsel in distress. There is a big deal in the book (and it’s controversial to this day) about her partial consent to him. The lines are not clearly drawn. This makes things much much worse, because the shame Tess eventually heaps upon her own head is FAR worse than anything the gossips and prudes and evil-ones could ever do. Tess is punished enough, through her own self-hatred. Bah. It’s horrible. The main problem seems to be that Alec misunderstands Tess. And as you will recall, he ends up paying a heavy heavy price for being delusional, for only seeing what he wants to see, for misunderstanding her. He basically messed up the wrong girl, although that would not be apparent at first. And then there is Angel – Tess’ husband … another 3-dimensional character. And Tess. She is not a damsel in distress – although her situation just goes from bad to worse. She is a human being, trying – desperately – to handle what she has been dealt. She seems REAL.

And, to me, THIS is why the book is such a “page-turner”.

The plot is familiar. We know where we are going. No real big surprises there.

But Hardy turns our expectations upside down. Because nobody here is a “type”. He is not writing a warning pamphlet about “what can happen to girls” in this world. He is writing about a particular girl, and her particular life. And so we come to not just care about her, but LOVE her. And because Hardy makes us love her, the book is that much more brutal.

Here’s an excerpt, from near the beginning of the book. The omniscent narrator comes in periodically, as you will see … and puts a chill over everything. An inhuman chill, the chill of an uber-perspective. Especially Alec’s loud laugh at the end of the scene, and his declaration that the girl is “crumby” (in this context it means handsome, plump – it’s a vaguely sexual term in this world.) It’s just horrible – because of the chilly omniscence that comes directly before. This is one of Hardy’s main themes in Tess which is devastating: when happiness DOES come, or at least the possibility of it – life, and the world, has already ruined us. Happiness always comes too late.

So Alec’s laugh, and his covetousness – feels random, and yet unstoppable. It’s GOING to happen.

shivers. And the paragraph beginning “In the ill-judged execution …” has a terrible resonance for me, and re-reading it this morning has almost ruined my day.

Thanks, Thomas! Going out to breakfast now to shake off the ghosts and haunting echoes you always bring.

EXCERPT FROM Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin Classics) – by Thomas Hardy.

“Do you mind my smoking?” he asked.

“Oh, not at all, sir.”

He watched her pretty and unconscious munching through the skeins of smoke that pervaded the tent, and Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down at the roses in her bosom, that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the “tragic mischief” of her drama – one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life. She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect, a fulness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted. It had troubled her mind occasionally, till her companions had said that it was a fault which time would cure.

She soon had finished her lunch. “Now I am going home, sir,” she said, rising.

“And what do they call you?” he asked, as he accompanied her along the drive till they were out of sight of the house.

“Tess Durbeyfield, down at Marlott.”

“And you say your people have lost their horse?”

“I — killed him!” she answered, her eyes filling with tears as she gave particulars of Prince’s death. “And I don’t know what to do for father on account of it!”

“I must think if I cannot do something. My mother must find a berth for you. But Tess, no nonsense about ‘d’Urberville’; – ‘Durbeyfield’ only, you know – quite another name.”

“I wish for no better, sir,” said she with something of dignity.

For a moment – only for a moment – when they were in the turning of the drive, between the tall rhododendrons and conifers, before the lodge became visible, he inclined his face towards her as if — but, no: he thought better of it, and let her go.

Then the thing began. Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all respects – as nearly as humanity can supply the right and desired; yet to him who amongst her acquaintances might have approximated to this kind, she was but a transient impression, half forgotten.

In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say “See!” to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply “Here!” to a body’s cry of “Where?” till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome, outworn game. We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. Enough that in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange destinies.

When d’Urberville got back to the tent he sat down astride on a chair reflecting, with a pleased gleam in his face. Then he broke into a loud laugh.

“Well, I’m damned! What a funny thing! Ha-ha-ha! And what a crumby girl!”

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4 Responses to The Books: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (Thomas Hardy)

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  4. Hector says:

    You might like Book Drum’s illustrated profile of Tess, which incorporates maps, music, video, pictures and background information to bring the book alive for modern readers:

    Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Book Drum

    There’s also a great profile of Catcher in the Rye…

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