July 23, 2003
Despite its seemingly needless tragedy, its persistently downbeat tone, and its relentlessly persecuted heroine, Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," is without doubt one of the greatest novels I have ever read. And I have read a few. Tess is the only truly well-developed character in the novel, which, coupled with the fact that Hardy renders the landscape of Wessex as to make it a character itself, gives one the sense of a real struggle between humanity and nature. This, for me, is one of the great themes of the novel - the tension between nature and the artifices with which we fill our relations with other people. The beauty of Hardy's pastoral setting is never idyllic - Hardy keeps us always aware that human society, with its false moral standards and technological advancements, is ever encroaching upon the already vanished past.
As the novel begins, Tess Durbeyfield's irresponsible wastrel of a father is casually and jokingly informed by the local minister that he is a descendant of a long-degenerated and disenfranchised noble family, the D'Urbervilles, whose influence stretches back to the Norman invasion. This simple, careless act, nothing more than a name, wreaks such havoc upon everyone in the novel, that I'm actually having a hard time right now even looking at the title - the name itself, now having read the novel, is such a powerful condemnation of status, of privilege, of reputation, of all the injustices of English society from the eighteenth century through the time of this novel, almost the dawn of the twentieth. Sent by her nearly indigent parents, whose heads have swelled with the possibilities of lineage, Tess leaves her home in Marlott, going to claim kinship with the last apparently wealthy D'Urberville, in the village of Trantridge. There she meets Alec D'Urberville, who seduces her. The rest of this powerful novel shows Tess Durbeyfield attempting to piece together a reputable life out of a situation and a condition in which respectability is fundamentally denied her.
"Tess" is a novel steeped, perhaps even choked, with tradition - history, literature, theology, philosphy, economics - Hardy's frame of reference calls all of these to account through the course of the novel. Tess, ostensibly a simple country girl, is forced to reckon with the accumulated weight of human knowledge and thought, no small burden for a girl with only the kind of basic education available in a small rural town. As readers, we are asked to measure the applicability, the efficacy, of the Bible next to Shakespeare, next to Greek mythology next to art - to determine if any of these are capable of fathoming what it means to be human, to endure the myriad experiences of human life, both good and ill.
In her dealings with the changeable Alec D'Urberville, the almost-modern Angel Clare, the farm-hands Izz Huett and Marian, her poor, practically minded mother, Joan, Tess experiences so much of life, mostly of the harshest kind. For me, this is the key facet of the novel. Tess endures. Despite all of her hardships, which are hard indeed, and in the face of the worst kinds of scrutiny and deprecation, both from others and from herself, Tess exhibits a kind of composure, threshold for pain, and strength that are all quite amazing. Daniel Defoe's eighteenth-century "Moll Flanders" is the first character that immediately comes to mind, just in terms of comparable pluck in the face of such overweaning odds.
Though many may disagree with me, I think that Tess, more than simply being the protagonist of the novel, is a real heroine. She is so insistently admirable, so determined to live despite all the forces and pressures arrayed against her from the very outset of the novel, when as a 15 year old girl, she is asked to restore the family's fortunes - it is really just astounding. I regret that I had never read "Tess" before, but I am supremely glad that I have had the chance to do so now. A novel cannot get a higher recommendation from me.