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Amber Paulen

Tess of The D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

17 November 2010


Tess of the D’Urbervilles is perhaps the saddest book I’ve read since Where the Red Fern Grows, which was when I was a child. I read the latter twice, I think; twice tears were inspired by the tragedy of the ending, the second set of tears anticipatory. But the ending of Tess is not so sad, rather there is a low sustained sadness lingering like the mist that hangs along a cool morning within the Vale of Blackmore. It is an impenetrable sadness, and it is fascinating.

Once adjusted to Thomas Hardy’s lyrical prose, the story swept me so securely into it that I had trouble setting the book down. Above the immense sadness is an immense engagement, of an equal I have not read: reading amounted to an addiction. No wonder Hardy supplied such influence to the likes of Lawrence and John Cowper Powys, two among many. His is the mastery of form, the mastery of language, the skilled purveyor of observations and ideas.

The Wessex landscape in Tess centers on the village of Marlott. Connecting this village to other villages and towns beyond are tow-paths and rough-roads that a horse can be driven down, but are more likely walked upon. The effect of walking everywhere—fifteen miles being a distance one could cover in a day there and back—was one of the strongest impressions lent by this novel: landscape birthed from footsteps. Tess is at home in nature, nearly a child of nature, avoiding cities and towns. Nature abounds, achingly pastoral and quiet. The sounds are the thrushes and the grasses; outwardly Tess of the D’Urbervilles resonates with the simplicity of the life of over a century ago.

Natural simplicity (and its cousin complexity) is paired with moral simplicity and its cousin, social by-laws. Between these forces lie the tension of the book and its saddest moments. Very near the beginning, Tess is raped. The concept of rape lacked the varied definition by which we now know it; and people back then were more likely to stick to “seduction.” Young Tess had no idea what sex was until he was on top of her, showing her: she did not consent.

But worse than this rape that left her with child and shaped her whole life, was that everyone, including her mother, blamed her for it! If she would have been less attractive, they said, if her child’s body was less of a woman’s, her chastity would have remained unbroken. After the rape, Tess’s family name is shamed, she is shamed, unfit for marriage having a hymen that was shattered. Against the others, Thomas Hardy resides on the side of Tess’s innocence, an innocence she is unaware of until it is too late.

Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference.

Again and again Hardy compares the laws of nature to the laws of society, which are composed in general and without exception. While wise Nature knows otherwise, it is forgiving, it doesn’t hold grudges and it finds the concept of virginity an absurdity.

The ‘appetite for joy’ which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric.

Tess moves on with her life, moves away from Marlott some years later (the majority of the book), but her past stays at her heels like an evil black dog, haunting her happiest moments. She is doomed to it and it is tragic.

In Thomas Hardy’s introduction, written some years after Tess was first published, he describes the outcry at his sub-title: A Pure Woman. Society clings to its rhetoric until destruction. Even after reading the whole book, these upstanding citizens didn’t get it! The purity of nature is rarely untouched, the instant of birth and that’s it; purity must be regenerated daily.

Beauty to her, as to all who have felt, lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.



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