What struck me most while I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the pervading duality of it. Heavy themes cloaked in poetic eloquence. A bygone taste of Romanticism alongside deplorable Realism. Tragedy seeping through the veins of love. Unending victimisation amidst the flush of life – Prince pierced at night on the road, wounded pheasants left to die in a wood, Tess’ sleeping body stretched out for sacrifice on the altar at Stonehenge. The duality of Tess’ character itself; the presence of a certain worldly knowledge that is inseparable from her innocence and naivety.
Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes, and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.
I had been forewarned that this was a dreary book, but I found it quite summery in tone (an altogether different experience from A Fraction of the Whole); that balanced the heaviness out of it. And Hardy’s writing is so incredibly poetic.
“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
Strange, though, that despite this delicate balance of beauty and disillusionment, Hardy is far from subtle. I think he was a man with a sense of humour, for sure. There is a strong emphasis on specific features of Tess’ ‘womanliness’, and almost all the characters are distorted caricatures. Angel Clare (need I say more?), Alec D’Urberville with his borrowed identity and his comically villanous appearance, Joan and John Durbeyfield – simpleton mother, drunkard father.
The plot itself is rather increasingly sensational and melodramatic, which I suppose the Victorians would have liked despite all their righteous airs. The book progresses dramatically enough, with Tess’ loss of virginity at Trantridge and her equally blissful and painful romance at Kingsbere. Then, in the last few chapters, it transforms into a 19th century episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. Bloodshed! Passion! A police chase! Symbolic sacrifice!
Before I could even gasp in distaste, poor Tess was no more. Never mind the hasty execution, though. I loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and that’s that.
» This was my Dusty book for the 9 Books for 2009 project. For this particular category, we were asked to choose a book that had been on our shelves (unread) for three or more years. I didn’t have such a book, but I noticed Tess had been sitting on my shelf since February of 2008, so I put her down on my list. She was also part of my Summer Reading list, and the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.