This post contains major spoilers.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the story of the book’s namesake. Tess is a young peasant girl who comes from a family that is intellectually and emotionally less advanced than her. As a result of their somewhat silly pretensions of nobility, Tess sets out in the world, at their encouragement, to seek out her fortune.
Early on, she is raped by the abusive and narcissistic Alec d’Urberville, and the rape results in a pregnancy. Hardy seems to have understood the psychology of sexual assault survivors very well. Tess’s subsequent reaction to the assault plays out very realistically. She does not reveal the nonconsensual nature of the incident to others. Though not entirely rejected by society, Tess is an object of shame due to the pregnancy. When her young infant dies, she once again sets out into the world.
She meets and falls in love with the seemingly honorable Angel Clare. However, shortly after they marry, Angel discovers some of the details of Tess’s past. He subsequently shows himself to be priggish, hypocritical and cold. Despite the fact that he himself engaged in past indiscretions, he more or less abandons Tess.
Once again, Tess strikes out into the world to endure great hardships. Alec appears and, in stalker-like fashion, begins to infiltrate Tess’s life again. Things end badly when she eventually kills him. Though she briefly reunites with a repentant Angel, the book ends with Tess’s execution.
It bears noting that the behavior of the male characters in this book is extraordinarily bad. Tess’s father is an irresponsible drunk. Alec is an abuser and rapist. Angel, who seems to initially behave decently, is perhaps the most frustrating character of all. He leaves Tess in a spate of childish hypocrisy, despite the fact that his own past included a sexual indiscretion. Hardy clearly did not have a positive image of his male cotemporaries.
In this work, Hardy seems to be attempting to describe his take on the state of human society. It is a complex view. The author appears to be depicting something of a duel level Universe. He first illustrates the absolute failure of multiple bastions of society. The failures of manhood, Christianity and modernity, and the prevailing economic and moral systems, are among the factors that conspire to make life impossible for Tess and ultimately lead to her destruction.
Underneath this pernicious structure of society, something else seems to be going on. The book is full of hints about something older appearing out of society’s past. The narrative is full of references to a pagan past and to a spiritual connection to the natural world. Furthermore, there are numerous references to the fact that society’s disapproval of Tess is based on something unnatural and contrary to the old ways.
“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. Feeling herself in antagonism, she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly."
There is so much to this primeval connection contained in this book. For instance, fertility is referenced over and over again, often in relation to Tess herself. Furthermore, Alec seems to represent the dark, satanic forces inherent in the Universe. The text contains a mixture of Christian and pagan symbolism when it comes to his character. At one point, he appears near a bonfire,
“The fire flared up, and she beheld the face of d'Urberville. “
Later, he even compares himself to the devil as he is speaking to Tess,
"A jester might say this is just like Paradise. You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. “
The work is filled with references to society’s failures, as well as to this dark, non-Christian foundation. The feminine underpinnings of this Universe seem to be one of the only positive and bright spots in an otherwise dark Cosmos.
These ancient, naturalistic connections seem to reach their height when, in one of the final passages in the book, Tess lays upon an altar at the legendary site of Stonehenge.
Many of these allusions to the pagan underpinnings of the world in this work remind me of similar connections made in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” However, in Bronte’s work, these ancient and feminine roots seemed to be somewhat triumphant in the end. In the case of Hardy’s novel, however, they are utterly destroyed by a malicious society. This is indeed a pessimistic worldview presented in this novel.
This novel is bleak. While it is not without hope, and at times portrays the best of humanity, it often illustrates the worst. Despite its pessimism, it is populated with brilliantly crafted characters, and the writing is top notch. I have only scratched the surface in regards to its philosophical musings. I highly recommend this one for readers who are not afraid to look at the darkness inherent in reality.