Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Is it better to read Thomas Hardy novels when you’re younger or when you’re older?

"To think none of this shit would have happened if only I weren't so bloody beautiful..."

I ask this because I recall that bloke Nick Hornby (Hi-Fidelity, About a Boy) making a memorable statement on England’s all-time master of the prose tragedy:

Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of The Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding. When I was seventeen, the scene in Jude the Obscure where Jude’s children hang themselves “becos they are meny” provided the much-needed confirmation that adult life was going to be thrillingly, unimaginably, deliciously awful.

“Deliciously awful” is a great way to describe the appeal, but I somewhat resent his cheapening Hardy novels to an emo-kid indulgence, which may have been the case with Nick age-seventeen, but it certainly isn’t with me.

Granted, I haven’t been seventeen for some time now, but I think one can still have a genuine “craving for misery”– which isn’t required to enjoy Hardy’s tragedies, but it certainly helps. In fact, I’d say raw experience helps the doom-toll of these books resonate more truthfully then they did when you were an angsty teen.

I liked Jude the Obscure, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I’ve just finished, is somewhere between five and eight times better.

For one,  Jude flirts with self-parody at times. Its heartbreaking situations would be hilarious if only they weren’t so freaking sad. I think that’s what limited Jude for me, it’s Job-like relentlessness that gave the book a flatness in spite of all its other fascinating qualities and the fact that Hardy’s a wonderful writer.

Not only are the situations more convincing in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but it has invigorating highs in addition to the grotesque lows. It’s a common rule in fiction storycraft that things must get worse before they can get better; in Tess, the opposite is also true.

No, Seriously–Poor Tess

In the story’s middle, the eponymous country girl is actually happy for months at a time–so long as her suitor, Angel Clare, doesn’t know her tainted past in which she was raped and had to bear her predator’s child (which died in infancy). In the meantime she’s the Eve to his Adam as they work an idyllic summer together on the Talbothays dairy farm, and before he takes his leave of the place he’ll ask for her hand in marriage. And inevitably learn her secret.

But Angel’s a great guy (and yes, Hardy is definitely screwing with your head by naming him that). He’s a gentleman, a philosopher, a bit of a free-spirit hippie as far as his family of clergymen are concerned, and a perfect lover for the old-soul who is Tess. Surely if anyone could accept Tess’ past, it’s him.

Well, he doesn’t.

Thus begins a descent into a pastoral hell for both Tess and Angel, worse than the sorrow encountered in the first half through Tess’ victimization. For one, Alec, her serpentine rapist, makes a reappearance.

Tess holds the status as one of the great all-time sympathetic sufferers in literature, and I say it’s deserved. It’s not because she’s perfect, because she isn’t (and most certainly not by Victorian standards), but because she’s so thoroughly undeserving of her misfortunes.

I’ve been trying to make my reviews more brief, so I won’t be doing justice to the largeness of this book. The nature of evil, the destruction of rural life, the meanings of lineage, innocence and experience, love and self-delusion… are all things running richly through a story filled with complicated symbolism, which in a Hardy book is everywhere.

Reading this novel is like walking a elaborate corridor to its finish outside, and, looking behind you, you see you’ve actually emerged from an enormous mansion. You were so focused on the plot that, though you saw the thematic doorways and staircases leading to deeper and higher things, you could only glance about them and then continue on with the story. The rest of the house is for the reread.

4 thoughts on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

  1. “For one, Jude flirts with self-parody at times.”

    I don’t know — that scene in Tess where she falls asleep in the grove of dying pheasants doesn’t just flirt with self-parody: it gives a grim reach-around while bitterly determined to make you regret orgasm.

    Have you read Desperate Remedies? It’s sort of joyfully ridiculous in its Sensation Novel trappings. Crazed lesbians, mysterious arson, more crazed lesbians, and that trademarked optimism that marks a Thomas Hardy novel as a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s worth your time if you can stomach the absurd.

  2. I haven’t made my way to Desperate Remedies yet (which does sound like fun! Do the lesbians commit the arson, or is that supposed to be a surprise?), but I’m now curious as to what you’d consider the “trademarked optimism” in Hardy.

    Few authors seem so convincing that we’re a wretched race of fallen creatures — which is a large part of Hardy’s appeal to me, as it happens. I have a feeling we’re reading the same author two very different ways…

  3. “but I’m now curious as to what you’d consider the ‘trademarked optimism’ in Hardy.”

    Oh, that was just me, failing at literary sarcasm. He’s perhaps one of the least optimistic writers out there (and I’m including the writer of the Book of Revelation in that list).

    I may be done with Thomas “Hap” Hardy, personally — or, at least, I’m done with Tess and Jude. The last time I read both, I didn’t feel like there was anything new that I gleaned from the experience. They were the same novels I had read several times before. (I’m holding out hope for The Mayor of Casterbridge, because I’m using it in a “Victorians, Class, Money, and Babies” unit. But this may be the slow countdown to “dead to me” for that one, too.

    I think he’s important, and especially for any conversation about fin de siècle nineteenth century. I just don’t think I need to read him anymore.

    (Word of warning: someone in your life may say, “Hey, Doug: you know what you’ve gotta read next? Two on a Tower!” because this person is some sort of deranged Thomas Hardy completist. DO NOT READ Two on a Tower. It’s just one goddamned long penis metaphor about two people who can’t fuck. If I’ve warned you away from this, then I feel I’ve done enough.)

  4. Fortunately, no one’s put me up to reading Two on a Tower. I would have to read pretty deep through the Hardy list before even considering that one, regardless of whether it’s a goddamned long penis metaphor or a metaphor of goddamned long penises. Thanks for the heads up. (Gee, I wonder what the TOWER represents…)

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