As much as I like an uplifting story that makes you feel all warm inside, my greatest love is literature that moves me. Novels filled with beautiful prose and vivid imagery that lean towards the tragic more than the happy. In other words, novels that make me cry.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891) is a weep throughout and sob at the end kind of novel. It’s one of my favourites.
But why? I hear you all lamenting. Why would you willingly put yourself through such a thing?
If you’ve never read it, here’s a little sum up of the story:
When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.
Loss in Thomas Hardy’s own life leant him a disposition towards writing about tragedy and suffering. Combining this with a tremendous love of his home county, Dorset, Hardy’s works exhibit a strong connection to nature and landscape and come across as moody and deeply atmospheric. Technically speaking, he utilised a writing device called pathetic fallacy, a term coined in 1856 by an art critic, and it refers to the attribution of human behaviour and emotions to nature. Use of this writing device was not uncommon in 19th century novels, Wuthering Heights being a prominent example. In its most basic form, pathetic fallacy can be demonstrated as follows:
Sunshine = Happiness
Rain = Misery
Storm = Inner Turmoil
This technique was utilised throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles with such precise skill and a whole lot more sophistication than the basic explanation above implies:
“The atmosphere turned pale, the birds shook themselves in the hedges, arose and twittered; the lane showed all its white features and Tess showed hers, still whiter.”
Hardy uses pathetic fallacy with perfection in some of the more depraved and difficult scenes within the novel. Tess’s life is a series of misfortunes that seem to just go from bad to worse, moments of happiness fleetingly rare. When Tess is assaulted, the environmental setting around her creates an explicit atmosphere that conveys all that is happening without Hardy ever having to spell it out. He truly is a master of this writing device. Tess of the D’Urbervilles contains some of the most magnificent writing of the 19th century, in my opinion. It’s an excellent example of what we now call ‘deep point of view’, the engagement of all five senses when writing.
Tess is a woman wronged by every single person she encounters. Her beauty is as much her persecution as it is an attraction. While it would be easy to dismiss Tess as naive, I rather think of her as a woman trapped by the era and circumstances beyond her control. Her one path to redemption, through her marriage to Angel, is smashed apart by his ridiculously pious attitude leading him to turn away from a woman who loved him more than anything, whose only crime was having been taken grossly advantage of. I was so incredibly frustrated by Angel; I lost count of the amount of times I wished I could shake him. What an idiot he was! Of course, he realises the error he has made far too late. At least Alec d’Urberville got what he deserved in the end, but of course, Hardy is above all a realist, so sadly, Tess meets her inevitable end as well.
“When they saw where she lay, which they had not done till then, they showed no objection, and stood watching her, as still as the pillars around. He went to the stone and bent over her, holding one poor little hand; her breathing now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman. All waited in the growing light, their faces and hands as if they were silvered, the remainder of their figures dark, the stones glistening green-gray, the Plain still a mass of shade. Soon the light was strong, and a ray shone upon her unconscious form, peering under her eyelids and waking her.
‘What is it, Angel?’ she said, starting up. ‘Have they come for me?’
‘Yes, dearest,’ he said. ‘They have come.’
‘It is as it should be,’ she murmured. ‘Angel, I am almost glad – yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!’
She stood up, shook herself, and went forward, neither of the men having moved.
‘I am ready,’ she said quietly.”
The intent of Tess of the D’Urbervilles remains to me an examination of the inevitability of fate, never more obvious than in the passage above. Tess was never, for a single moment, in charge of her own destiny; until the very end, when she gave herself up. This was only in terms of the timing of her deliverance though, and what came after this one defining moment was again entirely out her control. The tragedy of that is stunning and such an insightful perspective for Hardy to have offered, given it was 1891 and he was a man. I believe this is a testimony to his own personal character. After his first wife died, Hardy wrote his finest love poetry, yet the two had been estranged prior to her death. Perhaps Angel had shades of Hardy himself in him, seeking redemption at the point of fate’s intersection.
I’ll be upfront and say that this is not a hopeful novel. Nor is it happy. It’s desperately sad and filled with unfairness and frustration all tinged with despair. But it’s beautifully written, entirely transporting; I have goose bumps just reminiscing about it for this article. It’s a novel I return to every few years and one that I think is highly under-rated. If you’ve never read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I highly encourage you to do so, and if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not you love it as much as I do.
The Literature Book (2016) Dorling Kindersley Ltd
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) Thomas Hardy – (2008) Penguin Classics Edition