Some books are a joy; a mere afternoon of reading and in a flash the paperback has been read. This is not one of these novels. At 460 pages with miniscule font, I can hardly say that there was much ebullience ignited by this classic.
True: there were complex (and contemporarily speaking) risqué issues handled. It is unsurprising that in a harsh and patriarchal 19th Century society that Hardy’s piece caused quite a stir amongst those lucky enough to be able to read.
I did get a sense from the novel that it was far too long, simply because half the content was unuseful. Tess D’urberville is defintely a book that can be skimmed through, as the pace is slower than a hungover sloth, so if you’re reading and miss a line, any overlooked information will be repeated at least three times before it is somewhat relevant.
The climax of the novel is in the last twenty or so pages (Hardy, you kept me waiting a long time!) and even then it was so awkward that it can be hard to give it merit. It seems out of character for Tess to stab Alec, even if he did anger her greatly. Hardy always presented Tess as a maternal figure, caring not only for her siblings but for Sorrow too. She was mainly meek and obeyed orders, being careful to avoid (where controllable) shame upon her family.
For Tess to murder another man seems contradictory on two accounts: although this was an impulsive act, Tess is firstly rarely impulsive herself (she didn’t marry Angel straight away, and deliberated about telling him her secret, as well as hiding from Angel’s brothers instead of suddenly facing them), so the murder- as it wasn’t premeditated- is unusual. Then Tess must have known she’d be caught, meaning death and therefore one less source of income for her poverty stricken family. Seeing as Liza-Lu was held with the utmost respect by Tess, so much so that Tess suggested her marriage, it seems unlikely that Tess was seeking ‘revenge’ on her family by depriving them of her presence/income.
As for the effect on Angel; Tess knew that she was already outcast by Angel, but still hoped with relentless optimism for his forgiveness. Morales dictate that murder is a gruesome crime, so it is strange that Tess should murder Alec and still hope to be liked that Angel. How could she expect this death to be forgiven, particularly when after the stabbing she purposefully seeks out Angel to tell him. Of course, contemporarily the death of the father allowed the widow to move onto another man, although cold murder does seem to be drastic as it limits the longevity of her relationship with Angel, if it was going to happen at all. Didn’t it occur to Tess that he may be repulsed by her brutishness, even if it was to cut off this societal tie?
The language was more like a desert than flowery, although there were a few buds here and there to brighten up the barren language. There were some interesting motifs and symbols, too: the mention of birds frequently throughout the novel were a thought provoking motif of the freedom of characters. The strong theme of freedom and freewill tie strongly into birds; as the Mrs D’Urberville’s finches could fly around the room, they were free. But the mess they created had to be cleaned up by Tess, so the freedom of one creates hardship for the other. This of course is somewhat ironic as nothing but difficulty stems from Tess’ work there, particularly because Alec’s feeling of entitlement to Tess’ body and the consequences of these interactions ultimately leads to Tess suffering throughout the rest of her life.
Many would even say that the peasants that Tess encounters on a particular walk are a metaphor for herself, because although pheasants (and all birds) are synonymous with beauty, grace and freedom, these pheasants can never fly again due to violence, condemned to suffering for as long as their lives may last.
Thus Tess is sentenced to a life as an outcast after her encounter with Alec and then Sorrow, and her wings are clipped as she suffers everyday as she cannot truly be with Angel.
Another interesting motif to touch upon is that of the Bible and the story of Adam and Eve. Even though Adam and Eve are directly mentioned in some imagery by Hardy, the comparisons run much deeper than that. Tess is Eve whilst the serpent is Alec, because whilst he doesn’t necessarily tempt her, he takes her to the realms which society cannot forgive, just like God could not forgive Eve for taking the apple, even if the serpent led her there, like Alec led Tess to her downfall. The guilt imposed upon Tess after Alec’s seduction (which was under a tree like in the Book of Genesis) never leaves Tess throughout the novel (although maybe it does after his murder at the end…). Either way, this guilt can be drawn back to the original sin which all of the human race now have within them, and are what caused Adam and Eve to be exiled from Eden, just like how Tess and her family were exiled from their home.
Lastly is the symbol of Prince and inherent suffering. Prince is of course a name with a royal link, just like the D’Urberville name is, and yet Prince toils away his entire life with no pampering or luxury, just like Tess’ family continue to suffer even though they have royal heritage. The death of Prince is unusual, because of the piece of metal driven into him, which is reminiscent of a wound sustained by jousting, which is a sport that only the highest in society could partake in. As Prince dies because Tess fell asleep, dreaming about knights and royalty, it suggests that dreaming and hoping for a better life ultimately leads to loss and suffering. Prince was the ultimate resource for her family, and now gone, the Durbeyfields must live in deeper poverty once more thanks to Tess’ fantasising, even if it was subconsciously. This links into the overarching theme of inherent suffering. Tess didn’t intend for any relationship with Alec, and yet it was imposed upon her, whilst she never meant for Prince to die. Yet these events, entirely out of her control, govern her livelihood and happiness, and so Hardy emphasises that the state of our existence is completely at odds with the notion of self-determination.
This theme is the most engaging in a modern context, more so perhaps that the commentary of a patriarchal society or the mobility throughout social class, because luckily it seems that in the centuries since publication the ability to change social class is much easier, and only recently has an idea of the strength of the patriarchy and the need to deconstruct been discussed. But the concept of self-determination is often left astray, because of millennial parenting techniques and corporations. The idea that ‘because you want it, you can have it’ is incredibly damaging long term (watch Simon Sinek’s excellent talk on this here), whilst companies cash in on this idea. Think of Nike’s JUST DO IT and of all the millions of self-help books written that sell out even though they’re written by people with no education on the subject. This idea of meritocracy at all costs is dangerous, as proven by Hardy, and needs to be looked at through a larger lens more as we progress.