Published in 1891, this book by British author Thomas Hardy has been on my list of “wanna reads” since high school. A guy I was dating my sophomore year was in a different English class than mine, and I remember his class read Tess while my class did not. He mentioned it, I asked what it was about, and he said, “Nothing. It’s not about anything. It’s a total waste of time.”
That immediately piqued my interest! This guy was not a book lover, so if he thought this book was pointless, there was likely something rich just below the surface, and I was curious to find out what it was.
Apparently I was not THAT curious, because it took me 28 years to get around to actually reading Tess, but I finally did. And I was right! There was, indeed, something rich just below the surface.
I really liked this book, but it was also a gut-wrenching read at times. Hardy’s writing style is lovely. Of Tess, he writes:
“…there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama — one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life. She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that cause Alec d’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect, a fulness of growth, which made her appear more woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted. It had troubled her mind occasionally, till her companions had said that it was a fault which time would cure.” (Phase the First, ch. 5)
When Tess meets Angel Clare, his loving and tenacious pursuit of her almost restores her hope for the future, but even so she cannot shake the feeling of unworthiness she carries. The other milkmaids who work at the dairy alongside her, and who have each hoped to have Angel for her husband, wish her well:
When they were all in bed, and the light was out, Marian whispered across to her: ‘You will think of us when you be his wife, Tess, and of how we told ‘ee that we loved him, and how we tried not to hate you, and did not hate you, and could not hate you, because you was his choice, and we never hoped to be chose by him.’
They were not aware that at these words salt stinging tears trickled down upon Tess’s pillow anew; and how she resolved with a bursting heart to tell all her history to Angel Clare, despite her mother’s command; to let him for whom she lived and breathed despise her if he would, and her mother regard her as a fool, rather than preserve a silence which might be deemed a treachery to him, and which somehow seemed a wrong to these.” (Phase the Fourth, ch. 31)
Tess is what the story is about.
Thomas Hardy’s full title was: Tess, of the D’Urbervilles: a Pure Woman.
Tess is betrayed by a man who violates her while she is still almost a child, and later betrayed by the man for whom she holds the utmost love and respect when he cannot accept her as a pure woman in spite of the crime done against her. She is pure in her heart, in her desire to do what is right (as puzzling as it can be to discern the right again and again in her life). She is held unjustly accountable for someone’s sin against her, and yet she refuses to pity herself.
She is also PURE WOMAN. She is beauty, hard-work, loyalty, stubbornness, and intelligence without the benefit of education. She is independence longing for someone to rely upon. She is nurturing even when it costs her everything and she receives nothing in return. She is eager to please, and tragically quick to believe that she will never measure up no matter how hard she tries.
She is fascinating, and I loved her story.
I find it amusing that my high school boyfriend thought it was a story about nothing. Hardy was almost 50 when he wrote Tess; perhaps 15 years was not enough time on earth for a male to understand the richness of her story!