I didn’t think I would enjoy Thomas Hardy as much as I did. All I had ever heard about his work before was that it was very, very depressing. But when I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles and then The Mayor of Casterbridge, I realized that what I was reading was real tragedy, in the full literary sense of the word. It wasn’t just bad things happening to people. Both books were about people who made huge mistakes and because of their character flaws, just couldn’t get their lives back together.
The eponymous Tess is really Tess Durbeyfield, a hardworking girl from a family of procrastinators and slackers. At the beginning of the book, her father learns that they are descended from a grand family–the d’Urbervilles. Her father fixates on this idea for the rest of the book. He clearly wants better for his family, but he isn’t about to break the habit of a lifetime and get a real job. After an accident that ruins the family, Tess’s father sends her to a rich relation in order to “claim kin” and get some financial assistance. Tess has her pride and is reluctant to go. But since the accident was her fault and because she’s only solid worker in the family she goes.
Well, folly follows the accident and Tess makes her big mistake. Since the book is well over 100 years old, I don’t mind spoiling it. You all have had plenty of time to read this book. Tess ends up sleeping with the rich relation’s son. The son had an instant attraction to Tess and just would not let up until she gave in. I think she might have resisted him, so I suspect that Alex d’Urberville threatened to stop helping her family if she didn’t give in. Tess ends up pregnant and socially ruined and heads home to make money by doing hard farm labor. Bad luck follows, but Tess is able to make a new start on a dairy farm far away.
Tess manages to find love with a genuinely good man. But her mistake follows her and she isn’t permitted to enjoy her new happiness. At this point, I think we enter the realm of real tragedy. Tess has a stubborn pride, but it’s hard to fault her for it. She only takes charity when she has no other choice. She doesn’t feel above performing even the hardest, dirtiest work as long as it means she can live honestly. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that she goes blabbing about her past to everyone. She keeps her secrets.)
Like Othello, a lot of the misery in the book could have been avoided if all the main characters had had access to a good mediator or counselor and talked it all out. Instead, the characters continue on their trajectories. Tess still hopes for reconciliation with her husband, but she won’t beg. Her husband can’t seem to get past Tess’s history. And Alex d’Urberville…well, there’s no changing that man. Once a lech, always a lech.
But because Hardy draws his characters so clearly and gives them real, believable flaws, you can’t help but sympathize with them (except for Alex–the jerk). You want things to work out for Tess and her husband, Angel Clare. And this makes the ending just that much more tragic and heartbreaking.
This book was an incredible read. I don’t know why Hardy doesn’t get more credit for his books. They are so much more than depressing farm novels. They’re Shakespeare-level tragedies. I don’t know if anyone has done so well since Hardy.