Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles has been on my to-be-read list for a long time, even on my mental list before I had a written one. So I was glad to finally have the motivation to read it for book club.

I came to this novel knowing only bits and pieces of the storyline or Thomas Hardy's style - I knew that it was a "fallen woman" story and that Hardy was a fatalist, and that's about it. I was immediately captured by the vividness of Hardy's prose, which made it easy to read and rendered both landscapes and people in enough detail that one could easily picture the setting and characters.

It is a story of a fallen woman, but Hardy makes every effort to show Tess as the victim, one who always had to bow to the will and whims of the men in her life. To this end, the male characters are shallow, proud, and selfish, while Tess is sweet, kind, hard-working - so good that even her female rivals can't disdain her. Hardy's subtitle "A Pure Woman" caused enough controversy in his day that he regretted adding it, but it does succinctly convey the social commentary that is implicit in the novel: that Tess is a victim of circumstances and remains pure in heart and spirit if not in body.

It is a tragic story, and though I didn't really find it depressing, I wish there had been just a bit of redemption. But Angel Clare, the one man who might have forgiven Tess and loved her unselfishly, had dismissed his faith, particularly the resurrection, as untenable. Having no understanding of redemption himself, he can only think of social principles, i.e. his personal disgrace, when he learns of Tess' unfortunate past. Hardy is at least consistent in presenting his agnostic, vaguely deistic views of a universe ruled by an unkind or maybe even an evil fate, but it leaves one wishing for more.

Tess was a key motif in A Prayer for Owen Meany, another book which dealt with determinism but in a more positive light and with a view towards redemption. Perhaps Tess functioned as a foil and foreshadowing in this modern novel. Usually, I wouldn't expect a modern novel to express more faith than a Victorian novel, but in the comparison of those two novels the loss of faith was more obvious in the book from 1891.

On another note, has anyone seen the newer Masterpiece Theater version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles? I think I will wait a few months to watch it until the book is not so fresh in my mind. I usually enjoy movie adaptations better that way.


Carrie said...

Haven't ever read this book and wondered what it was about, exactly. So glad to see your review of it. Thanks for taking the time to write that up!

hopeinbrazil said...

Interesting post. I read this book in college many years ago. I did not know it's connection to Owen Meany (which I haven't read). I, too, am interested in seeing what the movie version is like.

Petunia said...

I didn't know about the 2008 Miniseries until I looked it up. I'll have to check it out. But the 1998 version starring Justine Waddell is excellent. I didn't know about the connection with Owen Meany either. Interesting. I'll have to give that idea some thought.