Friday, October 26, 2012

Tess of D'Urbervilles

It has been a long while since a book has tortured me.
Pride and Prejudice evokes the same warmth in me as the sight of an old friend and the well-read first line of the book,

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"

 makes me smile. I have empathised with Lizzy Bennet and I often identify myself with her.

But I have never felt tortured by the ebb and fall of her emotions. I like to think that I share her scintillating wit (:D) and become Elizabeth at times, and never do I feel that I am outsider in her world. I live in Meryton, I take tea at Pemberly and I'm a fly on the wall - or a bee in the bonnet as the case maybe - in Pride and Prejudice.

I began reading Tess of D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy) precisely two days ago. Between the compulsory breaks for sleep, lunch, dinner (my mother abhors the sight of a book on my lap as I try to shovel food down so I may read unhindered) and my Spanish class, I have had my nose stuck in the book.

The whole thing is a tragedy, really. It is a test to see how far Tess Dubreyfield will go before she is broken forever. Seduction by one man, rejection by another, unwanted beauty and unwanted child, hopeless love and longing, unexplained separations, poverty, heartbreak, stolen moments of happiness and death constitutes the brief summary of Tess' life. People let her down often and she is a wronged, persecuted woman influenced by the religious and moral constraints of the society.

Though an ocean and several decades separate them, Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Tess have remarkable similarity. More on that later.

Alec D'Urberville and Angel Clare are not men of weak mind or constitution, but I find them weak all the same. One cannot resist the temptation of an innocent and the other cannot forgive a transgression. Alec's changing nature is visible throughout the book. He is first a predator who destroys Tess' life by seducing her. She has too much pride to continue being his mistress, a diversion and though she hates him, she comes to accept the situation. Her family is of no help at all. Her father is a drunkard who prefers to bask in glory of his ancestors instead of working and her mother has the temperament of an overgrown child but hides astonishing depths. As she moves on with her life, Angel Clare appears.

 I can see her fascination with him. He is of the rationalist bend of mind. He is an intellectual who does not shy from hard work (And isn't that the dream, really?)

He possess both brain and brawn, but far more importantly, he falls in love with Tess.

He wears down her reluctance and they get married. After Angel admits to his own faults, she confesses her sin - though I doubt it can be classified as 'her' sin, considering that Alec was the one who seduced her. But due to the patriarchal, dogmatic society, she is bound by guilt and shame of 'her' sin.  

Angel abandons her. This double standard vexed me to no end and for that, I hated Angel Clare. At least Alec is honest in his own way - he 'wants' her and makes no promises of legitimacy of the union. Angel desires Tess too and he allows her to dream, but snatches away all her hopes by running off. Living in a religious household it is understandable that Angel has ideas of morality that are unchanged despite his exposure to modern philosophers.

When I decided to delve in the world of classics, I was unprepared to face the extent of subjugation of women by men. In both Tess and The Scarlet Letter, I was disturbed by the misfortunes of these two women who were born before their time. Tess considers herself below Angel, despite his sins being the same as hers. Even Hester is of the opinion that the Reverend is all that is pure and worthy, but he redeems himself in my eyes due to his tormented conscience. 

In Tess of D'Urbervilles, Angel Clare comes back, seeking Tess, but it's far too late and she has now accepted the position of Alec's mistress.

Alec is not a steady character. It came as a shock to me that he becomes a preacher. His religious zeal is almost equivalent to his previous enthusiasm for debauchery. And in both the situations, he is on the right side of the society while Tess is first a fallen woman and then a deserted wife. His rabid love for her is no surprise. He is disturbed by her sight and her misfortunes. The same misfortunes alleviate Tess' beauty. Once a plaything of his, she is now untouchable, but hardly untainted and it infuriates him. In a way, he blames her for his love - because of her beauty, because of her fortitude, manner and personality, he desires her. 

He loves her and his grudging respect for her is apparent in the undercurrents of their conversations, but he is unaware of it himself. She 'cures' him of his religious mania and he pursues her determinedly.

Try as they might, neither Angel nor Alec can take away the purity of her character. They both wrong her in all the ways a woman can be wronged, but her unwavering love for Angel, disgust for Alec are constant. Her quiet dignity and strength remain with her throughout the book.

In Tess of D'Urbervilles, I was an outsider, looking into Tess' life. There was pity for her, but no empathy. Her constant love for Angel confounds me. How can a man treat the woman he loves so abominably? And how can she go on loving him?

"Men are too often harsh with the women they love or have loved; women with men."

The end of the novel is not entirely unexpected. One can hardly expect a tumultuous life such as Tess' to end in a picket fenced, white-washed cottage with 'The End' in cursive at the bottom of the picture. She dies.

Oh yes, she dies.

She wishes for death throughout the novel and she attains it in the end. Not by her own hand, as I expected, but at the hands of the Law.

 The dramatic arches of Tess are unparalleled. Of all the books I have read in the 19 years of my life, Tess of D'Urbervilles falls and rises with every page and drives one to the depths of despair as Tess faces one misfortune of the other. The works of creativity that can challenge the drama of Tess are daytime soap operas, but they hardly have Hardy's finesse.


  1. I liked the comparison with The Scarlet Letter. Hardy is indeed a craftsman when it comes to writing. I found this piece of yours very engaging. Keep it up, Miss Bennet ;)