Fiction: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy

TessIt took me approximately twenty days to complete Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which makes me both sad and proud.  Proud, because it’s four hundred pages of relatively tiny print, and sad because … it’s only four hundred pages, it’s not like I was attempting to read The Mists of Avalon again.  Yeah; shoot me when that happens.

By the way: if you have never read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I must warn you: there is no happy ending.  In the scheme of the novel itself, the ending is satisfying.  But happy?  No way.


Before I go further, the plot: John Durbeyfield, a poor haggler in Wessex County, learns that he and his family are the last descendants of an extinct line of aristocracy, the d’Urbervilles.  John is a drunkard and his wife, Joan, passively allows him to avoid work when necessary.  The night that John discovers his true heritage, Joan must send Tess in his stead to make an overnight delivery.  She falls asleep and in a tragic accident, the horse dies.  To make up for the death of their livelihood, Tess agrees to ‘claim kin’ to a family of d’Urbervilles in a nearby town.  Here she meets Alec d’Urberville, who is no more a d’Urberville than I am (his father purchased the name to make his own familial line appear more impressive).  Alec is fascinated by Tess, and one night, he either seduces her or rapes her – it is left up to the reader to make the decision, though one can infer that Hardy insinuated the latter (as does the latest Masterpiece Classic adaptation – and yet more on that yet later).  Tess’s life continues to slide into tragedy, marked more by happenstance and coincidences than by poor decisions and opinions.  She moves from her hometown to Talbothay’s Dairy, where she meets the curate’s son Angel Clare.  The two fall in love and marry; upon the wedding night as Clare confesses his past indiscretion, Tess admits her ‘spot of Trouble’ and is rebuffed by Angel.  He leaves her for Brazil, and she moves on to Flintcomb Ash, a poor, dreary farm where she labors like never before.  She meets up again with Alec d’Urberville, and in yet another instance of tragedy for Tess, she is led into a decision that will leave her happy only once more in the novel.

I actually wrote my senior paper on Tess back in high school.  It’s one of my prouder moments.  See, I was going to write my paper on Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad; mainly because I hated Lord Jim with the passion I usually reserve for hating things like the Crazy Plow Guy across the street, George W. Bush, and spiders that come out of nowhere.  Also, young readers who love Twilight in spite of its ridiculousness, rather than because of it.  Let me be clear on at least one point in this particular essay:  VAMPIRES DO NOT SPARKLE.

Ahem.  Anyway.  I was going to write about Lord Jim because I hated the book.  But kind Ms. Van Orden reminded us that we had to write a seven-page paper on a book, including reading critical/literary interpretations of said book.  And if we chose a book we hated, why would we want to hate the book even more?  So I chose the one book out of the entire year that I had tolerated: Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I took books out of the library about a week before the paper was due – we had been given a month, mind.  The day before the paper was due, I could be found scribbling notes frantically throughout the day’s classes (namely, band and computer apps, both glorified study halls).  I got home at 3 p.m., sat in front of the computer and pulled a paper out of my ass after typing and inserting quotes for about twelve hours.  I know I was still awake when my mother got up for work around four a.m.  I handed the paper in the next day, knowing I had failed, and therefore I’d fail English (unpossible!), never graduate high school, and be forced to work at the local dry cleaner forever, or at least until I got chemical poisoning and died (so, forever).

I got an A.  I was shocked.  I almost – almost – asked Ms. Van Orden if she wasn’t mistaken, but decided to take the A, even if it was supposed to go to Kevin Jones.

After studying English literature in depth during college, I have an even better understanding of the novel.  In high school, I was focused on the easy thing I could compare, so for my thesis I discussed how Hardy used Talbothay’s Dairy Farm and Flintcomb Ash as representations of Tess’s Heaven and Hell.  But now, I understand that it’s so much more than that.  Here are some themes I recognized while reading the novel:

Tess as Anthropomorphized Nature: Tess is a woman of the Earth, first and foremost.  She finds work on the fields in rural areas: first a tender of fowl, then a dairymaid, and a farmhand.  She is described in naturalistic and earthly terms.  Going along with this theme is that of Organized religion versus paganism.  If Tess is a representation of Nature, she cannot be contained by organized religion, either the Evangelicalism put forth by Clare and his family, or that of Alec upon his conversion.  Rather, Tess is represented by pagan imagery and thoughts.  Her final scene in the book is her sleeping upon an altar at Stonehenge.

Another huge theme is Nature vs. Society.  Tess’s major conflict with Angel is the sexual double standard he imposes upon her.  He was involved with a woman in London before marrying Tess, and he confesses, and Tess forgives him.  Tess tells Angel about her incident with Alec, and the Trouble thereof, and Angel refuses to forgive her.  In God’s eye, Alec is her husband, not Angel, and he can’t deal with that.  Angel agrees that she was a victim, but he can’t quite reach the forgiveness she should be receiving.  And rather than getting inflamed and angry about the double standard (as I would, the modern woman), she goes along with it, because she loves Angel so much. 

“She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.” (p. 274)

Finally, there’s the theory of predestination and self-determinism.  It could be theorized that Tess’s trouble wouldn’t have happened if her father hadn’t heard that he was the last in a line of d’Urbervilles.  Prior to that knowledge, Tess was a Durbeyfield, and happy.  But when her father learned of his lineage, he drank too much, so he couldn’t make the delivery, so Tess took over, fell asleep, the horse died, and then she was sent to ‘claim kin’ to a family across the country, whereupon she was seduced and/or raped.  Her other tragedies tended to take place in and around places of importance for the ancient d’Urbervilles: her disastrous honeymoon was spent in the d’Urberville ancestral mansion, and she entered into Alec’s service while at the d’Urberville tomb in Kingsbere.

There’s more, but I’ve bored everyone to tears enough with my English literary theory.  Let’s move on to my favorite part of this piece: Is Alec d’Urberville the late 19th Century interpretation of Chuck Bass?

No, I’m serious.  This is the actor who played Alec in the latest adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, aired this month on Masterpiece Classic:

Alec Durberville jpg

And this is Chuck Bass, from the CW hit Gossip Girl.

Chuck Bass 2

They both have the fun-yet-smarmy-and-slightly-greasy bangs thing going on, with the heavy eyebrows that seem to be weighted in the middle.  Both are manipulating bastards.  Only one is awesome. 

If the facial similarities weren’t enough, have some more:

– When Alec smokes, he has the same air of feigned disinterest that Chuck Bass always has.

– After Alec renounced the priesthood (because that was going to be a lasting career), he returned to Tess wearing a GOLD WAISTCOAT and a PURPLE CRAVAT. 

– Chuck loves purple.  (See above.) 

Poor Tess.  No one can resist Chuck Bass.  Not even a 19th-century version.

Next up:  I … I’m not sure yet.  I’m trying a lot of things out.  The only requirement is that it must be completely trashy compared to Tess

Grade for Tess of the D’Urbervilles: 2.5 stars


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