I feel like I should have started off with some fun or optimistic literature, but I finished Tess a week ago and the angry thoughts haven’t left me alone since. Sorry for starting out so heavily! (Trigger warnings for rape and epic jerkwads.)
I studied some Thomas Hardy in college, so I had some idea of what I was getting into with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, even though I’d never read it before nor seen any film adaptations. (I try to keep an open mind on the subject of film adaptations because they can be a great tool for visualization and exposure for mass audiences, but it’s still my experience that they may be good supplements, but are very rarely good replacements. I like to read the book first.) Unfortunately, even general knowledge of Thomas Hardy’s work doesn’t always prepare one for Thomas Hardy’s work.
The book starts out with Tess’s father, Jack “Sir John” Durbeyfield, being informed that his last name is a corruption of the aristocratic “d’Urberville” clan. He naturally assumes this means that he’s directly descended from the aristocracy and that everyone with the same last name is family. This introduction is important because it shows us that 1. John is pretty susceptible to delusions of grandeur, and 2. d’Urberville is probably pronounced something like “DER-beh-vill” and not “de-ÜBER-vill” as I’ve somehow been pronouncing it most of my life.
Thomas Hardy is a rough author to read. One discovers this when he lulls us into a false sense of security by describing the idyllic little countryside and its citizens – their commonplace woes of not getting to dance with attractive people, discussions of a possible match being made to raise a poor family up in the world, etc. It feels like the start of most Victorian novels, where the heroine undergoes a lot of hand-wringing and possibly some scandal, but eventually catches a good husband. But this is Thomas Hardy, so where we would otherwise start with mental hand-wringing as Tess drives along the tranquil country roads, we are instead treated to the family horse suddenly getting skewered by a shaft sticking out of a mail cart.
Welcome to a Thomas Hardy novel.
The hand-wringing does commence then, because Tess has not only fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed her ride, she’s now stuck by the side of the road with the guilt of ruining her family’s means of survival by killing the horse. Murderer! (Helpful literary note: This is foreshadowing.) Naturally the best way for her parents to punish her is to send her off to the d’Urberville family (because if your names are similar, you must be related!) in hopes that she can hit them up for money, or if that fails, marry one of them and wreak havoc on innocent farm animals somewhere else.
She gets to the house and runs into Alec d’Urberville, who is not suspicious at all because he is literally smoking and twirling his mustache. No, this guy seems totally legit.
Over the next few chapters, conversations run something like this:
Alec: Hello gorgeous. (One imagines an accompanying eyebrow waggle)
Tess: I killed my family horse and we need money. Our last names are similar and we have a spoon that looks like your family crest, so we must be related.
Alec: Related, you say? I find that sort of thing very sexy. Let me feed you strawberries. *shoves strawberries at her face*
Tess: You’re making me a little uncomfortable. I’m leaving.
Tess’s Mom: Why did you leave?! He’s rich! Go back!
Tess: I think I’d rather just find a job somewhere…
Tess’s Family: Don’t you want to become a lady?! Go back!
Alec: I’ve come to pick you up! Check out my awesome wheels! *eyebrow waggle*
Tess: Please stop touching me.
Alec: Only if you give me a kiss!
Tess: That doesn’t even make any sense.
Tess spends several more chapters trying to convey to Alec in various ways that she is Not Interested and all signs start to point to this Not Ending Well because he isn’t taking “No” for an answer. Because this is a Victorian novel (and a Hardy novel to boot), and because no other heroic gentlemen have appeared as serious contenders, this poor woman is likely her own (and only) defense.
All fears are realized when Alec picks Tess up at a party after a cat fight (between women, not actual cats), even though she doesn’t want to go home with him. Then, being the classy guy he is, he takes her to the middle of nowhere, waits until she’s sleeping, and, we assume, has his way with her.
I have a love/hate relationship with Victorian authors when it comes to reading between the lines. Once you get past the formal language, the stories are very modern in most areas, except when it comes to sex. It’s not that the characters don’t have it. It’s just that when they do, the actual scene is erased completely or it’s buried under metaphor. You will be reading a nice passage about flowers blooming or two characters hugging and suddenly there will be a baby where you’re 90% sure there wasn’t one before. The first time this happened to me, I was so confused. Now every time two characters embrace, I have to reread extra carefully to find out if they’re doing it with their arms or their legs.
Hardy, of course, doesn’t use the word “rape” – he doesn’t even describe it. He comments on the lack of Tess’s guardian angel and refers to the whole scene as tracing a “course pattern” on “beautiful feminine tissue” which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but is still pretty terrifying as the rest of the villagers shrug it off with as much as a “Yup, that sort of thing happens to pretty girls.” I really want to hate this book. Why am I writing this summary again?
Phase the Second begins with the ominous title “Maiden No More” so if you didn’t catch the catastrophe that occurred at the end of Phase the First, you might figure it out when Tess gets the hell out of dodge (with Alec following persistently and still Not Getting It) or when she gets home and her mother’s just upset that she didn’t marry him (Mother is also an upstanding sort of person). If you still haven’t caught it, you’ll probably figure it out several chapters later when she’s out in the fields and there’s suddenly a baby with her.
And then, because this is a Thomas Hardy novel and the main character is not permitted to be happy for more than a month at a time, the baby gets sick. Tess decides the baby deserves to be baptized, but the parson’s drunk so she does it herself and names him Sorrow before he dies. (Three questions: 1. What did people call their babies before they were baptized? “Baby #1”? 2. If babies were never christened, did they ever get ‘real’ names, or just nicknames? 3. If the baby had lived through the sickness, would he be stuck with the name Sorrow the Undesired for the rest of his life? I mean, nice going, Mom. Way to make the kid feel really good about ruining your life with his existence.) Then, because Tess is on a roll, she wants him to have a Christian burial. The Vicar is like “Whoa, now, no bastards allowed here!” so she puts the dead baby in a Marmalade jar and buries him with the rest of the outcasts in the dead of night.
This novel’s pretty cheerful so far, isn’t it?
Tess thinks so too, so she starts her life over as a milkmaid (quite literally – she heads over to a dairy farm and we learn more about the personalities of cows than we ever really wanted to).
Then, because this is a Victorian novel after all, a love interest appears! He is Angel Clare, Gentleman Farmer. (This is the point where the English Majors start to analyze Hardy’s comment about a lack of a guardian angel during the whole rape scene and wonder about the further implications of his name, his character, and his role in the novel as a symbol of some aspect of Christian mythos. Part of this analysis is ruined by the fact that Angel does not actually want to be a parson like his dad.)
Because Tess is the main character, Angel is naturally interested in her and they start up a flirtation in the cow barns. Angel decides she is some kind of woodland nymph or goddess of chastity, or something, and when he calls her Artemis, she reminds him that her name is actually Tess (the whole “putting her on a pedestal of chastity” thing will, in no way, turn around and bite him in the butt later).
Because Angel is wealthy and, apparently, Hot Stuff, all the dairy maids are totally into him. When the way to church is flooded, he diligently carries Tess and her three friends across one by one (and in my mind, they greatly resemble the village “Gaston Fan Club” girls from Beauty and the Beast). They swoon at being in his arms and I roll my eyes just a little bit. (Apparently they missed the opportunity to have Angel and Tess on my book cover in the standard romance novel position – his open shirt billowing in the wind as he carries her across a puddle princess-style.) Eventually everyone agrees that Angel likes Tess best and I am relieved that we don’t have to endure further ridiculous jealous rivalries.
One day, in the seductive lair that is the cow barn, Angel can no longer help himself and runs to hug Tess and reveal his feelings (But is it a normal embrace or a Victorian Embrace? I am assuming the former, but I will always have doubts. I have been burned too many times.) She does not actually scream at him, so we can assume she loves him back, and we are happy for her. Momentarily.
Angel eventually proposes, and Tess becomes overly dramatic and says she can never marry him. She makes up plenty of excuses, but never admits the truth (which is that she is apparently spoiled forever). The closest she gets is to say it has to do with her history, and Angel laughs it off because she looks so innocent. She’s scared that he’ll run from her when he finds out the truth. (And with good cause. How would anyone feel upon learning that their beloved was a HORSE MURDERER?!)
Tess does eventually consent to marry him, but spends most of her time telling everyone he should marry a different member of his fan club. She writes to her mother, who in all her great wisdom says “You should totally lie to your future husband about that whole baby thing.” Tess isn’t entirely convinced, but instead of telling him, she opts to feel guilty instead, randomly bursting into tears and confusing the hell out of her fiancé. She also keeps postponing the wedding date until her job is about to get downsized and she realizes it would be practical to have some means of surviving. She eventually feels guilty enough and writes the truth in a letter and slips it under Angel’s door.
Instead of actually asking him if he’s read it, she spends a few days waiting for him to react. Nothing happens. So of course she waits until the morning of their wedding to investigate, and realizes the envelop slid into a crack. (This is why you should always deliver news in person when you’re in a novel. So many misunderstandings could be avoided that way.)
She runs to confess the whole thing to Angel, but he basically just pats her on the head and tells her she’s perfect. (This is why you should also never put your Intended on a pedestal, and if they insist on confessing something right before a major life event, you should probably listen to them.) They get married anyway, but a rooster crows as they leave the dairy. Apparently that’s bad luck, so you know the marriage is doomed. (I don’t know a lot about farm life, but in my experience, roosters pretty much crow whenever they darn well feel like it.)
The newlyweds rent an old house from the d’Urbervilles (Why?!) where the paintings ominously resemble Tess, and when the porter arrives with their luggage, he talks about how Angel’s fan club have started their descent into ruin (one’s depressed, one’s dead drunk, and one tried to drown herself. It hasn’t even been 24 hours since the wedding).
On that cheery note, it’s finally confession time for husband and wife. The confession goes something like this:
Angel: I had sex with a woman once and I’ve felt terrible about it ever since. Do you forgive me?
Tess: I forgive you!
Angel: Fantastic. Now let’s hear all about your “terrible crime,” lol.
Tess: Oh, it’s the same thing! A man had sex with me once, it resulted in a dead baby, and I’ve felt terrible about it ever since. Do you forgive me?
Angel: YOU’VE RUINED EVERYTHING!!!
I think it’s actually pretty impressive the way Hardy sets up and addresses the gender double standard here. Angel wails over the fact that she’s not the same person he fell in love with (How has she changed? Not at all. Only his perception of her has changed, but that’s all that matters). Angel admits that it’s more her rapist’s fault than hers, but apparently she still deserves some blame – this is the 1800s after all. She graciously offers to drown herself, or at least divorce him, but he declines both (and it’s a sad sign of society that she offers suicide before divorce).
They agree to separate the next day, and that night Angel takes up sleepwalking. During his walk, he picks her up, carries her out the church, dumps her in a conveniently open stone coffin, and then passes out. (And I ask myself, how often do they leave open coffins lying around? Isn’t that dangerous?) She sighs, waits a few minutes, then takes him back home. He doesn’t remember a thing the next day. (What a catch. Imagine the fun times she’d have had if she’d stayed with him – going to bed never knowing where you’re going to wake up!)
Tess goes to her parents’ house and pretends her husband is away on business (Because he’s also dramatic, he goes to Brazil). Her parents, being the upstanding people they are, start to wonder if she actually married the guy or if it’s like Last Time (when she came home with a baby). Tess is getting really tired of this, and runs off to get a job at another dairy. Of course, Tess is still a pretty Mary Sue and guys don’t stop flirting with her, so she does the logical thing and shaves off her eyebrows. (Apparently this works for her?) She writes Angel every so often and goes to stalk his parents from the bushes (she manages to completely avoid talking to them, so I’m not sure what the point of her journey was).
On the way home, she hears someone delivering a wacky sermon in a barn and investigates, only to discover it’s her mortal enemy Alec. His mustaches are making an attempt at evangelicalism. She does a smart thing and tries to leave before he sees her.
It doesn’t work, of course, and he comes running after her. He tells her that he is reformed, and she doesn’t believe him. She tells him about the dead baby and he decides that he will come back to see her (and it is amazing to see how many ways this woman tries to phrase the word “Leave me alone” to this guy and he is still. Not. Getting. It.)
Alas, return he does, like an STD that just keeps coming back. Their conversations over the next few chapters go something like this:
Alec: What a scamp I was! A shame you didn’t know any better! Parents really ought to warn their daughters about such things. Do you want to get married?
Tess: Good God, no.
Alec: Why on earth not? It’d be doing me a favor.
Tess: *eye roll* I like someone else.
Alec: I’m sure it’s just a passing feeling for that guy!
Tess: I married that guy.
Alec: What? HIM!? *points at random innocent bystander*
Tess: You’re a little bit nuts, aren’t you?
Alec: WHY ARE YOU TEMPTING ME, YOU EVIL TEMPTRESS?!
Tess: Are you serious?!
Alec: Kiss me!
Tess: What is wrong with you?!
Alec: It’ll be just like old times!
Unfortunately, Tess cannot get a restraining order for her rapist, so his harassment continues. She avoids him when she can, slaps him when she can’t, and he spends his time acting like a jerkwad. I spend my time trying not to throw my book at the wall. She writes to Angel begging him to return (but alas, he’s sick in Brazil) and worries over her own sick mother. Then, because her mother actually lives, her dad randomly dies of a heart attack to maintain the cosmic balance of Hardy. His death means eviction for the large family and who else but Alec shows up to offer them a place to go. (Cue ominous music.)
Angel (surprisingly) does not die in Brazil, but gets a letter from his old fan club, which has taken notice of Tess’s stalker. (Finally!!!) He goes in search of Tess and finds her not at home, but under the name d’Urberville at a local hotel. They have an awkward reunion where she admits Alec had already made her give up hope of his return. He goes away heartbroken or something.
That night, Tess and Alec have a noisy argument overheard by an eavesdropping housekeeper. Tess eventually storms out. The housekeeper, not suspecting that this has turned into a horror novel, notices the ceiling turn red and start dripping. That’s a lot of blood. We soon learn that Alec had become an asshole so large that Tess finally did humanity a favor and stabbed him to death with a knife. (Legal note: I do not condone the act of murder except in the case of fictional characters who deserve it.)
Meanwhile Tess has found Angel and begun to stalk him (presumably, she has learned, this is what one does to one’s beloved). She gleefully announces that she has murdered her rapist and Angel assumes she’s gone crazy.
Their conversation goes quite literally like this:
Tess: “You don’t know how entirely I was unable to bear your not loving me! Say you do now, dear, dear husband; say you do, now I have killed him!”
Angel: “I do love you, Tess—O, I do—it is all come back! But how do you mean—you have killed him?”
Tess: “I mean that I have.”
Angel: “What, bodily? Is he dead?”
Yes, bodily. (How else would you kill him?) Angel then begins to suspect that his wife is actually a psychopath and I start to wonder how anyone can find Victorian literature boring. Tess is awesome. Angel decides not to make any sudden movements around her and just walks slowly with her for several miles, but she seems perfectly undisturbed by her actions. They start to plan their escape from the country and, I imagine, Angel starts looking around for a call box of some kind. They spend the night in an abandoned mansion (fortunately, these are conveniently scattered across England) and eventually make their way to Stonehenge.
Tess matter-of-factly tells Angel that when she dies, he should marry her sister (who cares if they’ve never met? Sisters are interchangeable). They ruminate about the stone altar she’s decided to lie on (symbolically, of course) and she takes a nap.
I don’t know what surrounded Stonehenge back in the day, but these days it’s in the middle of nowhere, so I’m surprised that the police have arrived as fast as they do. Tess is not surprised, of course, because she’s already on a sacrificial stone slab. She’s obviously ready to go.
The book ends with Angel and Tess’s sister watching a flag go up over the prison (we assume announcing Tess’s execution) and walking off hand-in-hand. I’m left with an unsettled feeling. I mean… yay for Tess’s sister, I guess? Good luck with your husband’s sleepwalking habits?
But this is a Hardy novel, so there isn’t necessarily a moral – just a commentary on the injustices of life. (And if we’re philosophizing, I’ll admit we’ve come a long way, but we still have so far to go.)
Next time I think I’ll shoot for something a little more lighthearted. Macbeth, maybe. Or Wuthering Heights.