I have long anticipated to read this book ever since I learned about its plot when I was too young to recognize its sexual themes.
Compared to Hardy’s other tragedy, Jude the Obscure, I found the characters in Tess of the d’Urbervilles are far more empathetic, mostly because of their profound depths that pose great challenges for the readers to define them. As we cannot read Angel as a wholly “good guy,” Alec was much more than a “bad guy” as Tess was not merely a gullible victim to their whims.
Nevertheless, I do not find our heroine very much intriguing. It’s unnecessary or even irrelevant to discuss Tess’s character in relation to her adversaries–every force that affected her misery was totally outside of her control. What could she possibly have done to her poverty, her irresponsible parents and the parson who unearthed her ancestry? No matter how strong-willed, passionate, and independent, she was destined to be doomed from the beginning. Tess’s tragedy is so thorough and complete that my feelings for her have almost gone numb. It humbled me to think how things have gone differently for Tess who was born into a society where a young woman’s individuality can be completely erasable under the social mores and standards that are not wholly acceptable or just. After all, Tess was susceptible to social conventions but falls short of her abilities to fulfill them because of her poverty.
Angel and Alec, the slaves to her beauty, deserve sympathy, for they had their lives ruined as much as hers. It would have been a fine novel if the book had been written in their perspective. The men, especially Angel, is subjected to vissitudes as severe and dynamic as Tess.
What confused me about Alec, on the other hand, was his apparent sincerity in his feelings for Tess: there seems simply nothing foul in his constant offerings to her and her impoverished family. He wasn’t promiscuous, he didn’t lavish his inheritance, and he seemed capable of generosity to people in need. We don’t know about Alec’s past as much as Angel; there is simply little evidence we can define or judge Alec as an independent character apart from his interactions with Tess. His lustiness and sinisterity may have been an impression of him rather than his real character. Maybe his obsessions with Tess was the only thing that was permanent in his character; therefore, I couldn’t see he deserved his fate at the end. Tess may have been the only chance for Alec’s salvation. But, after all, Tess failed to become such a free-willing reforming woman. It’s hard to say Tess remained unattracted or untempted by him: her groundless(?) repulsion to Alec was another of her many follies.
Knowing very well that he did not harass the other women of the farm as he harassed her out of spite for the flooring he had once received she did for one moment picture what might have been the result if she had been free to accept the offer just made her of being the monied Alec’s wife. It would have lifted her completely out of subjection, not only to her present oppressive employer, but to a whole world who seemed to despise her. “But no, no!” she said breathlessly. “I could not have married him now. He is so unpleasant to me.” (339)
Who is most responsible for Tess’s downfall? It’s easy to blame Angel who revealed his limitations as a ‘freethinker’ by abandoning Tess. In any case, Angel cannot escape criticism for the “injustice” he has done to his wife. Angel’s response to Tess’s disclosure suggests that Angel’s interiority is inevitably, unarguably restrained from the prejudices of his social class Tess could not dream of belonging:
My position–is this…that by giving up all ambition to win a wife with social standing, with fortune, with knowledge of the world, I should secure rustic innocence, as surely as I should secure pink cheeks; but— However, I am no man to reproach you, and I will not. (257-8)
Nonetheless, Angel deserves sympathy. There are evidence that suggests that the torment caused by her past “sin” was even greater for Angel than Tess herself. The part immediately following Tess’s confession is painful to read, not because of Angel’s heartbreaking reproaches but the intensity of his own anguish that contrasts to Tess’s poise.
…he was ill with thinking, eaten out with thinking, withered by thinking: scourged out of all his former pulsating, flexuous domesticity. He walked about saying to himself, “What’s to be done–what’s to be done!” and by chance she overheard him. (262)
In the end, the male characters involved in Tess’s life are also victims of the tragedies of their own. What could possibly be responsible for Alec’s premature death, Tess’s execution and Angel’s unending repentance? I would like to blame our heroine’s uncritical and belittling desire to conform to society which was so unjust and cruel to her. Alec may have been the only one who could rescue her from it—but she resisted with all her might, in favour of social conventions of propriety that eventually abandoned her. Alec was the only one in the novel who is completely uncaring about social prejudices (which Angel failed) in favour of his own desires–should he be criticized for that? Isn’t that something to be encouraged?
So much can be said about the themes and characters but my words fail. After all, it was refreshing to revisit Hardy’s traditional narration after struggling with Joyce. Defiance to social prejudice is also a major theme in Austen’s novels but there is a world of difference between the two authors. My love for the Victorian literature was considerably increased after Tess but my completion also signals my next move to a more recent era: revisiting Salinger or starting something anew–Nabokov’s Lolita. Maybe some other non-fiction.