“Tess of the D’Urbevilles”, Thomas Hardy: Yeah Nah

tess ofthe d'urbevillesI don’t think I’m up to the task of saying much about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. It confounded me.

Once I finished it, I realised that I had never “got it”. I hoped that someone I knew could explain it to me, could make sense of what happened, could help me to understand. But this didn’t happen.

What is so weird? Well, the protagonist, Tess, suffers and suffers. Nothing really goes right for her, which is awful at first, but then just a bit awkward. You really want the poor girl to score a break.

She doesn’t. Tess is poor, gets raped, miscarries, leaves home, and works as a milkmaid. Things look up when she marries the love of her life, but he leaves her when he learns of the rape. Yeah, it kind of sucks. I don’t want to give more away, suffice to say, things go on sucking. Woe.

However, while I didn’t really get it, I didn’t mind it. Hardy writes some excellent prose, and his verbal landscapes are often a joy to imagine. [quote]the stars, whose cold pulses were beating amid the black hollows above, in serene dissociation from these two wisps of human life.”[/quote][quote]Westward, the wiry boughs of the bare thorn hedge which formed the boundary of the field rose against the pale opalescence of the lower sky. Above, Jupiter hung like a full-blown jonquil, so bright as almost to throw a shade. A few small nondescript stars were appearing elsewhere. In the distance a dog barked, and wheels occasionally rattled along the dry road.[/quote]There is also a great observational wit, applying itself to questions of love, lust, family and feeling. For example, Hardy cannily maps “the debatable land between predilection and love.”

In addition, Tess of the D’Urbevilles is an interesting picture of how life in rural England used to be. Culture, custom, tradition, are all described as part of the world, an unassuming part of everyday life, and for a modern reader the effect is almost comic. Certainly it is notably curious. In my favourite such episode, some milkers resort to song to encourage reticent cows to give forth of their milk – this is apparently common, accepted practice!

So yes, the book is outrageous. The writing is great and it’s a pleasant way of learning about past English society. Perhaps it is better read with a Cicero, someone to help you make sense of it, a sort of anthropomorphised Cliffs Notes, ideally. But, to be honest, there are lots of other excellent books, and maybe you can give this one a pass.

If you don’t want to give it a pass – it’s here on amazon.

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