This classic novel should subtitled, in my opinion, as “A Tale of Three Bad Men”.
It’s not entirely fair to consider a book written nearly 130 years ago from a modernist point of view (or post-modernist if you will). But sometimes a novel stirs up such emotion that it would be disingenuous to pretend to be anything other than morally outraged.
The traditional view of the famous novel is that Tess is a pure and innocent country maiden, taken advantaged of by the cowardly Alec d’Urberville, who finds her life begin again in the arms of suitably-named Angel Clare. Alas, her history proves too much for him and he leaves her only to realise his mistake and return all too late, standing by her to the bitter end. Hardy wrote the epitome of all that is good to be a woman and, despite being somewhat unloving to the women in his real life, his writings reveal a romantic heart that cuts to the core of what love can be between a man and a woman.
Utter rubbish! – And it’s about time Tess is consigned to the drawer of novels which once were popular and praised but now lie in obscurity – then shut forever.
In reality the novel is about three almost equally bad men. Not one of them has any redeeming qualities. Tess herself is only marginally better.
First is her father – John Durbeyfield who is led to believe his family come from ancient and honourable roots and immediately believes himself worthy of the title “Sir John”. Living foolishly beyond his needs and happy to allow his wife to push Tess into a dangerous and ultimately tragic direction towards Alec d’Urberville, the man has no care towards his daughter and sees her, at best, as a potential cash-cow.
Second is, of course, Alec d’Urberville. Rapist and stalker, he is nothing but selfishness if not evil. There’s no surprise here. He was repugnant to Hardy’s readers and he is repugnant now.
But equally bad, if not worse, is Angel Clare – the flawed ‘hero’ of the piece. This character filled me with anger from beginning to end. He pursues Tess just as Alec did, only with more honour perhaps but then, after confessing his own infidelities on their wedding night, completely rejects Tess when she confesses the crime committed against her. The height of hypocrisy, and most selfish indeed, he finally decides he might have made a mistake and tries too late to do something about it. He is the sole reason for her torture and suffering which comes to much more than what Alec did to her. Angel is the true evil here. He had the means to turn around her life and cruelly, selfishly, took it from her.
Tess, rather than the personification of all that is good about a woman (as was controversially the universal opinion when the book was published at the end of the 19th century), she is an abused shell of a woman, weak and submissive who all but brings about her own doom. It is hard to know whether to pity her or feel despondency that a stronger woman would have avoided the excesses of all three men and come to no harm. It is almost of no matter for I know of no ‘working class woman’ who is as naive and foolishly submissive as Tess is. I’m reasonably certain that working women haven’t changed that much and Tess is simply an upper class mirage of what such a ‘simple’ woman would be, invented by an educated and privileged man who had no true understanding or the female psyche.
Most sickening is how Tess and Angel conspire together in the way to make things ‘all right’. She ‘offers’ him her younger sister, who is almost as beautiful as her and who can be ‘trained’ by Angel (we’d call that grooming these days) to make a good wife for him when she is gone. The novel ends with the clear implication that this plan of an anguished woman is an acceptable one.
When I grew up, society was just coming out of the days of thinking that the morals governing this novel are still acceptable. Such thinking has been dead and disparaged for several decades now and rightly so.
It is time for Hardy’s Tess to be put away as a book of its time but not of today. If it’s on anyone’s bucket list of must-read books (as it was on mine) I’d recommend deleting it.