Exquisitely beautiful in its inevitable tragedy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles makes a masterpiece out of melancholy.
Charting the steady, irrevocable destruction of doomed heroine Tess, the book takes on a poetic texture, as Thomas Hardy’s lyrical descriptions of nature mirror and echo the experiences of his protagonist. The other main character of this novel, if there is one, is neither of Tess’s lovers, but rather the Wessex countryside of which Hardy is as enamoured as he is of his captivating heroine.
Irving Howe has described the eponymous Tess as ‘that rare creature in literature: goodness made interesting’. There is no doubt that Hardy’s lovingly rendered heroine is the heart of the novel, eclipsing the whole host of colourful characters that inhabit the pages alongside her. Hardy’s subtitle describes Tess as a ‘pure woman’, which she certainly is in every sense at the opening of the narrative, where we meet her as an innocent country girl of modest origins. Her fate is sealed, however, when her parents send her to the D’Urbervilles, their supposed distant relations, where she is robbed of her innocence by Alec D’Urberville.
Hardy paints Tess with vivid colours, creating one of the most arresting and memorable characters of nineteenth century literature. She is both a reflection and symbol of the natural environment that she inhabits, with her surroundings – so sublimely evoked by Hardy’s prose – continually tied to her shifting emotional state. This deep connection with nature lends a greater dimension to Tess’s joys and griefs, with her sorrow seeming to echo some larger melancholy.
While sorrow is a vital component of Tess’s character, Hardy also endows her with a passionate and impulsive nature that makes her ever more endearing and real to the reader, rather than allowing her to become a meek, drab victim; she is no suffering saint but, as Howe puts it, ‘goodness made interesting’. Few literary characters have been given such beauty and vivacity by their creators, conveying the sense that Hardy found his heroine just as alluring and irresistible as her lovers do. The novel is almost like a love letter to Tess from Hardy, or perhaps more like a mournful memorial to a lost love.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles has many of the markings of tragedy; a reversal of fortune, an inevitability to events, a sense of pathos. Yet Hardy inverts traditional conceptions of tragedy by having a humble milkmaid as his tragic heroine rather than charting the fall of a great figure. In fact Tess’s family have already fallen, as we learn at the beginning of the novel that she is descended from a great old aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times.
The other way that Hardy’s novel diverges from the prescriptions of tragedy is in the lack of an intrinsic mistake or character flaw in Tess that causes her downfall; it is merely the events that seem determined to conspire against her, with unfortunate coincidences and disastrously bad timing befalling her at every turn. If there is any fatal flaw prompting the tragic course of Tess’s life it is her family’s assumed sense of grandeur following the uncovering of their grand origins, a discovery which leads them to send Tess to claim kin from Alec’s mother.
So brilliantly does Hardy’s tragic heroine shine that her lovers seem dim and flat by comparison. Alec fits the bill of the classic villain, a wicked seducer who unrepentingly states: ‘I suppose I am a bad fellow – a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability’. So blackly is he painted that the reader almost feels the urge to hiss and boo as he makes an entrance, leaving him to serve a purpose more as a symbol than as a fully formed character.
Angel’s character acquires more colour, as he is both Tess’s protector and persecutor by turns. His attempts to break away from his family and be a free-thinker are intriguing, but he proves to be a man of thought rather than of action. His love for Tess, rather than the pure and unconditional love she bears for him, is based upon an idealised image of her rather than a reality and when this image is shattered he retreats to the recesses of his mind, revealing him as essentially weak. To the modern reader, Angel’s condemnation and rejection of Tess is distinctly unpalatable. Only by his eventual return to Tess is he partially redeemed, but never does he achieve the strength or passion of his lover.
There is an almost painful beauty to Hardy’s novel as it moves inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, beguiling in its poetry and captivating in its sorrow. Lyrical and deeply moving, Tess of the D’Urbervilles eventually leaves us with no other option but to join Hardy in mourning the fate of his luminous heroine.
The next book in my challenge will be Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.