Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891) - Angel vs Alec

I finally finished this book.  I won't say it was an enjoyable task, probably because this book is just a single story, a straight shot at a predetermined end that the readers guess very soon into the novel.

It was a story of a young woman, not much more than a girl, with two men who "love" her.  Both are villains.  Now wait, hold on.  Let me explain, before the mob masses with their pitchforks.  This is what I mean when I say I "tear down the idols of literature".

You've got Alec, who loves Tess's beauty, but has nothing in common with her and never takes a hint that she can't stand him.  Then you've got our "hero", Angel Clare.  I mean, come on.  Can we have a more subtle name?  Hardy is telling you this is the good guy, because we readers are too dense to get that.  Unfortunately, 21st century minds may not think of him as so good.  He loves the image of Tess as a sweet country maiden of pure peasant stock, but when that image is broken he is so horrified he leaves the friggin' country!  What a coward.

Don't think I didn't like the book, but it's really nothing more than a period piece to show the sorry state of the world over a century ago.  It's not an entertaining book, there is no mystery, no intrigue, and nothing to make you keep turning the pages - unless you believed it would have a happy ending and you just couldn't wait to see how Hardy pulled that off.  There was one single plot in the book, and only a handful of characters.  Nothing else happens in this book other than the problem with Tess.

One of the redeeming facets is Thomas Hardy was a wonderful writer with a practiced style.  There was quite a lot of symbolism in the book.  I won't go over all of it, you can google to see probably much more than I caught.  A scene where dying birds were laying on the ground, and she broke their necks to put them out of their misery was actually very disturbing.  Tess saw herself in those birds, and gave them the gruesome end she thought she deserved and apparently wished for at the moment.

This is important symbolism because it reveals more about Tess than Hardy wanted to come out and say.  That sort of writing is brilliant.  It's a nice twist on the "show, don't tell" rule.  We get to learn about a character through symbolism.

There's another similar bit near the very end, when Tess sleeps on the sacrificial altar at Stonehenge.  She is the sacrifice to the god of societal rules.  Plus, instead of sacrificing a virgin, we have Tess as a "pure woman".  That theme played out throughout the book.  Tess had sex before marriage, so by society's standards she's an immoral woman, no different from a prostitute.  But Hardy constantly showed her as a good person, kind, pure of heart, willing to give her last bit of money to help her family.  She even tried to stay true to her husband who deserted her, even after learning that he asked one of her friends to run off with him.  By our standards she's the kind of person any young guy would want to fall in love with.

But I know what you want from me.  Why did I dislike Angel?  He's the hero who let "love conquer all" and realized his love for Tess was greater than his revulsion for her evilness.  I'm supposed to like him.  Society told me so.  But I don't.

Why?  Because I'm not living in the 1890s, and unlike Angel I never saw anything wrong with Tess.  For Angel to be so prudish, so backwards, and desert his new wife is pathetic.  In one instant he confesses to a premarital indiscretion, in the next instant he's horrified over Tess's having done the same thing - and for her it was hardly her own fault!  How terrible do you have to be to treat your wife that way?  That's one of the reasons I say he didn't love her.  He was obsessed with some old world ideal of peasant women milking cows or whatever.

I actually have more respect for Alec later in the book.  I know, he seduced (possibly raped) a 16 year old girl.  I don't respect him for that, of course.  But he never left her, never deserted her, and helped her family.  Alec didn't know about the child, and as soon as he did, he was ready to help Tess out.  Now I completely understand he's a brutish character, and I never wanted to see Tess end up with him.  But I did like seeing him make amends for his earlier actions, even if he did only do it to get Tess.  Compare that with Angel, who gives Tess a handful of money and disappears.  He even asks Tess's friend to run away with him, although he later changes his mind.  The fact that he thought so low of Tess, his own wife that he claimed to love, that he would treat her that way is unforgivable.

And what's with Angel's weird obsession with heraldry?  That bit is often lost on Americans like me.  But for a society so heavily steeped in class hierarchy, I guess it really meant something who your ancestors were.  And Hardy shows Angel with exactly the opposite idea.  Instead of valuing people with noble blood, Angel values people without noble blood because they aren't "worn out".  They are fresh and bold and full of vigor.  I wonder if that was supposed to make him seem more modern.  To me, it made him seem stupid.  In both cases, you're judging someone based on who their ancestors were, as if that means anything at all.  They are both backwards views.  Modern readers will shake their heads over these old fashioned ideas.

When Angel found out Tess was of a noble line, he overlooked it.  Then when he found out she'd had a baby out of wedlock, suddenly that noble line business meant something.  Give me a break!

Here's Hardy giving his "ironic" take on the low state to which Tess's parents have fallen, especially after her father's death.
Thus the Durbeyfields, once d'Urbervilles, saw descending upon them the destiny which, no doubt, when they were among the Olympians of the county, they had caused to descend many a time, and severely enough, upon the heads of such landless ones as they themselves were now. So do flux and reflux—the rhythm of change—alternate and persist in everything under the sky.
Here we have that attitude in all its glory.  This is strictly an old world mentality.  The Durbeyfield couple in question (Tess's parents) are completely different individuals than their ancestors, those "Olympians of the county".  They are descended from them, that is all.  And they are no more responsible for their actions than you are for the actions of your ancestors.  That very mentality that we are somehow responsible for what other people did hundreds of years before we are born is idiotic and archaic.

Now, on to the other man in Tess's life, Alec d'Urberville.  I don't rant so much about Alec, because I never thought of him as a character so much as a plot device.  He was the representation of Tess's struggles and temptations.  There would always be an Alec in her life.  Plus, I don't think he was well drawn.  He "got religion" when Tess wasn't around, then lost it when he saw her again.  He even went so far as to tell one of his "brethren" to "go to the devil!"  That bit was hard to swallow.  But I'll leave that alone.

Alec's great sin was seducing (or raping, the details are sketchy) a 16 year old girl.  That is every parent's worst nightmare.  Well, every parent except Tess's, but I'll get to that in a minute.  I hate that this had to be included in the book, but it was the only way to create the circumstance of a fallen, yet pure woman.  Tess never wanted anything to do with Alec but he pushed himself on her.  This continued throughout the entire book, and he finally used her family's poverty as a way to snag Tess.  He's a cad, as they called them back in the day.  A player.  He used women.  But in the case of Tess, he wanted to marry her.  I don't question Alec's sincerity.  But that doesn't give him the right to have Tess.

However, just for fun let's have a little comparison.  Here is a conversation between Tess and Alec d'Urberville not long after he learned she gave birth to their child and it later died.
"Tess," he added, with a sigh of discontent,—"yours was the very worst case I ever was concerned in! I had no idea of what had resulted till you told me. Scamp that I was to foul that innocent life! The whole blame was mine—the whole unconventional business of our time at Trantridge. You, too, the real blood of which I am but the base imitation, what a blind young thing you were as to possibilities! I say in all earnestness that it is a shame for parents to bring up their girls in such dangerous ignorance of the gins and nets that the wicked may set for them, whether their motive be a good one or the result of simple indifference."
And then he offered to marry her, which she refused.

Compare that with this pitiful scene when Tess first told the great and wonderful Angel of her past.
He turned away, and bent over a chair. Tess followed him to the middle of the room, where he was, and stood there staring at him with eyes that did not weep. Presently she slid down upon her knees beside his foot, and from this position she crouched in a heap. 
"In the name of our love, forgive me!" she whispered with a dry mouth. "I have forgiven you for the same!" 
And, as he did not answer, she said again
"Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel." 
"You—yes, you do." 
"But you do not forgive me?" 
"O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God—how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque—prestidigitation as that!" 
He paused, contemplating this definition; then suddenly broke into horrible laughter—as unnatural and ghastly as a laugh in hell. 
"Don't—don't! It kills me quite, that!" she shrieked. "O have mercy upon me—have mercy!" 
He did not answer; and, sickly white, she jumped up. 
"Angel, Angel! what do you mean by that laugh?" she cried out. "Do you know what this is to me?" 
He shook his head. 
"I have been hoping, longing, praying, to make you happy! I have thought what joy it will be to do it, what an unworthy wife I shall be if I do not! That's what I have felt, Angel!" 
"I know that." 
"I thought, Angel, that you loved me—me, my very self! If it is I you do love, O how can it be that you look and speak so? It frightens me! Having begun to love you, I love you for ever—in all changes, in all disgraces, because you are yourself. I ask no more. Then how can you, O my own husband, stop loving me?" 
"I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you." 
"But who?" 
"Another woman in your shape."
That is probably the most pathetic scene in the book, and it can easily stand for the whole of society condemning poor Tess.  But back to Alec.  When Alec d'Urberville learned that Tess and her family had to leave their home because of her, they had this conversation.
"...Though we might, perhaps, have stayed as weekly tenants—if it had not been for me." 
"What about you?" 
"I am not a—proper woman." 
D'Urberville's face flushed. 
"What a blasted shame! Miserable snobs! May their dirty souls be burnt to cinders!" he exclaimed in tones of ironic resentment. 
Thomas Hardy didn't make Alec d'Urberville out to be a nice fellow.  But he is shown as someone with half a brain who knows good from bad, right from wrong, and the guilty from the innocent.  I can't say the same for dear old Angel.

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