by Thomas Hardy
First sentence: “On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.”
Men are jerks.
That’s basically the bottom line that I got from this book, the one that I stomped around the house growling about, that I vented on the phone to a friend about, once I finished the book.
Men — all men, from fathers to lovers — are just basically going to take a woman’s innocence, their good hearts, their good will, and stomp. all. over. them.
Cheery, isn’t it?
For those who are unfamiliar with this classic, Tess Durbeyfield is part of the Victorian working poor — oldest daughter of a lackadaisical farmer. When her dad inadvertently finds out that he’s a decedent of a noble family — the d’Urbervilles — he decides (practically pushes out the door) to send his daughter to a branch of the family who lives in a nearby town in order to beg them for money.
Male jerk #1.
Tess, being the kind, good, loving daughter that she is, does her father’s (and mother’s — she’s not much better!) will, and heads out. There she meets Alec: pretty boy, ladies man, and who is completely and utterly smitten with his “coz”. (Because as these things go, Tess is not only pure, but beautiful as well.) He pursues her very aggressively, and while she’s able to withstand his advances for quite a while, eventually he rapes her. Or at least, that’s how I see it.
Male jerk #2.
A short while later, Tess up and leaves the house and ends up back at her parents’ place. She gives birth and while the baby dies shortly thereafter (a very touching, passionate scene with her desperately trying to get the baby baptized before it dies), she’s determined to move on with her life. Fast forward a couple of years, and she gets a job at a dairy farm where Angel Clare is working.
A bit about Angel — he’s a gentleman’s son, and an enlightened Soul. He was meant for the Church, but unable to commit because of a lack of faith. And so, he decides to be a gentleman farmer, setting about visiting farms to get training. He falls head over heels in love with Tess, because of her purity and earthiness. She tells him she’s no good for him, that it would be better for him to marry one of the other dairymaids. He persists, and eventually she gives in (either these guys were REALLY persistent, or she really didn’t have much of a backbone), agreeing to marry him. On the wedding night, they decide to be confessional (word of advice: the wedding night is not a good time to be confessional). Angel confesses to having a short affair, whereupon Tess gets hopeful: perhaps he will be sympathetic to her plight. So, she tells him about her past.
Male jerk #3.
Actually — at this point, I don’t know who I was more incensed at: Alec for abusing and using Tess for his own personal pleasure or Angel for being such a merciless hypocrite. I had to put the book down for quite a while (a day or so) before I could deal with the story again.
Tess is totally the victim here, and it’s very frustrating for me as a reader to experience that. Especially since Tess is really the only sympathetic character in the novel. All that said, Hardy is a brilliant writer; engaging, descriptive, gorgeous language. And able to span all the emotions — from love to hate to disgust; he’s a master. The rest of the book is totally downhill, of course. A criticism of Victorian society and norms and a portrait of good intentions gone horribly wrong couldn’t have a happy ending.
That said, I’m not sure I’m going to run out and get more Hardy any time soon. Unless someone can convince me that it’s not full of horrid men. Because, I’m not sure I can handle much more of that!