Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy was one of the first ‘grown up’ novels I had read. Picked up from a dusty book case in my grandparents house, this was a book that did not have a murder mystery, nor was it a science fiction nor a Bildungsroman. Mayor of Casterbridge, another Hardy novel, follows in much the same vein. These stories had adults in tough situations, making even tougher choices and more often being unable to make any choices as their lives were dictated by fate.
I am not quite sure why I decided to read Tess of the d’Ubervilles. I think it was because I wanted to read a classic and savour the leisurely narrative, which is often missing from modern story telling.
Thomas Hardy is famous for presenting a rustic rural setting and far from rosy picture. You might argue that Wuthering Heights had a slightly similar bucolic feel, but most of what happens in Wuthering Heights has the element of surreal, while Thomas Hardy tackles the real.
Well, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was painfully real. Thomas Hardy added a tagline to the book – A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. A lot of online material suggestes that he was attached to his protagonist and obviously meant well. Throughout the book, I only grew more upset at how unfair is the world to a woman. And also how helpless is she. This book written in the last decade of the 19th century rings true even today.
Tess has a self centered egotistic father who sets into motion a sequence of events with fatal consequence, when he comes to know that he is not the head of some impoverished insignificant family, but a descendant from the illustrious line of the d’Urberville. Tess’s materialistic, superficial mother sends her off to an unknown world, outside the protection of her family.
Tess’s parents expect her to approach their apparently well-off extended family. This is where Tess meets her cousin, a libertine fiend, Alec d’Urberville. Thomas Hardy relies on a number of suggestive phrases to convey to us Tess’s physical attraction and its provocative effect on Alec. His behaviour towards Tess was disrespectful and lustful, but the poor (literally and figuratively) girl had to bear it because her family was dependent on his for their sustenance.
I wondered if Tess should have been less offended by his flirtation and accepted his advances as a physical manifestation of his love for her. In the end I decided that Thomas Hardy did faithfully portray this aspect of a woman. Most of the time one can inherently tell if someone’s attention makes you uncomfortable or is a compliment to your worth. So, from the beginning of their meeting the fact that Tess was scared of Alec does add to the narrative.
A lot of the details of her time spent with Alec felt almost superfluous, since it was all surely culminating into the evil darkness of a misty night. The author does not elucidate on the details of what occurred. At first, I had no doubt Alec had raped Tess. As I continued to read, I came to question this. It is possible that Tess allowed herself to be seduced by that horrible man, and that was the reason of self condemnation and penance.
Also, she continued to talk to Alec even afterwards and though she returned home, much later when she met him again, it still felt like she blamed herself partly if not equally for the misdeed. If the blame is simply because she is no longer a chaste virgin and her beauty is what led him astray it makes me sadder still, than if the blame is because she was like Eve who got tempted for a taste of the forbidden fruit.
I use the above example because there was a lot of commentary on Christianity in the book. Specially, what it means to embrace the ideas while shedding the dogmas of religion. None of it moved me enough to contemplate much, except to harbor a lingering dislike towards the society portrayed in the pages of this novel.
The second phase of Tess’s life, which could have been a possibly happy one was also doomed. She fell in love with an idealist, Angel Clare. She was weak, and did not tell him the truth about herself. The story shows that she tried, but circumstances and a silly mother all came in way. However, had Tess been a stronger woman or the author wanted to give the story a happier turn he would have made sure Tess confessed before and not after the wedding.
As expected (by this time one is sort of forced to admit that nothing happy can happen in this book), Angel left her. He can not accept an impure woman. Tess continues to idolize him and feels she deserves all the scorn. But, the punishment of separation is too severe and agonizing to bear.
The next act I blame Tess for, is her pride in not writing to her husband sooner. It was clear that she was financially and emotionally in dire straits. To not write to him and implore him to return or assure him of her undying faith was another plot ploy to estrange her further from any chance of happiness that might have lingered in her fate.
The final quarter of the novel felt like a mawkish Bollywood movie of the 70’s where the heroine has no way out and to support her family must end up compromising her integrity and leading a supposedly fallen life. Again, maybe am just reading this from the comfort of my house, with money, education and security backing me and giving me the superiority to condemn the choices Tess makes, but there really was not much to redeem her. And the disconcerting society that she is a part of manages to reach the nadir of hypocrisy.
Her final act of killing Alec to return to Angel was committed out of love. But, it could as easily be out of outrage at the gross injustice and anger at herself for allowing Alec d’Urberville to make her choose wrong all over again. Seeing her impetuous nature and repressed emotions, I am more inclined to think that it was a mixture of everything she had borne in her wretched life that drove her to murder.
As her dying wish she hopes her Angel can find happiness with her younger sister( whose presence in the novel is not more than 5 paged). This too felt contrived and spoilt the book for me (as if there was anything left to spoil!).
It was impossible not to be affected by the foreshadow of inevitable tragedy that Tess was destined for. There was nothing much that I enjoyed in the book and reading it has left me depressed. What is worse is that even though there were so many places in the plot where the insurmountable misfortune felt forced, it still feels like there are women in the 21st century who are as defenseless as Tess of d’Urbevilles. So, however pessimistic and hopeless is the story, it is not far from the truth. That thought leaves me with a feeling of despair.