According to the Wikipedia page for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it “may be the most depressing novel written in the English language.” It may also be one of my favorite novels written in the English language. Having first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the age of thirteen, when ‘rape culture,’ ‘hipster,’ disillusionment, and feminist rhetoric evaded my range of vocabulary and thought, I failed to appreciate the full extent of Hardy’s subversive genius (attempts at hiding the cover underneath the innocuous Louisa May Alcott might also have served as something of a mental distraction. *Spoiler alert* rape, murder, and teen pregnancy happen. . .not some of Julie Andrews’ favorite things). I felt and valued Hardy’s tragic, linguistic beauty, his natural affinity for poetic phrase, the simple eloquence of the blighted stars. I took it for granted that his narrational sympathies lay with his protagonist.
Rediscovering this story nearly a decade later, I realize how truly remarkable it is that a 19th century lower-class man in the throes of Victorian culture and the Industrial Revolution should have chosen a victimized woman as his heroine, much less donned the mantle of defense attorney in society’s trial of her. Victim blaming and rape culture are unfortunate practices which the modern world still denies and defies on a daily basis… but Thomas Hardy broke the silence before the silence even had a name.
Or at least, he tried. There’s a long, glorious history of censorship, in which Hardy essentially had to cut the novel in half and change the title from his original, A Pure Woman, in order to achieve publication. So now we have an absolutely hilarious alternate, director’s cut version in which Angel Clare carries the three women across the puddle in a wheelbarrow, to avoid the unfortunate incident of bodies touching. I love how that’s the passage they found offensive. Victorian problems.
Consider for a moment that the last narrative concerning rape emerged almost a hundred years prior in the form of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (or Virtue Rewarded), a comedy in which the female protagonist is repeatedly sexually harassed and kidnapped by her employer. During the most famous, allegedly hilarious scene, the master dresses up as a woman and attempts to sneak into her bed (lol, Samuel Richardson, he’s trying to rape her). In the end, she falls in love with him (!) and they get married, happily ever after. Virtue rewarded indeed.
Hardy not only appropriates and inverts this marriage ending (Alec, Tess’ husband and rapist, with a letter opener sticking out of his chest and blood dripping through the ceiling onto the landlady is perhaps not the most, um, expected sequence of events), he also decries these popular Victorian anecdotes which converted the tragedy of one woman’s life into the comedic fodder of another’s. One of the most memorable scenes occurs in Phase the Third, as the dairyman jokes about the man in the butter churn who refused to marry the girl he impregnated and his audience, oblivious to Tess’ past and present trauma, laughs: “She was wretched at the perception that to her companions the dairyman’s story had been rather a humorous narrative than otherwise; none of them but herself seemed to see the sorrow of it; to a certainty, not one knew how cruelly it touched the tender place in her experience. The evening sun was now ugly to her, like a great inflamed wound in the sky.” Debate on the perpetration of rape culture through comedy and offensive jokes, anyone? And also, “great inflamed wound in the sky.” I actually can’t get over how perfect you are, Thomas.
As the novel progresses, and Angel Clare infamously denounces Tess upon learning her secret, Thomas Hardy escalates in his verbal and rhetorical defenses, until the narrator becomes her only influential ally. While her family, her rapist, her lover, and the rest of society frolics around, blaming Tess for circumstances beyond her control, Hardy re-distributes some pretty hefty charges.
List of who/what Hardy blames for Tess’ situation:
1) God: Whatcha doin’ up there? Make better use of your omniscence!
“Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked”
“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other.”
“Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?”
3) Fate and the Natural Order: Bad-Planning there, Universe
“In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say “See!” to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply “Here!” to a body’s cry of “Where?” till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome, outworn game. We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a close interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. Enough that in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties,disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange destinies.”
4) Tess’ Mother, the infamous Joan Durbeyfield:
“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”
5) Angel Clare and his Mary Poppins’ bag of double standards:
“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”
6) Alec D’Urberville, the rapist himself (Scandalous!):
“You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted!”
*Bonus round shout out to the 2008 BBC mini-series, which not only had the foresight to cast the future Les Miserables Marius as Angel Clare (something about their mutual romanticizing, idealistic shenigans makes them perfectly matched brothers from another mother as far as literary characters go), but also included a emphasized reference to what Tess was wearing during the rape scene. Look at you, BBC, making classics all relevant to modern times.*
Of course, there are innumerable other reasons to enjoy Thomas Hardy: his eerily accurate depictions of projection in romantic relationships, his unforgettable plots, the sheer beauty of his language, the fact that he also wrote about a character named Jude the Obscure…but in conclusion, do not be deterred by the promise of depression. Rejoice in the fact that this novel exists, and read it because there is truly nothing else like it.