Let me start by saying that I was, “that student.” You know, the one who ALWAYS read the assigned readings no matter how awful they were or how easy accessing the cliff notes were. So, when it came time to chose a book for my 2015 reading challenge in the category of “a book you were supposed to read in school, but didn't,” I was at a bit of a loss, as I have never not read a book that I was assigned. So, I decided to take a different approach. I instead chose a book that I felt like I should have been assigned to read in school, but never was. Hence, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous works.
I am a huge fan of classic literature. I love the language and how authors used to take a whole page to say one thing. I love the descriptions of places, social norms, and everyday life. I really thought that Tess would be right up my alley. Tess has all of the hallmarks of classic literature, but I have to admit that, at times, I had a hard time getting through this novel. Granted, it has over 300 pages, but generally that isn’t an issue for me. Some parts of this novel felt like a chore to get through.
“Never in her life - she could swear if 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?”
Tess is certainly a tragic character, who is certainly a victim of circumstance, naivete, and the whims of others. However, I have a hard time seeing her as just the innocent victim. Certainly there were horrible things that happened to her and she paid the price for the actions of others, but she also made bad choices and was weak-willed. She chose to wallow in self-pity and was so easily deterred from taking steps to rectify her circumstances that she can not be deemed entirely blameless for how her story ends. I felt compassion for her and agree that she got a raw deal in life, but there were other times that I wanted to strangle her for some of the choices she made that opened her up to further pain.
As for the men in this novel...I know Angel Clare is the “ideal,” but I found him to be snobbish, hypocritical, judgmental, and stubborn. I cannot say that I believe he deserves such a title. He judges Tess so harshly for something that was not her fault, even after admitting that he himself had pre-marital relations (a consensual relationship, too!). He then runs off to lick his “wounds,” never once giving Tess an ounce of compassion. He acts as if he is the violated one, not Tess. He focuses only on how Tess’s revelation affects him, and never once stops to consider how hard it must have been for Tess. How can he say that he really loved Tess and act this way? It seems that he was far more in love with the idea of Tess that he had created in his mind than the real Tess, if such a confession could rock his feelings so deeply. While I believe that he does redeem himself some at the end of the novel, I still say that he is far less perfect and far more flawed than Tess’s opinion gives him credit for.
As for Angel’s counterpart, Alec D’Urberville, I cannot say that there is much that is “ideal” about him. Except for the bit where Alec appears to learn the errors of his ways (which doesn’t last long when faced with temptation again…), Alec does not put up any pretenses. He is a womanizer and takes advantage of Tess’s weak will to get her to ignore her better instincts. When Tess believes that Angel is lost to her forever, Alec wastes no time playing on her insecurities and doubts to once again get what he wants. Tess is a plaything to Alec, and Tess, because of a lack of will or poor self-esteem, allows him to take advantage of her again and again. I would say that his only redeeming quality is that he does not judge Tess for her past (although this might be because he played a hand in it) the way Angel does. In the end, I think he got what he deserved.
The ending was also a little hard to swallow. I found it hard to believe that Angel, judgmental and righteous as he is, was so easily able to forgive Tess’s final transgression, one that I believe far surpasses her so called previous one. I also found it weird that Tess basically tells Angel to basically replace her with her younger sister, which he apparently does. He’s rather fickle, in my opinion. As for Tess, I don’t know if there was ever another ending for her story. After so much conflict, a tragic end seemed rather inevitable for Tess. Anything less would have seemed disingenuous to her story.
While I can appreciate this novel for what it is, and can understand why it continues to stand the test of time, I can’t say that it will ever be listed among my other classic favorites. Nor do I ever see myself wanting to reread it again and again like some of my other favorites. I am glad that I took the time to read it, and would certainly encourage other classic lit lovers to give it a chance. In the end, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
2015 Reading Challenge: A book you were supposed to read in school, but didn't