Friday, May 17, 2013

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My parents bought a VCR when I was in 7th grade.  My mom taped shows from PBS to use in class; I became a serious movie fan, not only watching movies but reading reviews and thinking critically about cinematography, costumes, and the technical aspects of filmmaking.  The first movie I remember wanting to see for reasons other than the plot or the star was Tess, but it was rated R and I was 12.  By the time I was old enough to see it, the movie had fallen into the good-but-not-classic category that doesn't get shown very often, so I still haven't seen it.  It also took me 30 years and Ravelry's Classic Literature group to get around to reading the book.

Hardy heroines do not have an easy life, and Tess Durbeyfield suffers more than any character I've met in quite a while.  When her father is too hung over to drive the family's beehives to market, Tess goes in his place.  She falls asleep, so she doesn't see the oncoming mail carriage which runs her off the road and kills the family's donkey.  Her parents then convince her to ingratiate herself with noble alleged cousins, and after being hired to look after the noble "relatives'" poultry, she's seduced or raped by Alec d'Urbeville, returns home, and gives birth to a son who dies before she can give him a name.  Eventually, she becomes a milkmaid and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister's son who apprenticed himself to the dairy farm so that he could learn the trade before emigrating.  On her wedding night, she tells Angel her history, thinking that he'll understand because he's just admitted to a sexual encounter of his own.  Instead he rejects her, leaving her essentially alone while he explores the possibility of farming in Brazil.  Tess finds work on a turnip farm and once again encounters Alec, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher who recognizes her and repeatedly tries to seduce her, while simultaneously blaming her for his loss of faith.  She resists, but after her father dies and her family is homeless and trying to sleep in a churchyard, he "rescues" her.  Of course, this is when Angel returns from Brazil, frail after a long illness but willing to forgive his wife.  He finds her in a resort town, living as Angel's mistress.  She tells him to leave, but runs after him - because she's murdered Alec.  They wander across the countryside, consummating their marriage in an abandoned manor house, and the authorities catch up with them as she sleeps on an alter at Stonehenge.

It's depressing and frustrating (particularly when you consider that Hardy was criticized for being too sympathetic towards Tess), but beautifully written.  There's a bit of a cognitive disconnect between Tess's hard life and the vivid descriptions of her beauty and the picturesque countryside.  I don't usually like Victorian novels - they're too florid and moralistic.  Hardy found the right balance in his prose and by keeping the ending depressing, avoided the moralistic uplift I too often encounter in the novels of that era.

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