I recently re-read one of my favourite books. As I sit at my desk today, savouring my coffee, I am reflecting on this beautiful book. It is one of Thomas Hardy’s (1840 – 1928) best loved works; ‘Tess of the d’Urbevilles’. This story’s main protagonist is a young woman called Tess Durbeyfield who, following a chance meeting between her father and the local Parson, is seemingly compelled into the grand heritage of her family history; driven by the aspirations of her impoverished father.
The book opens at that chance meeting between Tess’s father and the Parson, who sits elevated above Jack Durbeyfield by being on his horse. The Parson makes fun of Jack’s low status by mockingly calling him ‘Sir John’; revealing the true status of the grand family heritage that Jack would have been born into, had the family maintained its wealth and status. As Jack, intoxicated from alcohol, reels from this information, he instantly assumes a sense of high position and demands, beyond his means, a ride home by the coach and horses of his local pub. This sets the scene for the ambitious manipulations to come as Jack seeks to restore a sense of high status in local society; gaining the reader’s curiosity.
We are soon introduced to Tess; presented as having something captivating about her, something she cannot see herself. Hardy uses the setting of a May Day dance to reveal how Tess’s low self-esteem and poor self-worth not only make her vulnerable, but set her apart from the other young women in the village through her own sense of modesty and reservation. These usually valued traits become the very factors that make her the object of desire and, ultimately, the victim of male dominance and power that was certainly present in nineteenth-century England, when the story is set. Here, Hardy hints at a storyline to come, as Tess makes first contact with a young man who feature’s significantly, later-on.
As the story progresses, Hardy reveals something of the nature of Tess, through comparisons to her mother and to historical context. For example, her mother and the less reserved Jacobean society are seemingly likened whereas Tess is linked through description of Victorian society; implying a sense of being reserved and morally decent. Hardy also reveals much about his characters and society through his evocative descriptions of ‘Wessex’.
Hardy lived during the Victorian era and into early twentieth century, witnessing the transformation of his country from an agricultural land of village life and market-towns into a global power of major cities, industrialisation and mass-mechanisation. His beautiful descriptions of ‘Wessex’ represent the purity of pre-industrialised England and the purity of Tess, herself, in comparison to the encroaching power of the newly developing human landscape; the city.
It can be argued that Tess is a representation of ancient, traditional rural England; vulnerable to ‘pollution’, male dominance and destruction as Britain’s aspiration to leave behind her history of agriculture grew, replaced by the promise of industrial revolution and global domination. It is these cleverly interwoven contexts, and their juxtapositions, that enrich the characters and make them believable.
As Tess experiences the attention and behaviours of the male characters, the reader develops a strong sense of connection to Tess and to the landscape, through Hardy’s clever use of our five senses. He gives depth of detail about the sights, sounds, tastes, material touch and even smells that are peppered throughout many scenes. This detail creates an organic sense of connection with the story and triggers a strong emotional response in the reader; for the story becomes an experience. Hardy’s use of colloquial speech, local accents, examples of old local sayings and clearly defined character traits further enrich the sense that the characters in the book are believable. His use of symbolic descriptions are also effective in representing and creating mood; not least of all Hardy’s use of ‘light and dark’ and of moving the story through the seasons of the year, giving the reader a sense of impact and momentum.
Hardy created a powerful tragedy. We follow Tess through her personal growth, her response to the efforts of men to claim her, her developing sense of self and her moral view of her world set against the backdrop of a transforming and unforgiving society to which Tess, ultimately, pays the highest price.
Hardy’s work here is impressive. He conveys a strong moment in English, and British, cultural and political history as the backdrop to describing the aspirations of society’s underclass versus the hierarchical structure of society. The complex relationship between human nature and societal values remains relevant, to this day.
(C) Dean G. Parsons. 2017.