My rating: 5 of 5 stars
HEADLINE: A bad guy who is fabulously talented in bed and a good guy who fumbles sex can complicate life for a girl.
I ought to have my head examined for undertaking a review of Tess of the d’Ubervilles, the next to the last of Thomas Hardy’s novels. My purpose in considering the idea was that I might perhaps persuade one other person to read this novel who might not otherwise. I am all about service to my fellow man. However, there are strange aspects of this novel that when discussed in remove from the novel itself can make it sound off-putting. I will mention a few of those without emphasizing them. They involve weird twists in the plot handed us through the vehicle of some very strange scenes. On the other hand I do not wish simply to offer diamond-like passages from this novel, although that is tempting. But let us take a shot here.
Tess is the eldest daughter in a poor family in 19th century England. The novel follows events in her life from the time she is sixteen until she is approximately 21, let us say. There are a multitude of detailed plot outlines of this novel to be found elsewhere on line. The only valuable supplement to those that I can offer is to say bluntly what those plot outlines say in such a round about way that it loses impact or can be missed entirely. Tess is one hot looking sixteen-year-old female human being.
It is out of the fact that Tess is one hot looking sixteen-year-old that all the action of this novel arises. At the time of her first seduction, or rape, she is described as one who has a “coarse pattern” laid over her “beautiful feminine tissue.” So in picturing her, we must picture her as something much more than simply a pretty young girl, although she is certainly that. She is a pretty young girl with that look about her that drives men wild—that look about her being something rarely encountered in a girl so young.
Some part of that look about her derives from her unity with nature—or should we say “Nature” with a capital “N” since we are after all talking about a Thomas Hardy novel? I would rather put it this way. She is earthy. When Hardy writes about her when she is in relatively unspoiled natural surroundings, it is apparent that she herself is very much at home in and a natural part of those surroundings.
Hardy places our hot looking sixteen-year-old girl in an environment with some problems. It is an environment wherein the Victorian morals of society are so completely at odds with the nature of men and women generally, and particularly in the realm of sex.
Second, she inhabits a rural area of England where the quality of life is slowly deteriorating. Hardy does not impose upon us with some heavy-handed social commentary at all. Rather, this social commentary is portrayed seamlessly along with the characters and the action. As an example, there is a great contrast between the portrayal of Tess’s life as a milkmaid early in the novel, which is idyllic and almost lyrically described, and her life later in hard labor on a farm, the slave of a threshing machine. You must notice stuff like this if you are going to do big time literature.
But let me get back to the sex because I know that is what probably piqued your interest. For women heterosexual sex requires men, as much as women may at times regret this. Hardy supplies the men here in the form of two male knotheads named Alec and Angel. She is raped by the wealthy Alec who drugged her with a delicious strawberry, and has his child, which immediately dies. She falls in love with the decent Angel who lacks wits but is under the mistaken impression that he has them in spades. She marries Angel, only to be abandoned by him when he finds out about her past. She becomes Alec’s mistress–Alec now, ala Roman Polanski, regrets the strawberry drugging and the rape–partly for economic reasons. A girl’s gotta eat. The other part of her reasons are addressed below. A repentant Angel flies back to her, a tad late to the dance as usual, only after she has just murdered Alec. The two of them end up at Stonehenge of all places, where she is apprehended after the police let her complete a nap. There are a lot of puzzling sleep episodes in this novel. Again, you must notice stuff like that if you are going to do big time literature.
I think that we can safely conclude that Alec, the “bad guy,” is sexually skillful in the sack. He knows what he is doing with a woman and likes to do it a lot. The “good guy,” Angel, fumbles in this area. I mean, the “good guy,” Angel, chooses to sleep on the couch during his wedding night rather than have sex with one of the hottest young women in the country. Why? Because he finds out that she has had sex before. Whew! This is the kind of thing that can complicate life for a girl, I understand. And now, thanks to this novel, I do understand.
I wanted to kick both of those guys’ asses at one point or another, but of course I was feeling a little paternal about this poor hot looking sixteen-year-old girl. I refer to them as knotheads, but both do evolve and develop during the course of the novel in what we could simplistically call a favorable direction. The problem—and it is this problem that gives us our story—is that neither of them evolves and develops quickly enough to remedy the horrendous impact their earlier conduct has had on poor Tess and save her. Angel finally comes to the realization that it does not make any difference if she has previously had sex with both the football team and the marching band. She is nonetheless a quality human being whom that nitwit should feel undeservedly blessed to have as a wife.
I say “poor Tess,” but. . . . Tess is not passive. She is a girl of action and decision. She makes choices. She acts on those choices. We readers like Tess immensely. It is just that we as readers are continually frustrated with the choices she makes. She is not very old. So this is natural. However, part of the great entertainment afforded by this novel for the reader is contemplating what her alternative choices were and whether those might have resulted in any better an outcome for her.
After great thought, insofar as I do great thought, I have concluded that none of those other choices would have. My personal view is that she was doomed from the outset by the mere fact that she was one hot looking sixteen-year-old female human being in a society where that made for nothing but trouble. The tragedy is that in 21st Century America, this could have made her queen of the hop. I might be wrong. You will have fun coming to your own conclusions.
I had given a spoiler alert at the beginning, but the facts of the plot that I set out above are not really spoilers. It is not at all that unusual a 19th Century plot, other than the conclusion is more grim than usual and the sex is more prominently on display in that Alec and Tess actually do have a lot of sex, as in intercourse and all the accompanying accoutrements presumably. At least Alec was no Bill Clinton. The great pleasure in reading this story is Hardy’s manner of telling it even if you know what is going to happen. Anyone who knows anything about Hardy will know that Tess is not going to come to a good end anyway.
There you go. That is the best I can do. I urge you not to miss out on this novel. And please do not respond by telling me that you saw the PBS production. Give me a break. This is a great novel, to be enjoyed as a novel.