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Victorian Age, that supposedly dark age of medieval thought, is known for its strict morals and orthodoxy and perhaps a few would associate it with Dickens too. It was those double standard morals that shaped every bit of society from the clothing to the stories in the magazines to the way women and men should behave and carry on relations.
Tess of D’Urbervilles is very much a product of its time. But wait, there’s a twist. And you would have to wait a bit longer to know that or perhaps when you read the book, eh?
Moving on, the novel by Thomas Hardy is singular in that it features a woman protagonist: Tess as the heroine. And like all heroines she too faces her own set of trials and tribulations in love and money matters among other things. And typical of Hardy, the novel is set in the country side-a place he never tires singing praises of as the sylvan beauty as against the raging industrialisation that was changing the British landscape.
The novel begins with Tess’ father finding out from Parson Tringham that he in fact belongs to an old lineage, an ancient line of family who were once rich and owned boundless land. This sets him on the path to use this info to his advantage and therefore sets out his eldest daughter, Tess, to be engaged to work with a rich relative (who are actually upstarts who have merely borrowed the last name!) close by. It is there she meets the brash son of the old lady she has to work for, Alec D’Urberville. And his constant pursuit of her despite Tess’s dislike for him, changes Tess’ life for the worse until she decides to take matter into her own hands and find another occupation in Mr. Crick’s dairy instead of sitting idle crying over her fate. Over there her life unfolds without much ado as she likes it and she falls in love with one of the dairy hands, Angel Clare, who had interestingly even seen her before at a countryside May dance and danced in that very group too. What then happens is a series of romantic trysts along with a bit of tragedy and the book ends on a bittersweet note that will linger for sometime.
So that seems plain enough right? Girl loves the boy and they have ups and downs and somehow then its smooth sailing? So where’s the twist?
But no Tess of D’Urbervilles is more complicated than that. Hardy has nuanced the story well so that it does not read like just another moral story about love, relations and women. It is layered story which at every turn of the page forces you to think beyond the status quo, beyond the rigid morals and social norms and archetypes especially that of the fallen woman and woman as a temptress. He thought way ahead of his time! For one, Tess is not the typical damsel in distress who believes her world has ended if no man loves her or rejects her. She picks up the pieces and gets on with her life and tries to order her life with her own choices. She is the agency for her own life and that is something commendable to see in a Victorian Era book (Indian soaps should learn something from Hardy!). The ending jars with the whole plot and may have been put perhaps to please the moralistic Victorian readers of the time. Who knows?
Hardy himself does fall prey to certain set ways of depicting the woman such as Tess as a divine ethereal being, the portrayal of her physique to emphasise her beauty and put her in the stock character of the temptress, thus exempting the man from any blame.
Yet, the novel is peppered with several gems like his beautiful descriptions of the setting-Blackmoor Vale and others that are too exhaustive to list here. But one I cannot help listing is Tess utterance when she is leaving Alec and her work to go back home in the 2nd part of the novel: ” If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.” It is a succinct take on the much abused “no” of a woman to her so called admirer, pursuer who expects that he alone can somehow convert that no into a yes. It is clearly stating that a no means a no and if i did love you I would let you know it. Are the Bollywood filmmakers listening??
For the review of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, another marvelous and beautifully written novel, click here.
The Victorian Era (roughly from 1830s to 1901) is renowned for producing several great novelists. In fact it is known as the Great Age of The Novel. Thomas Hardy is one of the many greats of this period who was not only a prolific novelist but also a poet. He has to his credit several novels and poetry collections.
‘The Return Of The Native‘ is one of his lesser known novels; ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ and ‘Tess Of D’Urbervilles’ being his other more well known works. Yet ‘Return Of The Native’ has a charm of its own and provides the quintessential Hardy outlook on English rural life. Set against the ubiquitous, unchanging Egdon Heath, the novel is preoccupied (like most of his novels) with the workings of Fate and the interference of misfortune and chance in human life. Like his other novels, it has a predominantly pessimistic tone.
The novel begins with pages of the heath’s descriptions which immediately establishes its importance in the story. It is November fifth-Guy Fawkes Day-and the inhabitants of the heath light bonfires all across illuminating it and thus giving it a diabolical look. Eustacia Wye-the queen of the night as Hardy calls her- sends a signal to Wildeve through the bonfire at Mistover Kapp and they have a clandestine meeting. Wildeve was just that morning set to marry Thomasin Yeobright but some trouble with the marriage license prevented it. Poor Thomasin was heartbroken and returned home in Diggory Venn’s -the reddleman’s- van much to the consternation of her aunt-Mrs. Susan Yeobright. Wildeve on the other hand had an ambivalent relationship with Eustacia and Thomasin. He had passionately loved the former and adored the latter. It is in such circumstances that Clym Yeobright-Susan’s only son and Thomasin’s cousin-returns home from Paris after a long time. He is the native that comes back to his beloved heath after being fed up of the materialistic life of Paris. He comes back for good to do some selfless service here- namely to start a school for the heath’s inhabitants. Its a move disapproved by his mother and creates an unfortunate gulf in their intimate relation. Clym also falls passionately in love with Eustacia and her divine beauty after they meet each other in unusual circumstances. Many complications arise thereafter due to Fate’s constant intervention that turn the lives of the heath’s inhabitants upside down. It is obvious that it ends on a tragic note(being a Hardy novel nothing else can be expected) with Clym bereft and philosophical.
The tragic end should not be a deterrent for avoiding this novel as it includes features that give it a status of a masterpiece. The genius is in the fact it provides a microcosm of Fate. The beauty of novel lies in the celebration of the power of nature, of heath’s power and resistance to change. It is a formidable entity in the novel that wraps its inhabitants in its godlike hold. The Edgon Heath is in itself a character of the novel. Being godlike, it has a supreme power to shape the destinies of the characters in the novel. Hardy not only celebrates nature but also the simple, rustic life, its people, its customs, traditions, its idealism, its simple life, and its superstitions. The novel is suffused with certain rustic, pagan customs that became rare in Hardy’s time such as the Guy Fawkes Day, the Mummer’s Plays, the Maypole dance etc.. This aspect manifest Hardy’s own belief in the rural way of life and attests his scorn for the industrial life.
The characters too are robust rustic individuals (except Eustacia) who adore the heath and accept its overwhelming presence boldly. The most unique sketches that Hardy gives are that of the furze cutters-Timothy Fairway, Christian. Grandfather Cankle etc. who embody the quintessential English countryside qualities such as friendliness, hominess, strength, politeness that better their lives in contrast to the townsfolk. The various characters’ personalities, their dominating passions and emotions define their lives and the events that occur to them. Eustacia is a melancholic, powerful active not to mention a divinely beautiful woman whereas Thomasin is on the quieter side and much more passive. There is a shade of delicacy to her character. Clym on the other hand is an upright, selfless man whose optimism helps him face any adversity. Whereas the reddleman is a gentle soul, a product of the heath itself and the character through whom Fate works. The story also has unique, peculiar characters such as Susan Nunsuch, her son-Charley, Captain Wye etc.
All in all, ‘Return Of The Native‘ is an excellent tragic novel modeled on Greek tragedy that is sprinkled with pure, untouched rural life and permeated with a wild, heath which in turn permeates its inhabitants even Eustacia. It is an absorbing read that will re-ignite anyone’s interest in classics.
Go ahead immerse yourself in the beauty and power of Egdon and leave everything to Fate!