Oh where do I even begin!? This is quite likely the most tragic of novels I’ve read.
The story begins with a beautiful, virtuous, innocent girl of 17, and ends with a broken, beaten down spirit of a woman who once was. Tess is a victim from the start. Her misery is sparked by a few regular ever-day actions which lead to a mis-hap, killing the family horse. Since the horse is the means of her family’s income, Tess feels it is her fault/responsibility to make up for the lost income and well-being of her family. Her mother’s idea to marry her off to a supposedly distant family member by sending her to work on his property where he will obviously fall in love with her, is the first phase of her life long misery, the beginning of her detriment.
Alec D’Uberville is a villain if there ever was one. Smooth talking and persistent, he takes advantage of Tess’ sweet and vulnerable nature, quite literally leading her through the forest, manipulating her emotions, and when she is exactly where he wants her, he takes what he wants. Claiming love from the start, Alec persists, during the three months following, that he wants to marry her. Tess is forever pushing him away, verbally, physically, emotionally. But to her he is somewhat of a viper, tranquilizing her into eventually being unable to avoid him any longer. Knowing him to be evil, Tess packs up and leaves when she realizes she is with child. Despite knowing how wretched Alec was from the moment she met him, Tess somehow feels that she is to blame.
Tess goes back to her parents home in shame, but her mother, knowing that she should have been more considerate towards Tess’s innocence, takes her back without qualms. A few months later Tess gives birth to a little boy, and lives the next year in her childhood village as an outcast, where she toils day by day with her child on her back. Her pride as well as her disdain for him keeps her from asking Alec D’Uberville for anything. Tess often has mixed emotions towards her child, though she loves him unconditionally. He is the only beam of sunshine her sad life contains. But after a year, her little joy becomes ill, and despite every effort Tess makes throughout the night, he dies. She had the minister called during the night as her little one fought for his life, and requested a baptism. She didn’t want him to suffer the sins of his father, she wanted him to rest in peace. But the minister refuses to baptize her son, claiming that children born of sin have no place in heaven. By dawn her little one takes his last breath, but not before Tess herself baptizes her son. Again, her son isn’t granted a place in the cemetery, and one night Tess goes out into the dark and buries her little boy alone, leaving a cared for but nameless grave behind her.
Tess leaves her parents home for a job as a milkmaid at Talbothay’s farm, where her story isn’t well known and may only be heard through rumour or speculation. She tries to make a clean start of life. But instead of living a secluded, hidden life, she meets Angel Clare. Angel is an apprentice farmer, having walked away from potentially living the clergy way of life. He and Tess have a certain chemistry between them that the other girls admire and pathetically mourne for. Angel is seemingly exceedingly good and forthright, an honest and hard working man. For as long as she can Tess keeps him at a distance despite her growing attraction and love for him – “for his own sake” she claims, due to her past. She believes herself unfit for such a man, that he would despise her once the truth is known of her (through no fault of her own) impurity. But Angel continues in persuading her, claiming that nothing she could possibly have done would ever warrant the removal of his love for her. Eventually Tess’s heart over-rules her head, and she accepts his proposal.
Tess and Angel marry. The day is pure bliss for both of them. But they each had a secret they didn’t want to divulge to the other. Once Angel has secured her in marriage, he feels the need to come clean. Angel admits to Tess that he was once with another, by his own choice and actions, and begs her forgiveness. Once Tess hears this, she feels compelled to tell Angel about her own past, with sure hope that he will forgive her as readily as she forgives him, and they can continue this new life in openness. But nope. Angel is stunned into silence by her story, and says he needs time to think things over. SAY WHAAT!!!??? He literally just says “hey babe, I slept with this girl one time, but I didn’t love her, and I love you, I was young and foolish, can you forgive me?” And of course Tess’s heart forgives this love of hers, because it was in his past, and isn’t who he is today. Then Tess says “since we’re on the topic, I was raped a few years ago by a horrible man, had a baby, my baby died, and then I came here.” And Angel’s response is “wow, you’re not as pure and good as I thought. I’ll have to think things through, this sort of changes all the vows I just made to you five hours ago.”
Angel decides to go away for a spell, across the ocean, where he had originally been thinking of taking Tess to farm with him. He leaves money at Tess’s disposal so that she might not want for anything while he takes time to think and just be far away from everything he knows. Tess humbly and quietly accepts this, returning to her parents home for the time being, dreadfully unsure of her future, and for some reason still believing that she is completely to blame for Angel’s change of tune towards her.
At this point of the novel, I had to put it down for a while. I picked up some “Anne” books instead because, to be honest, this story was just too tragic and depressing for me to handle. Both men made me nauseous. Tess’s lack of gumption when it came to telling both men off drove me insane. Her humility is admirable, but I also found it too much. There is virtue in humility, no doubt about it. But there is also virtue in strength and will power for justice’s sake. And Tess allowed these two men to take terrible advantage of her. Yes she was done a horrible disservice by her mother, who kept her in the dark when it comes to the world of men. And I don’t necessarily think anything she could have said or done would have changed either of these men’s actions. But had her character responded differently, I think she could have stirred something in each man that would have made them feel disgust for their behaviour as well as remorse and a proper way of dealing with things afterwards. The tragic circumstances and lack of immoveable goodness in every single character of the book (except Tess) was just too much. I had to put it down for a spell.
The rest of the story continues in just as much tragedy. Now Tess is forced to live a life of toil, since she won’t use any more of the money her husband left for her and is determined to find her own way, while being committed legally and emotionally to a man who has more or less deserted her. It’s horrible. Then Alec comes back on the scene, and he is smooth and disgusting and she is fighting to be rid of him. She FINALLY feels anger towards Angel when she realizes she can’t hold Alec off much longer. The man she loves – who loves her – has left her to be swallowed up by a fiend, without so much as a backward glance.
Eventually she does give in. Alec uses his wealth and her fatherless family’s situation to manipulate her into – quite literally – a life of sin. Fully aware that her strength is weakening, Tess writes a hostile letter to Angel; first accusing him, reproaching him, and finally imploring him. But by the time Angel receives her letter, months have gone by, Tess is trapped, and Angel has already realized his injudiciousness.
Angel hunts Tess down, and after seeing him, it sets something off in her that crazes the mind of one who has been badly used by too many people for far too long. She sends him away in a cold manner. She returns upstairs, and ends up stabbing Alec to death after an argument. She runs after Angel, and they spend the next six days in compete bliss, hiding from the world for as long as they can. Tess doesn’t actually feel remorse for her crime. She feels a sort of freedom, even though she knows she’ll face death once she is found. And yet she is at peace with it. She expects it to come, and simply wants to enjoy the few days she has with her love before she is arrested and sentenced.
The morning before her arrest, Tess convinces Angel to take with her younger sister after she is gone. Liza-Lu – who is most similar to Tess of anyone else – is the only creature in the world “good enough” for him, Tess claims, and Tess couldn’t bare for Angel to be alone once she is dead. Liza will be a consolation to him, she claims. And it would put Tess’ sole ally in the care and protection of the only man Tess ever loved and trusted. Even after everything Angel put her through, Tess is good enough to be considering his welfare after she is gone. Certainly he is undeserving. But Tess is that virtuous.
Angel and Liza-Lu watch Tess’s execution from afar. They turn, hand-in-hand, away from their pure and loving wife & sister.
The only consolation in the ending of this story is that Tess is free from the horrible injustice and abuse she received throughout her life from the hands of all those around her.
I knew I would be reading a depressing story in Tess of the D’Ubervilles. But I didn’t realize it was THIS tragic.