Cannonball Read IV: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Ahh, there's nothing quite like a depressing tale of ruin and social stigma to kick off the New Year.
I'd heard the title of this book many times growing up, but had never actually heard what it was about. Then, right before I started reading it, a friend told me that it was just really depressing. I enjoy a good, sad book (Of Mice and Men, anyone?), so I decided to plunge in.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles taught me that there is a big difference between good sad and bad sad. Good sad has some redemption involved that kinda makes the sadness worthwhile. Bad sad is just depressing, and even if there's a little redemption or at least some social value, it doesn't really make it worth how depressing the story is.
Tess Durbeyfield is a simple peasant girl who lives a simple peasant life until, one day, her alcoholic father hears from a parson that the Durbeyfields are likely the descendants of the D'Urbervilles, a noble family fallen into ruin and obscurity. Hearing that there might be some distant (and wealthy) relatives living nearby, John Durbeyfield determines that he and his family ought to get a piece of that pie and sends his pretty daughter Tess to go and collect.
What was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Tess ends up leading to her ruin (you can probably guess how. I mean, it's a book about social stigma back in old-timey England. You do the math).
It was a scandalous book for its time. It involves a taboo subject, and, at the time, probably shed some light and helped people to reconsider the justice of how "ruined" women were treated. Because of this, it's also an important work.
But, man, it's a sad book. Poor Tess never meets a man who does right by her, from her father to her would-be noble relative, to the love of her life, to her employer. The only man in the entire book who shows her the least kindness is an old dairyman. This book isn't really sad in a way that makes you think of noble things and want to be a better person. It makes you think of injustice and makes you despair of ever living in a world free of it.
In that way, I suppose it's almost as important as Native Son, which was probably the best book I read in 2011. But I think Bigger Thomas was a more realistic character than Tess Durbeyfield, whose blind devotion to the man of her dreams and patience under unjust suffering make her seem rather two-dimensional to me. The way Wright wrote made me want to stand up against injustice, whereas Hardy's book made me want to buckle under the weight of it.
I can appreciate Tess for its literary achievement, and acknowledge its social and historical importance. But I can't say that I enjoyed reading it, or that reading it really did me any good.
And, for what it's worth, this is the Tom Hardy I prefer to come to mind when I hear that name in the future:
For more of Jelinas' reviews, check out her blog, Book Bloggy Blog.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.