Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Tess is your classic boy meets girl, they fall in love, live happily ever after tale. Okay, that's a big fat lie. Here are the twists:
Once upon a time in the bucolic English countryside a hundred or so years ago...
Girl meets Boy #1 (a.k.a. Slimy Bad Boy).
Boy #1 has his way with Girl (non-consensually, if you get my gist); Girl gets preggo-my-Eggo.
Girl has baby, it's super-cute, it dies. (I know, Sad!)
Girl starts a new life as a dairymaid.
Girl meets Boy #2 (a.k.a. Sometimes Nice and Sometimes Really Mean Boy).
Boy #2 woos Girl, eventually asks her to marry him.
Girl wants to resist (being a shamed woman and all) but can't (he's So Nice!), and eventually agrees.
Girl marries Boy #2.
They're happy for one hot minute.
Then Girl decides she needs to tell Boy #2 about Boy #1.
Boy #2 becomes Sometimes Really Mean Boy.
Boy deserts girl and heads to Brazil. (Yes. I said Brazil.)
Girl becomes destitute and works on a manual labor farm.
Boy #1 returns and slimily slimes his way back into Girl's life while Boy #2 is off gallivanting in Brazil.
Girl can only take so much poverty and sadness; Girl agrees to 'marry' Boy #1.
Boy #2 finally comes to his senses and races back from Brazil to reclaim his love.
SURPRISE! It. is. too. late.
Girl is angry at Boy #2 for waiting so long, and angry at Boy #1 for convincing her Boy #2 was never coming back.
Problem Solved! Girl murders Boy #2 (Psycho-style) and runs off to be with Boy #1.
Girl and Boy #1 get to be happy vagabonds for all of 4 or 5 days.
Girl is apprehended.
Girl is hanged for her crime. (Crime doesn't pay, folks.)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Wasn't that just the most upLifting thing you've ever read? I read such happy novels! In all seriousness, I loved re-reading Tess. It was one of my favorite books in high school (read it in Mrs. Brown's AP Lit class) and it definitely held up on second reading. I will not apologize for the length of this blog (I will not apoloGize for what I have aWoken in you, Sookie!) because it is a testament to the quality of Hardy's writing. Read it all the way through or don't. No one's forcing you. ;)
If you haven't read Tess, I strongly suggest you run out and a grab a copy. Even if you just read the whole spoiler above. Hardy's descriptions are lyrically brilliant, and his characters foster a fragile affection that will tug on even the stiffest of heart strings.
- Ladies in white/May Day at Bryn Mawr
When Tess first meets Angel (Boy #2) she's dancing in a country festival with other girls from the town and they're all wearing white. This reminded me of May Day at Bryn Mawr and fun times with Halley Cody and Mar Monroe. :)
- Country dance
"When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance, the silence of their footfalls arising from their being overshoe in 'scroff' - that is to say, the powdery residuum from the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene. Through this floating, fusty débris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out." I loved the 'vegeto-human pollen' line. Doesn't it just make you want to be at the dance, dancing with them?
- A euphemism a bit Too successful at vagueness
The first time I read Tess, I missed the rape scene. I remember asking my mom the next day - how can Tess be pregnant? When did she have sex? I was curious to re-read it this time around to see if it was any clearer to me. SURPRISE! It was not. Here are some of the context clues from which one is to surmise that a rape has occurred:
- "Might some say, where was Tess's guardian angel?"
- "Doubtless some of Tess D'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly toward peasant girls of their time."
Is it just me, or is that not enTirely clear? The only real way to be sure is that the first section is called "The Maiden" and the second section is called "Maiden No More". Okay, Hardy. NOW I get it.
- Asking for it
I liked this interchange between Alec (Boy #1, aka Slimy Bad Boy) and Tess after the fact:
Tess: "I didn't understand your meaning till it was too late."
Alec: "That's what every woman says."
Tess: "Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?"
I was struck by how similar the language around rape was 100 years ago to the debate today. In some ways, we've come a long way as a society, but conversations about women "asking for it" are still unfortunately a part of the conversation. Tess strikes a balance between taking the expected line of action and standing strong against convention, which is probably why I find her so likable.
Tess remarks that she likes going to church not for the preaching, but for the music. This resonated with me - I've always enjoyed the hymns and the rituals more than the sermonizing. Sometimes our organist even lets my play the bass-notes on the foot pedals and the whole church shakes. She's such a nice lady. ;) (I just wrote foot petals by accident, and then snorted as I tried to imagine an organ made entirely of flowers.)
- One with nature
"But this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess's fancy - a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly."
Hardy argues that Tess feels herself as an aberration and object of shame not because she is, but because society has told her so. I loved this line about how nature sees no such distinction, even if religion and convention do.
This is the first time I've seen this word used in a non-Excel context. There's a way to group together items from different cells in Excel (I know, Dull Dull God I'm so Dull!) that's called the "concatenate" function. It always makes me laugh to see it written out, because one of my co-workers insists on referring to it as "conCoctenating". "Did you concoctenate those cells?" Yes, I combined the cells and made a Sweet elixir from them. haghaghaghahagh.
- Animal death at the hands of the reaper
There are various descriptions of farming activities and duties throughout the novel, and the harvest is depicted in great detail. I was dismayed to read the description of the concentric process of reaping, and how layer after layer was reaped until only the animals hiding beneath the grains were left and then were ground by the reaper. I don't mind so much about the rats (ICK ICK ICK) but I thought of my rabbit friends from Watership Down and I hoped that they were off safe in another warren.
Generally speaking, I don't read introductions at the beginning of books. For one thing, they almost always give away things from the plot. (Hell-oo! This is the Beginning of the book, silly! Not the end!) For another, they usually have a point of view about the book, and I find it difficult to separate their opinions and thoughts and criticisms from the text itself (I know, I'm such a deconstructionist. Le sigh.)
Anyway, for those reasons I ignored the intro at the beginning of my copy of Tess. When I came back to flip through the book to make notes for my blog, I read the beginning of the intro and was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the writing. I found this line particularly striking:
"Some books, the best ones, have a soul; they offer a world view so complete, its mystery is inviolable. They reach us like an embrace before we know we need it; a philosophical arm outstretched that makes us aware we are falling; like whispering in the night. Some books, the best ones, are an encounter with a set of inchoate questions, powerful as someone returning your gaze, someone unknown a moment before, and never unknown again. These are the books we return to - personally, and as a culture; there is a life to these books that cannot be exhausted by criticism or familiarity." Anne Michaels
It reminded me of Proust's description of the best books as being mirrors that reflect us back to ourselves, and the line from Fahrenheit-451, "How many people did you know that refracted your own light back to you?" Well put, Anne Michaels! I'll have to look you up.
- Angel and the outdoors
"He grew away from old associations, and saw something new in life and humanity. Secondarily, he made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly - the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things."
The descriptions of nature in this book are Killer. They make me want to live in the English countryside, or pretty much anywhere outside, and be one with the outdoors.
- Gail Rose - a gentleman farmer
"At times, nevertheless, it did seem unaccountable to her that a decidedly bookish, musical, thinking young man should have chosen deliberately to be a farmer, and not a clergyman, like his fathers and brothers."
I don't know what his motivations were, but my grandfather Gail Rose was a gentleman farmer, working at ARMCO Steel by day and running a roughly 80-acre farm by night. I liked thinking of my grandfather when I read this passage, and him deciding deliberately to be a farmer in addition to a businessman.
- Social reproduction
"Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only - finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings 'll be like thousands' and thousands'."
This is a line from Tess to Angel, on why she doesn't care if she's educated - I found it particularly apt considering that I spent the earlier part of the week at a Race and Equity in Education Seminar, where we reflected at length on the idea of social reproduction. In essence, the argument/belief that we take the place of our parents in society and that culture, power dynamics, SES, don't change in their core because we just complete the cycle over and over and over. I rather like to think that we can launch from the place our parents leave us and build a better, more loving, more equitable society. So Tess, take my advice and get your book-learning!
- Marian, Retty, Izz
Tess is not the only one in love with Boy #2. In fact, he's seen as quite the catch. (As it turns out, not so much, but I guess you can't judge a book by its cover.) Tess's three fellow dairymaids (Marian, Retty, and Izz) are all madly, deeply, inexorably in love with Angel. This leads to some rather tragic turns in all three of their lives, and one moment where Izz almost takes Angel up on an offer to run off to Brazil with him. (I Know! The nerve of him asking Her! Pot Calling Kettle Black, much?)
- On Angel's transition from straightforward Christianity to a sort of Animism
"Every time that he returned hither he was conscious of this divergence, and since he had last shared in the Vicarage life it had grown even more distinctly foreign to his own than usual. Its transcendental aspirations - still unconsciously based on the geocentric view of things, a zenithal paradise, a nadiral hell - were as foreign to his own as if they had been the dreams of people on another planet. Latterly he had seen only Life, felt only the great passionate pulse of existence, unwarped, uncontorted, untrammelled by those creeds which futilely attempt to check what wisdom would be content to regulate attempt to check what wisdom would be content to regulate."
I loved this description. The older I get, the less clear I am on where I stand on formal religion, and the more transfixed I feel by our connection to nature. There's another great line about Angel preferring sermons in stone to sermons on the mount. I'll take my sermons in stone, thank you very much.
- Mr. Collins
"Her refusal, though unexpected, did not permanently daunt Clare. His experience of women was great enough for him to be aware that the negative often meant nothing more than the preface to the affirmative; and it was little enough for him not to know that in the manner of the present negative there lay a great exception to him to the dallyings of coyness."
Angel's opinion that Tess is just being coy when she refuses his proposal at first reminded me of Mr. Collins and his ridiculous assertion that Lizzie is just being coy in saying no. (I never Did return your calls, Mr. Claymore. It's because I. Don't. Like. You.)
- Wooing like Barkis
"In this way Clare persistently wooed her in undertones like that of the purling milk - at the cow's side, at skimmings, at butter-makings, at cheese-makings, among broody poultry, and among farrowing pigs - as no milkmaid was ever wooed before by such a man."
The way Angel woos Tess made me think fondly of Barkis and his wooing of Peggotty with bags of oranges and pieces of ham and random gifts. Wooing can take place anywhere, gentlemen! Let this be a lesson to you!
- Country courtship
"The country custom of unreserved comradeship out of doors during betrothal was the only custom she knew, and to her it had no strangeness; though it seemed oddly anticipative to Clare till he saw how normal a thing she, in common with all the other dairy-folk, regarded it. Thus, during this October month of wonderful afternoons they roved along the meads by creeping paths which followed the brinks of trickling tributary brooks, hopping across by little wooden bridges to the other side, and back again. They were never out of the sound of some purling weir, whose buzz accompanied their own murmuring, while the beams of the sun, almost as horizontal as the mead itself, formed a pollen of radiance over the landscape. They saw tiny blue fogs in the shadows of trees and hedges, all the time that there was bright sunshine elsewhere. The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them, like two long fingers pointed afar to where the green alluvial reaches abutted against the sloping sides of the vale."
I thought it was only fair to include at least one section of the novel where Tess and Angel were happy.
- A happy Tess
"Her affection for him was now the breath and life of Tess's being; it enveloped her as a photosphere, irradiated her into forgetfulness of her past sorrows, keeping back the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her - doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame."
That sounds nice. I think I'd like to be enveloped as a photosphere, irradiated into forgetfulness.
- My copy - explicit content
You're welcome to borrow my copy of Tess if you haven't read it. It should come with an "Explicit Content" label though, not so much for the text itself, but for my notes. I wrote some less than kind words to Angel during his "Sometimes Mean" phase.
- Angel, on Tess
"In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire."
How many times do we fail to see that the defective can be more than the entire?
- Tess, to Angel
"How silly I was in my happiness when I thought I could trust you always to love me!"
There was such painful sweetness in this line. Tess is powerful, and goes through arduous difficulties, but what really stole my heart was her tenderness, despite and amidst her sorrows.
- The return
"They stood fixed, their baffled hearts looking out of their eyes with a joylessness pitiful to see. Both seemed to implore something to shelter them from reality."
This moment was heartbreaking. I'd waited the whole book for Angel to see sense and come back to Tess, and when he finally did, it was Too Late! Agony.
Tess: "Tell me now, Angel, do you think we shall meet again after we are dead? I want to know."
He kissed her to avoid a reply at such a time.
"O, Angel - I fear that means no!" said she, with a suppressed sob. 'And I wanted so to see you again - so much, so much! What - not even you and I, Angel, who love each other so well?"
While I agreed wholeheartedly with many of the philosophies of a more nature-driven then religion-driven sense of the world and the afterlife, it didn't make this moment any less painful.
- Sense of fierce injustice
I was very angry for a large portion of this book. It seems so painfully unfair that Tess's life should be ruined because Slimy Guy took advantage of her. I know that's the way the cookie crumbled back in the late 19th century, but just because I know it doesn't mean I have to like that particular cookie crumbling.
Passages I particularly liked:
- "Far behind the corner of the house - which rose like a geranium bloom against the subdued colours around - stretched the soft azure landscape of The Chase - a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primaeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew-trees, not planted by the hand of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows."
- "On the morning appointed for her departure Tess was awake before dawn - at the marginal minute of the dark when the grove is still mute, save for one prophetic bird who sings with a clear-voiced conviction that he at least knows the correct time of day, the rest preserving silence as if equally convinced that he is mistaken."
- "It was a fine September evening, just before sunset, when yellow lights struggle with blue shades in hair-like lines, and the atmosphere itself forms a prospect without aid from more solid objects, except the innumerable winged insects that dance in it."
- "Sad October and her sadder self seemed the only two existences haunting that lane."
- "Clare arose in the light of a dawn that was ashy and furtive, as though associated with crime." This might be my favorite line in the whole book.
- on Tess: "Inside this exterior, over which the eye might have roved as over a thing scarcely percipient, almost inorganic, there was the record of a pulsing life which had learnt too well, for its years, of the dust and ashes of things, of the cruelty of lust and the fragility of love."
- "There had not been such a winter for years. It came on in stealthy and measured glides, like the moves of a chess-player."
- "The air, afflicted to pallor with the hoary multitudes that infested it, twisted and spun them eccentrically, suggesting an achromatic chaos of things."
"Her hopes mingled with the sunshine in an ideal photosphere which surrounded her as she bounded along against the soft south wind. She heard a pleasant voice in every breeze, and in every bird's note seemed to lurk a joy."
May your hopes mingle with the sunshine and may you hear a pleasant voice in every breeze. Till next time, and Endearment in the Era of Dystentery!