Friday, June 6, 2014

Tess of the D'urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

After listening to Adrian Praetzellis read Treasure Island, I downloaded his version of Tess of the D'urbervillesI had a vague recollection of having read this for a college lit class but all that I remembered was that Tess was a fallen woman. I will do my best to write about the book without any more spoilers than that. Beautiful (but poor) young Tess is taken advantage of by a rich young man early in the novel. Thankfully, Hardy spares us the sordid details and spends the greater part of the novel revealing the effects of Tess's transgression. Hardy makes it clear he sees her as more sinned against than sinful. I was completely blindsided by the ending (I must have slept through that lit class!), but I have no excuse for that since I knew from previous experience that Hardy is a gloomy gus.

In spite of the unhappy conclusion, I strongly recommend this book for its fine prose, compelling story, and for its vigorous portrayal of the "evils" of Christianity.  Our hero, ironically named Angel, declares he has no use for doctrines, but, is "of course, a believer in good morals." (p. 225) A few pages later Hardy compares a mill that is situated next to a crumbling abbey. He observed that the one continued to thrive because "food is a perennial necessity; [but] the abbey had perished, creeds being transient." (234) Clearly Hardy believes the world would be a better place without the doctrines imposed by the Church.

The religious people in the book are either hardhearted or hypocrites. Those who have rejected Christianity want morality without dogma. But the horrible result is that there is only law and no grace. And nothing shows this more than Angel's reaction to Tess's confession. Since he has rejected the articles of Christian faith, he has no basis for forgiveness. She has broken the law and she must pay. And pay, she does!

Although Hardy himself rejected Christianity, he was clearly familiar with the Bible which makes this book rich in biblical allusions. I found great pleasure in those references and in his excellent writing. I only wish he could have known that Christ's teachings are not "suffocating creeds" as much as they are liberating truths.

Nobody says it better than G.K. Chesterton in his book Heretics: The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions, it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.... When [a man] drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.


JaneGS said...

Tess is a great book--hard to read at times because Tess is so wronged by so many people who should be helping her and protecting her, but I agree that Hardy's prose is magnificent and makes the book a classic.

I remember being blown away by the ending too, the first time I read it. Definitely mythological dimensions to it.

And I think I have disliked Angel Clare more than just about any other fictional character--the hypocrite!

Anonymous said...

"Turnips are singularly broad-minded" - indeed! Unlike 'Angel' who expects his own (and in my opinion far more serious) fault to be overlooked or forgiven, but cannot extend the same grace to Tess.
I've given up on reading Hardy's prose these days - I prefer his poetry.

Carol said...

His writing is beautiful albeit depressing at times. Tess went from one misery to the next and as you said, she was portrayed as more sinned against than sinful. I was more satisfied with The Mayor of Casterbridge because the main character reaped what he sowed in the end and wasn't subject to the injustice that Tess encountered.

Sarah Small said...

I've always loved Hardy, despite his always depressing endings!! I need to re-read some; it's been 25 years!

Annette said...

Wonderful review, enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Love the Chesterton quote.