There are mild spoilers in this review and major spoilers in the comments which follow.
For the past 18 months I’ve been reacquainting myself with Thomas Hardy’s novels through the medium of audiobooks, starting with Alan Rickman’s excellent narration of [b:The Return of the Native|32650|The Return of the Native |Thomas Hardy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320467472s/32650.jpg|3140534] and moving on to listen to [b:Under the Greenwood Tree|825901|Under the Greenwood Tree|Thomas Hardy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1178724039s/825901.jpg|2728346], [b:The Mayor of Casterbridge|56759|The Mayor of Casterbridge|Thomas Hardy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1311647585s/56759.jpg|2390173] and [b:Jude the Obscure|50798|Jude the Obscure|Thomas Hardy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328863934s/50798.jpg|2011241]. Overall, this has been a very positive experience and I’ve wanted to listen to Tess for a while, albeit with a degree of trepidation born of my past negative reaction to the novel.
I’ve spent the past thirty-five years disliking this novel intensely, with Tess Durbeyfield topping my list of literary characters I most want to slap. To me, Tess has always represented a male fantasy victim: beautiful, good and completely helpless, facilitating her victimisation and deserving her fate. When I read the novel in high school at age eighteen and again at university at age twenty, Tess’ passivity drove me nuts. My reaction this time around has been quite different. The novel hasn’t changed, but I obviously have. It may just be that I’ve aged from a young woman of Tess’ age to someone old enough to be her grandmother. I felt frustrated with Tess at times, but I wanted to hug her rather than slap her. Sisterly impatience seems to have been replaced by maternal compassion.
Now that my negative reaction to Tess as a character has mellowed, I can more fully appreciate the strengths of the novel. It is a powerful tragedy related in beautiful, descriptive language, full of symbolism. Tess’ fate is inevitable: she is a tragic heroine of Greek or Shakespearean proportions. As a character, she could be criticised for being too beautiful, too good, too perfect. However, Tess has flaws and she makes mistakes which contribute to her fate. Not only is she passive, she is also naïve and proud. At various times in the narrative Hardy points out that if Tess had made a different decision, the outcome would have been different for her. Other strengths of the novel include its devastating critique of the double standard which applied in matters of sexuality morality in Victorian England and its vivid description of the lives of agricultural labourers in a changing world.
One thing which holds me back from giving the novel five stars is Hardy’s obsession with Tess’ physical appearance. She’s beautiful – okay - but the constant references to her mouth, her eyes and her hair are excessive. And maybe I can’t quite bring myself to jump from two stars to five stars in one go. Regardless, after all these years of Tess-hating, I have to cut myself a big slice of humble pie. While my youthful reaction to Tess was genuine and, I think, well-founded, it’s interesting to discover – yet again – how the passage of time can alter a response to a literary work. The fact that I listened to an audiobook edition wonderfully narrated by Davina Porter has also helped me to have a more positive reaction to the work.
Thank you to Simran, Tracey and Hayes for reading along. And to Jemidar, who was also prepared to hold my hand until her illness got in the way.