It feels something like having your heart put through a shredder: maybe it begins to pinch a little whilst it’s squeezed through the small opening, then it’s slowly and methodically torn into little strips, each tearing afresh, the whole slow process lasting for a rather long time until, finally, it’s over, and all you can do is look with tears in your eyes at the little pile of tatters, and wonder whether that was really necessary.
Characteristically, Hardy gives us a monumental tragedy, focussing simultaneously on impassioned descriptive prose, philosophical reflections, character development, and a gently eventful plotline. His ability in Tess of the D’Urbervilles to make us want to continue reading more than anything, knowing that it will inevitably only depress us further, is genius.
Tess is, at once, simply a story, and so much more than just a story. The intensity with which we are able to share in the emotions of characters and the intricate details of their lives makes us feel that it is just about people, on a micro scale, individual lives so expertly crafted that their story must be contained to their little sphere, that the reader is let in on a little-known secret for their exclusive pleasure. But, at the same time, Hardy draws his focus outwards, away from Tess, and her parents, and the little villages and valleys in which she lives, in order to show us that he’s talking universally, there’s a message here, a something to be learned about human nature and human society, which applies to us all.
The central issues of this novel have to be discussed to do it justice. I’m afraid that that means spoilers, of a kind, from this point onwards.
It also feels something like holding a small lighter, which has been burning with its little flame for quite a while without exciting much notice, but then someone offers you a bonfire’s worth of kindling to light, and the flame gradually builds and builds, engulfing the twigs and paper and bits of wood until you have a raging fire which you can’t possibly keep to yourself anymore.
We’ll call the flame feminism, and of course it begins as that baseline intuition, which pretty much everyone shares, that equality is a good thing. But that small intuition, that flickering lighter flame, might never have excited indignation beyond thinking it would probably be good if we had more women in parliament, or that it’s probably about time that we lessened the gender pay gap, or that these days we shouldn’t have to put up with those people who tell girls not to dress in certain ways, rather than teaching men not to rape them.
Read Tess, and, man or woman, feminist or not, you’ll join the fight against male domination. Hardy does more than just expose ‘Victorian sexual hypocrisy’, he delineates an injustice beyond measure, a pure life spoilt at every possible stage by the patriarchy and its double-standards, a victim labelled by society, and herself, as a perpetrator.
And, crucially, the issues which he tackles aren’t limited to the time in which he was writing. Fast-forward two centuries, thoughts and attitudes on gender have undergone wonderful reform, and it’s difficult to imagine Tess of the D’Urbervilles playing out in the modern world. But the issues of power, domination, consent, healthy relationships, the impact of psychological trauma, and the radically different treatment of men and women in society, unfortunately, remain some of the biggest social issues today. We are on the move, but I can’t help feeling that if the world read Tess, shared in her struggle, mourned for her wasted life, felt their hearts at once throb for her, and wept over the misguided and oblivious upholders of the patriarchy which crushes her, we might be getting there a little faster.