A Pure Woman
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), the writer of a half dozen well-regarded novels and considerable poetry that is still admired, has the gift of making us fall in love with his heroines and believe his other characters, because, like O’Henry, he can’t hide his love of mankind and Mother Nature and his acceptance of the cruelties of life, as bravely endured by his characters. With deceivingly simple tales of everyday life, we fall under the spell of his captivating descriptions, superb vocabulary and his pellucid prose, but, above all, it is the pull of his heroine that glues us implacably to his text, to linger over every word that Hardy will share with us.
Published in 1891, Tess is Hardy’s masterpiece. As do so many great novels, it received mixed reviews in its day, as it challenged the mores of the times, but it has become so beloved as to have been presented twice in Broadway plays, in three movies and two TV series (the last being in England in 2003), and the book continues to sell well today. How do Hardy and his Tess grip us so?
In Tess, Hardy details the harsh lives of peasant farmers in the English countryside in the 1800’s, hardly an appetizing subject on its surface, but, therein, he weaves a spellbinding tale that will evoke everyone’s compassion for “fallen women”, a theme that reappears in some of his other works. Ironically, he subtitles his triumph, “A Pure Woman”, which, of course, is how Hardy viewed her and how she was, but not in the eyes of her society. Tess, whom Hardy himself seems to adore, is naïve, vulnerable, loving and lovable, a peasant, an Earth-goddess, a fallen woman, a sacrificial victim, who is guaranteed to make you sob – “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint…Her critics grew to be her advocates…[but[ bygones would never be bygone until she was bygone herself…the soft and silent Tess…Her paralyzing enormous mahogany orbs…her maddening mouth…her drops of logic…the chestnut hair thicker than the thickest ship’s rope…a picturesque country girl with a touch of imperfect in her perfect features that gave her such sweetness and humanity…She who suffered the pain of strangling the hunters’ wounded pheasants to put them out of their misery…a soul who could feel for kindred spirits as much as for herself…a stoic who forced herself often to live in a dream that obliterated her harships…Natively kind…no woman with a heart bigger than a hazelnut could be antagonistic to Tess in her presence… brim full of poetry, she lives what paper-poets only write…She would have melted the heart of a stone…If only she could have risen enough to despise public opinion…” Hardy laments. Her life is insufferably harsh; her love is Gothic, pure, unshakable, and her fate is as tragic as Romeo’s and Juliet’s.
With this masterpiece, Hardy, no doubt, struck a mighty blow against the mores that would view a woman as harshly as was Tess for such a “sin” (conceiving a child out of wedlock). He surely made it better for women in the future, but, in his book, he makes Tess pay the ultimate price, and his ending is so tragic that I almost threw the book into the fire. I could not stand this denouement. I, too, had suffered too much; I needed victory for Tess. Hardy must have felt tragedy necessary to make his point for posterity. Then, too, he saw life as a fatalist and, in many ways, as a very mixed blessing. His heroine loved almost everyone and everything, but she didn’t love life itself (a view likely shared by the author). This subliminal malaise may have made her end more palatable to Hardy, but it won’t to most readers.
This classic, like all classics, deserves to be savored; it teaches us volumes about 19th Century life in rural England, and makes us empathize and love the people that we meet there, but it is so painfully real, real to the point of desperation. Would that Hardy still lived and that we could convince him to lighten the end of the tale of Tess and afford us peaceful sleep.