Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Greatest Book I Ever Hated: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

A few weeks ago, I talked a little about the two basic functions of art, at least how I see them. Broadly stated, art (and by extension, literature) can be viewed as having two primary and often conflicting goals:

1. To entertain us and provide an escape
2. To unsettle us and prod us to action

If you want to read more of the initial discussion, go here. In that post, I talked about how most books straddle the line between escapism and unsettling content,  but then promised to talk about two books that had a profound impact on me, largely because they didn't bother walking the tight rope. 

Following that, I posted about one of my favorite escapist reads ever, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). This book helped me through one of the worst reading slumps of my life and taught me a great deal about how to make reading an enjoyable, lively experience.

Today, we are not discussing that book. Instead...

Gotta admit though. Love this cover.

I can't think of a book I liked less than Tess of the D'Urbervilles. While Three Men in a Boat is largely silliness to the exclusion of any kind of hard-hitting content, Tess is hard-hitting content to the exclusion of anything that reminds you of happiness or why life is worth living. I read this book in my final year of high-school, because no one gets through high school without reading at least one novel they loathe. I loved The Great Gatsby and so Tess seems to have been where I paid my dues.

When I started this blog, I made myself a promise. This blog would be about celebrating good literature, rather than ripping on the stuff I dislike. Of course novels are still open to literary criticism here, but one thing I learned in grad school was that my own opinion really was just that. An opinion. Books I hated were loved by other people. My taste was not the definitive measure of quality. So why am I devoting an entire post to a book that, frankly, I cannot stand?

Reason #1: The author of this book is long dead and so I'm not terribly worried about how Thomas Hardy will feel because I did not like his book. No one will @ this post to him on Twitter. He can go on blissfully decomposing without ever knowing I hated his work.

Reason #2: In fairness to Thomas Hardy, his poetry wasn't half bad. 

Reason #3: I dunno. Maybe I'm not as much of a happy, positive, person as I'd like to think. Maybe I have some bile in my mouth that I need to spit out. 

Reason #4: I don't actually contest that Hardy was a great writer or even that Tess is a good book. I couldn't have hated a book this much unless it had some kind of power behind it. One of my professors once told us that she chose books for her classes that she knew, at the least, would incite a response. She couldn't guarantee that we'd like everything we read, but she could stoke the fires of discussion. Tess is a perfect example of that philosophy. Hardy himself clearly wanted his reader to respond and in that he was very successful. I'm not sure "enjoyment" was even on his radar.

Reason #5: A couple months ago I had a terrible realization: The novel I am working on right now was at least, subconsciously, inspired by how scarred I am from reading this book.

Let's delve a little deeper into those last two points, shall we?


While not often repeated, the full title of the book is actually Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. That in itself is an incredibly bold assertion, especially when it's publication date, 1891, is considered. The Victorian Era is not well known for leniency when it came to who could be called a "pure woman" and Tess's life is filled with instances that would have spoken to impurity. 

As a young girl, she's sent off by her family to live with a rich, distant "relative" who sexually assaults and eventually rapes her. (Note: Hardy never uses the word rape, which isn't surprising, since definitions were shady at best back then. Consent wasn't a Victorian Era strong suit, but to modern audiences, she's asleep and a dude comes at her. It's pretty hard to mistake.) She gives birth to a child out of wedlock, whom she names "Sorrow." The baby dies without baptism and when Tess begs the parson about the state of her son's soul, he pityingly informs her that the child cannot enter Heaven.

This shakes her faith, and when she meets a young, handsome intellectual by the name of Angel Clare, she decides to embrace a life of skepticism. She works on a dairy farm and this is the closest Hardy gets to letting her be happy. She and Angel fall in love, but it's not until their wedding night that Tess has the nerve to tell him about everything that happened to her. And like the upstanding gent Angel is, he promptly abandons her. 

Look, I could go on. Suffice it to say, this story amounts to Angel coming back, Tess finally getting revenge on the man who ruined her and death for our heroine beneath the pagan monuments of Stonehenge. I gotta say, if you have to die, Stonehenge is the most rock n' roll place to do it, so we can give the book that.

Actually, I can give the book it's most important element, and that's Tess herself. Start to finish, I liked her. She's smart and fiery and ultimately, a very principled person. That wasn't to say she lacked flaws either. Hardy never cheapened the story by making her perfect. But she was a pure woman, faithfully presented. We were very different people, but I empathized with her tremendously. I wished the world had been kinder to her, yet at the same time, I admired Hardy's unflinching portrayal of her life. It was like Hardy took a look at the way poor women were treated and abused around him and went, "wow, that sucks. I should write a book about this." Not many men of his time would have seen the world so sympathetically through the eyes of a girl like Tess.


The problem is, there is another main character in this novel who is not Tess and his name is Angel Clare and he is the biggest nose wipe in the history of literature. Like, I just opened the Wikipedia page to double check a few details in this post and went "For the love of milk! WHY IS ANGEL SO HORRIBLE????" I'd forgotten about the part where, on their wedding night, he confessed to also not being a virgin. And yes, he still proceeds with the abandonment because he's not going to tolerate this non-virgin nonsense in his wife. (Remember, too. Because rape.) HA! WOW! What an upstanding citizen!!! No wonder our heroine loves him!!!!!

Maybe he was sympathetic back in 1891. I don't know. Maybe his hypocrisy and self-righteousness didn't sting so badly. But the truth is that the ruin of Tess belongs not just to the novel's villain, but also to Angel Clare. I don't know if I would have minded this if Hardy hadn't expected me to forgive him at the end. (Did he? Did Hardy want me to cheer for Angel consoling Tess's younger, still living sister? GROSS MAN!!!!) I've heard many people say that Delores Umbridge might just be the most awful, hateful person in literature and while they may be right, it still stands to reason that Angel Clare is worse to read. Why? Well, because there's a kind of pleasure in hating a villain. Hating a hero, I find, just makes you hate the book. 

The novel, however, is a classic, and despite what high school reading might make you believe, most classics are considered to be what they are because someone liked them. So maybe Angel didn't ruin the novel for every reader like he did me. Maybe for some people, he was part of the underlying "truth" of the work. I'm not here to argue that he isn't a realistic character. He's so banally realistic, you'll find yourself seeing him everywhere you look. But he's unlikable. Coupled with that, the book is also very bereft of hope. The closest it gets to a glimmer at the end is Angel walking off into the sunset with Tess's sister which, I'm sorry, DOES. NOT. CUT. IT.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I found Jimmy, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, to be unlikable, but the book itself somehow managed to portray the end of the world, yet still gave the reader a taste of hope. I'm not convinced you can have it both ways. Hamlet is a somewhat hopeless tragedy, but I love it because I love Hamlet the character. You get one or the other:

Hopeless ending? Better give us someone we want to grieve!
Unlikable central protagonist? Better be something positive that justifies our effort spent reading this book!

Uggghhhhhhhh.... Angel Clare. I feel like I need to wash my hands just from typing about the guy.


I'm writing a book right now about a girl struggling to navigate through a world dominated by men. It's a historical fantasy and takes place in a time period just a little before the Victorian Era. She's a quiet, fast thinking girl who is largely underestimated by the world around her. Eventually, she meets a pompous, self-important man that provides her a great deal of trouble when he begins to pursue her romantically. 

For a long time, I felt like my heroine's name was too derivative of something, but I couldn't put my finger on what. I kept flipping through other Young Adult novels, trying to figure out whose name I'd stolen. I wanted to change it if it seemed too closely tied to some fad out and about right now.

I've been working on and off on this project for a couple of years. It's been my primary work-in-progress since September. Only a month ago it hit me.

Her name is Tessa. I'm not changing it.

Now, don't get your knickers in a twist just yet. No, I am NOT rewriting Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I would not put the world through that again. But some deep seated part of me can't handle Tess dying under Stonehenge. Some part of me needs to see that girl get a happy ending. Or... at least a happier ending.

So I'm going to write her one. 

With grudging humility, I guess I have to say thank you. Thank you, Thomas Hardy. Thank you for writing TessYou upset me. 

But you also inspired me.


  1. I have loved and hated each of the Thomas Hardy novels I have read. He captures me with the places, people and activities that he writes about. I always feel frustrated with the main character - kind of like you want to shake some sense into them just before every bad decision. However, I inevitably walk away from the experience feeling "wow I'm thankful that I didn't have to live that life - my life is pretty darn good" - which I think might have been Hardy's intent.

    1. I think we've got rather similar relationships to Hardy. He's definitely an interesting author, and I think he wanted people to pay attention to aspects of Victorian life that much of his readership chose to ignore. Ultimately, he writes great, miserable books, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

  2. Soo... Thomas Hardy fulfilled a basic function of art (You were both unsettled and prodded to action) but not happy about it. I'd have to say Gatsby is that way for me, I even reread it before the DiCaprio version came out just in case I was now more sophisticated 20 some odd years out of high school and would see it in a different light. Nope still hated it. I get it and can see Fitzgerald's motivation behind it but can't bring myself to like it.
    I didn't like Jimmy either but I'm not sure you're supposed to.

    1. I'm pretty sure Jimmy is universally unlikable. It's one of his, um... charms?

      And while I love Gatsby, I get why people hate it. It's a rough book.