Tag Archives: tragedy.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Having gorged myself on a literary diet of predominately young adult and vampire fiction for the past few months, last week I felt it was time for another classic. I’ve always wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and was lusting after the pictured new penguin classics hardcover edition, so I settled on it. Hardy’s gorgeous writing, tragic heroine and moving story did not disappoint.

All I’d ever heard about the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that involves a rape, and I  assumed wrongly that this was to be the crux of the story.  Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens on John Durbeyfield’s discovery that, despite his current poor state, his ancestors were the D’Urbervilles, who are descendants of one of the Knight of The Royal Oak, and that Durbeyfield is a corruption of this grand name. He informs his family and, following a tragic event further depleting the Derbeyfield’s income, his wife hatches a scheme to send his daughter Tess to a nearby rich branch of D’Urbervilles to claim kinship and hope for help in forging an advantageous marriage. In doing so Tess is put at the mercy of the abhorrently amoral Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of her situation and forces himself upon her, obliterating her maidenhood and perhaps any chance she had of happiness in her conventional society.

Challenging conventional values is a major concern of Hardy’s and he uses Tess’ fall to call them into question. The following passage conveys both this theme and the rich writing he utilises to convey it:

“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief  at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other. But this encompassment of her own characterisation, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’ fancy  – a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.”

Years pass and eventually Tess takes a position as a milkmaid at Talbothays Diary, set in a luscious part of the country side. There she finds relative mental peace, until attraction blooms between her and Angel Clare, a pastor’s son learning the art of farming. Hardy’s descriptions of the settings in the narrative are always artful, but never more than at Talbothays Dairy, where he mingles love with milking cows, leafy green trees, vast pastures and the hum of nature. Here are two of my favourite passages from the section:

“They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily between that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three… The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degrees of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse. Being so often – possibly not always by chance – the first two persons to get up in the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, going outside at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve.”

“How very loveable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s teeth and lips which forced upon his mind with such a persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filed with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.

But how will Tess’ past affect Angel’s feelings? Should she tell him of her violation at the hands of D’Urberville?

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wish I’d had the time to post about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates immediately after reading it because now, a month later, it’s nowhere near as fresh in my mind. At the beginning of the year I bought a copy after watching the movie left me in tatters, for months after that it sat untouched on my shelf because I knew it would be a heavy-going experience emotionally, so I was waiting for the right mood. I was right, it did turn out to be an oppressive and upsetting read. But it was definitely worth it, Yates’ writing is so beautifully crafted and he depicts the characters in such a realistic way, to the point that at times his descriptions are downright nasty.

The story revolves around the Wheelers’ tragic marriage in 1950s American suburbia. From the outside everything seems perfect; Frank is known for his cleverness, April is a beautiful housewife and together they have two young children; a boy and a girl. But they’ve both always assumed they were destined for great things and are bitter at the turns their lives have taken. They plot an escape to Paris to save themselves from a life of mediocrity, and from there things start to crumble for the Wheelers.

I’ve read a few reviews of the book and many readers seem to find all the characters completely repulsive and can’t empathise with them at all because of the abhorrent, selfish things they do. But to me they felt like real people and I can’t help but feel an incredible sympathy for them all, trapped by society, their choices and their own shortcomings and ultimately meeting a tragic end through attempting to change their lot in life. To me Revolutionary Road is a critique of 50s society; a study of a marriage and a warning against conventional gender roles and the importance of women having other options in life than getting married and starting a family. I finished it at midnight one night and felt so shaken by it I had to watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother in order to get to sleep. It really falls into the “books that wound and stab us” category Kafka so highly recommended.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book:

“Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort. ‘Synchronize watches at oh-six-hundred’, says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of brining two tiny pointers into jewelled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels. Looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.”

“I had this idea there was this whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere ahead of me as the seniors of Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans… It’s the most stupid, ruinous kind of self-deception there is, and it gets you into nothing but trouble.”

“Oh for a month or two, just for fun, it might be alright to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what they other one most wanted to hear – until he was saying “I love you” and she was saying “Really I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way!”