I am currently reading a phenomenal book by Karen Swallow Prior in which each chapter brings the reader through her life like a memoir, but each chapter also centers around a piece of literature that shaped that life, that contributed something to her evolving identity, as good literature does, most especially in our very formative years. There are a few chapters that center on books I have not read, so as I get to those, I have stopped to read the books. That is how I came to this novel, written by Thomas Hardy in 1891.
It took me a while to start enjoying this book. I realized in the reading of it how much point of view really affects my ability to engage with the story. In the beginning, it felt like eavesdropping on the life of Tess. I could see what she did or what would happen to her, but I couldn’t see who she was. She seemed stoic, her thoughts and feelings hidden by a stony exterior. This made it hard for me to connect, so I didn’t. And then I met Angel Clare. If Tess is a charcoal sketch, Clare is a life size statue. In getting only rough images of her, he is a character you can walk right up to, look in the eyes, view from behind, take in the creases on a hand or the thought behind the brow. I connected immediately to him and began to enjoy the book. Still, as more and more characters are brought into the story, Hardy gives us more glimpses inside them than of our main character, choosing to keep her veiled for a good portion of the book. I found this so interesting as a writer, but it frustrated me as a reader.
This story is a tragedy, and you can feel the foreboding of it early on. There were times I wanted to throw down my book and plead with the characters to stop, to rethink their plan, to be brave and admit they were wrong, to surrender to the difficult and scary, but better choice before them.
This book was significant in that it presented a new understanding of purity, and that what made Tess pure was not her actions, but her will. Hardy wanted to show a woman who, though not a virgin, was pure in the real sense of the word, because she desired what was pure. The problem with this is that her will is veiled to the reader, and her actions are equivocal. In different editions of the novel, Hardy portrays different accounts of the first tragedy, ranging from full on rape to seduction. The edition I read leaned toward the latter. Nonetheless, Tess appears blameless, which is Hardy’s point. I loved this quote by Karen Swallow Prior on Tess’ tragic flaw: passivity.
This is why the ambiguous circumstances surrounding that night in The Chase are not important to her status as rape victim: whether she was taken by Alec through force or through seduction, equipped by neither nature nor circumstances to do otherwise, she passively succumbs to this fate. This passivity is both literal and symbolic: literal within the story’s plot and symbolic of her role as the archetypal tragic heroine victimized by a combination of her own choices and forces beyond her control. This is how Hardy could deem Tess as “pure” despite her “ruined” physical state: she does not will such a thing even as she does not know how to exert her will against it.
This not knowing how to exert her will against something happens on repeat throughout the story, constantly lowering her to circumstances she never chooses. But everything is a choice. Not making a choice is a choice. What was clear was that Tess did not want Alec, but he very much wanted her and was willing to use any opportunity he had to have her. Tess had no good choices on the night mentioned above. It seemed inevitable that Alec would use her. But isn’t there a great difference in how that happens and isn’t that Tess’ choice? It happens all throughout the story, not just with Alec, but with Clare too- Tess chooses not to exert her will. I have to wonder if it is because indifference is hidden beneath the weakness of her will. For all of her non-choices, she chooses to accept the very thing she doesn’t want. Then you get to the end and Tess finally wakes up from her stupor to decisively act. And what she chooses condemns her. She proves that there cannot be such a separation of will and action. The will should determine the action, and the strength of the will determines the action’s ability to endure.
Hardy, I have to disagree with you: where the will is good, but the action evil, what remains is guilt, not purity. A tragedy indeed.