The one in which Thomas Hardy sets fire to a cat

I’m currently reading ‘Tess of The D’Urbervilles’ and it is the most infuriating novel imaginable. I keep having to take breathers and feverishly pace the room to dissipate my frustration at both the relentless misery piled upon Tess, and her passive fatalistic acceptance of it.

Yes, the descriptions of landscape and light are beautiful and act as richly evocative barometers of emotional temperature. Hardy’s scenes of Wessex life, both pastoral and domestic, are as luminous as a portrait by Vermeer and as exquisitely drawn as a Jean Francois Millet painting, but these fade into insignificance when juxtaposed with the cruel persecutions meted out to Tess at every turn.

'The Kitchen Maid' Vermeer

‘The Kitchen Maid’ Vermeer


‘The Gleaners’ Millet

I think matters are made worse as, having read the novel before, I know what’s coming.Tess’ indefatigable goodness and purity of heart in the face of repeated hardship make her increasingly unbelievable as the story unfolds. She embraces her ill-fate with the resignation of a saint, and even when she does finally resort to violence, it is in response to a taunt about Angel, the man who has treated her so very despicably.

Hardy seems to delight in the detailing of his doomed tale and I end up feeling as tortured as Tess herself.  I’m not suggesting for one moment that the men get away lightly at Hardy’s hand – Alec D’Urberville is a selfish, devilish cad, while Angel Clare is a stubborn, self-righteous hypocrite – but to conjure such a tragic heroine and to describe her slow, stoic, suffocation at the cruel hand of fate with such relish makes me wonder not only what Hardy thought about women, but what the hell it says about Hardy?

Hardy was clearly enraptured by Tess. According to A. Alvarez

It is as if Hardy were alone with his heroine, watching her fascinated, almost surprised by the power of the woman he himself created.

I don’t think that quite goes far enough. In Tess, Hardy has created a spectacular victim, and his painstakingly slow exploration of her demise is, to me, akin to the ugly fascination of a messed up kid pulling off the legs of a spider or trying to set fire to a cat. This is not mere fascination, this is about power.