I knew I was in for a special experience when I saw Hardy defend his controversial work with this quote from St. Jerome in an introduction:
“If an offense come of the truth, better is it that the offense come than that the truth be concealed.”
Hardy’s style impressed me. It wasn’t loquaciously luxurious, nor was it bitterly Spartan, but as a work of both sympathy and criticism, it melded those two extremes into a lovely new amalgam. Some examples I liked:
“She thought, without exactly wording the thought, how strange and godlike was a composer’s power, who from the grave could lead through sequences of emotion, which he alone had felt at first, a girl like her who had never heard of his name, and never would have a clue to his personality.” Ch. 13
“Unexpectedly he began to like the outdoor life for its own sake, and for what it brought, apart from its bearing on his own proposed career. Considering his position he became wonderfully free from the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent Power. For the first time of late years he could read as his musings inclined him, without any eye to cramming for a profession, since the few farming handbooks which he deemed it desirable to master occupied him but little time.
“He grew away from old associations, and saw something new in life and humanity. Secondarily, he made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly–the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things.” Ch. 18
“The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.” Ch. 20
“The dawn of the March morning is singularly inexpressive, and there is nothing to show where the eastern horizon lies. Against the twilight rises the trapezoidal top of the stack, which has stood forlornly here through the washing and bleaching of the wintry weather.” Ch. 47
Besides the quality of the style, there is the characterization. I’ve read before that Hardy is the only man who ever wrote female characters well. I was reminded of this when I read, for example, this line:
“And there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong.” Ch. 45
I think we’ve all known people with this sad neurosis.
To keep this short, Tess is a fantastic tragedy, balancing realistic motives and emotions against a melodramatic plot. It’s the kind of classic that takes you deeper into life and makes you realize just how shallow most other products of art really are.