the original Modern Library dust jacket for Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

  • Author:  Thomas Hardy  (1840  –  1928)
  • Rank:  #60
  • Published:  1891
  • Publisher:  The Graphic  (U.K. – serialized)
  • Pages:  414
  • First Line:  “On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.”
  • Last Line:  “As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.”
  • ML Edition:  #72  –  two dust jackets  (1931, 1956)
  • Film:  1913  –  lost; 1925  –  lost;  1979  (****)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2000

The Novel: Elizabethan tragedy invariably involved a tragic flaw.  There are flaws that lead to the deaths of Hamlet, MacBeth, Othello and Lear, and, usually, the deaths of most of those around them, especially those they love.  Modern tragedies do not necessary follow the same track.  Many of them emerge from naturalism, the style of Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser.  These characters are bound up in stories that are larger than themselves; there is nothing they can do to avoid their fate.  I am reminded of that great line from Roger Ebert in his review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a film that perfectly fits the Hardy mode): “Some people are just incapable of not getting themselves killed.”  That is the summation of Hardy’s characters (and, a century later, the characters of Ian McEwan).

What a testimony it is to this novel and to Hardy’s mastery of language that we continue to read this, knowing full well what the ending will bring.  There are those, I suppose, who might be surprised at the full extent of the tragedy, but they would be people 1 – who have never heard of Thomas Hardy, 2 – managed to pick up the book without ever having heard anything about it and 3 – can ignore the signs of tragedy that permeate from the very start of the book itself.  Just look at this early scene in the novel, when Tess has had an accident with the horse: “The pointed shaft of the cart had entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword, and from the wound his life’s blood was spouting in a stream, and falling with a hiss into the road.”  And then Tess’s reaction, just two pages later: “Her face was dry and pale, as though she regarded herself in the light of a murderess.”

Are you unfamiliar enough with the plot that you need to a refresher?  Poor Tess Durbeyfield finds out that her family is related to the rich d’Urbervilles and is sent to the family to potentially get some money or perhaps employment.  The caddish child of the family, Alec, falls for her, eventually impregnating her.  She loses the child and is adrift in unhappiness when she falls in love with Angel, a reverand’s son.  But after their marriage, when she imparts upon him her unhappy story, he leaves her.  She eventually falls in with Alec again and is his mistress when Angel returns from South America.  Tess stabs Alec and flees with Angel.  The novel ends with Tess’ execution.

How, you might ask, how could something so overwhelmingly tragic, the story of a young girl’s destruction at the hands of men leading to her execution, be such a great novel?  Part of it is certainly the character of Tess herself – not so purely innocent that she bores us, yet interesting enough that her tragedy elicits real emotion: “Having seen that is was really her lover who had advanced, and no one else, her lips parted, and she sank upon him in her momentary joy, with something very like an ecstatic cry.”  Partly it is Hardy’s mastery over his subject – like Eugene O’Neill, his stories bear their weight triumphantly – never sinking under the kind of grand epic tragedy that Dreiser would try to foist upon us.

And then there, is of course, the language, so perfectly summed up in their stumbling upon Stonehenge in their tragic wanderings at the end of the novel: “The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain.”

the French poster for Roman Polanski's Tess (1979)

The Film: 1979  –  dir. Roman Polanski

Tess was a labor of love for Polanski, who had long planned to make it with his wife.  By the time it was finally made, Polanski was an exile living in France, and though the film is in English, it was made in Europe.  Perhaps this turned out for the best for the film itself.  In making the film in Europe, Polanski filled it with smaller unknown actors, instead of the kind of stock of character actors that he could have found in either Hollywood or Britain.  As a result, we have a group of people who we don’t know, who seem strange to us.  Even Natassja Kinski, now well-known, was completely unknown at the time.  What that does to the audience is we are allowed to watch the characters develop rather than stars that we know.  The presence of well known actors might have fooled the audience into believing that these characters can accomplish more, perhaps break free of life itself.  But not these actors.  These actors playing these characters seem like they are trapped in the naturalism of fate, that nothing can help them, that they are doomed to the lives they lead.  That works so perfectly for this adaptation.  It allows us to move deeper into the film and appreciate it as an adaptation of the classic novel.  We know there will be no happy ending coming for these characters.

The casting of Kinski herself also works perfectly.  She is still in her teens here, young enough to still seem damaged by the events that she lives through.  Her beauty here looks quite real, like the maiden girl’s Tess beauty would have been and it makes her absolutely believable at every stage of the film.  She seems lovely and innocent enough to get caught up in the story and yet tragic enough for us to believe what is to follow.

There are, of course, the other aspects of the film.  The cinematography is lush and wonderful, the costumes are perfect, the sets are everything we would expect (all three things won Oscars) and the direction is first-rate Polanski.  But what we can take away is that this one of those rare examples where everything comes together to truly make a first rate adaptation from a first-rate novel.  It all works and we feel it, from those first moments that come straight off the first page of the book, all the way to that tragic ending that we know has to come.