‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ – Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy’s
novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was nominated by Anjali
Mistry, a sixth form student attending the Sutton Trust Summer School
in Cambridge, who admires the novel’s compelling plot.

It tells the
story of Tess Durbeyfield, a girl from a poor family who discover
that they are related to the aristocratic D’Urbervilles. Tess is sent
to ask for money from her rich relatives, but she is raped and abandoned.

This extract
is taken from chapter 37 of the novel, when Tess’s husband, Angel
Clare, has discovered what has happened to her. She is awoken by him
sleepwalking: he picks her up and starts to carry her out of the house.

The words of endearment, withheld so severely in his
waking hours, were inexpressibly sweet to her forlorn and hungry heart.
If it had been to save her weary life she would not, by moving or
struggling, have put an end to the position she found herself in.
Thus she lay in absolute stillness, scarcely venturing to breathe,
and, wondering what he was going to do with her, suffered herself
to be borne out upon the landing.

“My wife – dead, dead!” he said.

He paused in his labours for a moment to lean with her
against the banister. Was he going to throw her down? Self-solicitude
was near extinction in her, and in the knowledge that he had planned
to depart on the morrow, possibly for always, she lay in his arms
in this precarious position with a sense rather of luxury than of
terror. If they could only fall together, and both be dashed to pieces,
how fit, how desirable.

However, he did not let her fall, but took advantage
of the support of the handrail to imprint a kiss upon her lips – lips
in the daytime scorned. Then he clasped her with a renewed firmness
of hold, and descended the staircase. The creak of the loose stair
did not awaken him, and they reached the ground-floor safely. Freeing
one of his hands from his grasp of her for a moment, he slid back
the door-bar and passed out, slightly striking his stockinged toe
against the edge of the door. But this he seemed not to mind, and,
having room for extension in the open air, he lifted her against his
shoulder, so that he could carry her with ease, the absence of clothes
taking much from his burden. Thus he bore her off the premises in
the direction of the river a few yards distant.

His ultimate intention, if he had any, she had not yet
divined; and she found herself conjecturing on the matter as a third
person might have done. So easefully had she delivered her whole being
up to him that it pleased her to think he was regarding her as his
absolute possession, to dispose of as he should choose. It was consoling,
under the hovering terror of tomorrow’s separation, to feel that he
really recognized her now as his wife Tess, and did not cast her off,
even if in that recognition he went so far as to arrogate to himself
the right of harming her.

Ah! now she knew what he was dreaming of – that Sunday
morning when he had borne her along through the water with the other
dairymaids, who had loved him nearly as much as she, if that were
possible, which Tess could hardly admit. Clare did not cross the bridge
with her, but proceeding several paces on the same side towards the
adjoining mill, at length stood still on the brink of the river.

Its waters, in creeping down these miles of meadowland,
frequently divided, serpentining in purposeless curves, looping themselves
around little islands that had no name, returning and re-embodying
themselves as a broad main stream further on. Opposite the spot to
which he had brought her was such a general confluence, and the river
was proportionately voluminous and deep. Across it was a narrow foot-bridge;
but now the autumn flood had washed the handrail away, leaving the
bare plank only, which, lying a few inches above the speeding current,
formed a giddy pathway for even steady heads; and Tess had noticed
from the window of the house in the daytime young men walking across
upon it as a feat in balancing. Her husband had possibly observed
the same performance; anyhow, he now mounted the plank, and, sliding
one foot forward, advanced along it.

Was he going to drown her? Probably he was. The spot
was lonely, the river deep and wide enough to make such a purpose
easy of accomplishment. He might drown her if he would; it would be
better than parting tomorrow to lead severed lives.

The swift stream raced and gyrated under them, tossing,
distorting, and splitting the moon’s reflected face. Spots of froth
travelled past, and intercepted weeds waved behind the piles. If they
could both fall together into the current now, their arms would be
so tightly clasped together that they could not be saved; they would
go out of the world almost painlessly, and there would be no more
reproach to her, or to him for marrying her. His last half-hour with
her would have been a loving one, while if they lived till he awoke
his daytime aversion would return, and this hour would remain to be
contemplated only as a transient dream.

The impulse stirred in her, yet she dared not indulge
it, to make a movement that would have precipitated them both into
the gulf. How she valued her own life had been proved; but his–she
had no right to tamper with it. He reached the other side with her
in safety.

Further Reading

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840, and died in 1928. He lived for much of his life in the southern counties of England, and set many of his novels there, in the fictional county of Wessex. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was written in 1891.

Hardy’s most famous novels are tragedies of fate: they describe people brought down by terrible circumstances beyond their control, by both oppressive societies and fate. Jude the Obscure describes the struggle of a young working-class man to gain acceptance at university, The Mayor of Casterbridge shows a foolish act in a man’s past coming back to haunt him, and The Return of the Native tells the story of a woman who wants to escape her rustic life, and the consequences that this has on the men who love her.

Other novelists from slightly later than Hardy, who deal with similar subjects and with whom he is sometimes compared, are Arnold Bennett and D.H.Lawrence. Hardy was also a very fine poet, and continued to compose poems after he had finished writing novels: if you have enjoyed Tess of the D’Urbervilles, you might like to read his poems as well.

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