In terms of sheer style, this is one of the best books I've ever read. I'm not a fan by and large of Victorian fiction, but Hardy, while having all the hallmarks, does it all so skillfully it's akin to an edifice like Chartes Cathedral--the epitome of its kind. The omniscient point of view is masterful and flowing, nothing feels like filler--even the description. The description that seems mere bagatelle in other narratives contributes greatly to tone, theme, and atmosphere--besides which the descriptions so often strike me as out and out beautiful. Some scenes are so striking, so cinematic. I'm not about to forget Alec feeding Tess strawberries, or Tess in the tombs of her ancestors or at Stonehenge. Nor is it all doom and gloom, there are glints of humor, especially to be found in the depiction of Tess' family and her parents' pretensions. Although if you're one of the few who doesn't know this story is a tragedy, it's so early and often foreshadowed you'll have no problem mistaking this for a happily ever after romance. The story falls into a subgenre of tragedy I usually despise--the "fallen woman" trope seen in such novels as Flaubert's Madame Bovary
and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
It's been decades since I've read those novels, so perhaps my memory isn't accurate, but my impression of both is that their authors didn't have much sympathy for their fairly flighty heroines. What struck me about Hardy is the compassion, even admiration, which he obviously feels for his character. It's society he seemed to condemn, and that's never more apparent than his depiction of the hypocrisy of the "misnamed" Angel Clare, the man Tess loves. I didn't think it was possible he could eclipse Alec Stokes-D'Uberville, Tess' rapist, in my contempt and hatred for him, but I hated Angel with the heat of a thousand suns, in itself a literary achievement.So, why don't I give this five stars? Why isn't it on my favorites shelf? I think it's because of Tess. I can't quite put my finger on why, but she never comes alive for me. Alec and Angel, the two men who between them destroy her feel like real people to me, Tess doesn't. Hardy subtitled his novel "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented" and maybe that's it--he didn't depict a woman of flesh and blood, but a feminine ideal and a victim. It's not quite as simple of that. Tess has pride and doesn't always act wisely or well--she's not quite a complete innocent and she's sorely tried. But something in her depiction distances me from her.read more