Wanted: Strong Female Protagonist

            

I read Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles back-to-back, on a Thomas Hardy spree that lasted a few weeks. I had never read any of his books before, and I was absorbed. I hadn’t been reading nineteenth-century novels for a while, and it occurred to me how much I missed them.

Far From the Madding Crowd took me about a week. Tess took longer. While I was obsessed with Bathsheba Everdeen as a protagonist, I found myself really annoyed by Tess Durbeyfield. It’s such an immature emotion as a reader to have, but it took me a long while to like Tess. I know reading should not be about liking characters, but sometimes liking characters makes it easier? I’m awful.

Anyway, Bathsheba is clearly a worse person, and this is pretty much exactly why I liked her. From the very first scene, it’s established that Bathsheba’s greatest sin is her vanity. She is completely callous with the other people in her life, making a man fall hopelessly in love with her, repeatedly getting his hopes up and repeatedly rejecting him. This is awesome to me. But her pride also makes her accomplish some actually cool things, like running a farm on her own with as little help as possible. And while it’s clear that Hardy wants us to understand how foolhardy she is, her pride also makes her a proto-feminist. It complicates what we want to be a simple issue of vanity into something really complex and interesting.

Tess, on the other hand . . . Early in the novel, she is “seduced” by the cad Alec D’Urberville but I think contemporary readers would go as far as call it a rape scene. This “sin” haunts Tess throughout the novel and her attempts to conceal it from others cause her pretty heavy emotional distress. Reading the novel, it at first seemed like this was her only real character flaw, and not actually a flaw at all, which made her obsessive self-loathing as a result annoying. It was hard liking a character who refused to act and was always acted upon, until I started to think about her ability to let others act upon her as a conscious choice she was making.

Of course, with Alec, she’s a victim but how much afterwards does she manipulate her surrounding covertly to punish herself? She refuses to tell her husband what happened until the wedding night, and on the surface this is played like she cannot bare the shame until it’s too late, but how much is Tess really in control of the situation here? Even when he leaves her and she refuses to stay at home with her family and bare the shame, how much is Tess really choosing to live a life of desolation rather than simply having despair thrust upon her? This makes Tess really complicated and weird to me, as I think she chooses some of her own misery.

I really enjoyed Hardy, and want to read more for sure. Both books were deceptively straightforward but, as all the best nineteenth-century novels are, complex and strange beneath the surface. I’m excited to read what else he’s written.

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About A.C.

Amateur time-traveler
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