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Characteristics from multiple perspectives

Characteristics from multiple perspectives

Required reading

Who: Lies Wesseling, associate professor at the Department of Literature and Art

What: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Target group: students of Arts and Sciences

“I try and force this book upon my students every year,” Lies Wesseling laughs. “As a literature researcher I have read many books, but this is the most beautiful. Everything by Hardy is of an extraordinary high quality.”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) is set in the English countryside. It is about the triangular relationship between young Tess and two men, Alec D’Urbervilles and Angel Clare. “At the beginning of the book, they look like the typical bad guy and good guy. Alec is a spoilt son from a nouveau riche family who makes a pass at Tess; Angel is a minister’s son with whom Tess falls madly in love. As the story progresses, the image becomes more and more complex. Whose love is pure and who is only acting in their own interest? Very cleverly done.”

That is one of the reasons why Wesseling recommends the book, but there are more. “Nowhere is the process of industrialisation, the demise of the agricultural society, described as beautifully as here. Of course many scientific books have been written on this subject, but the advantage of a novel is that it is able to depict the consequences for the individual.”

These characters are described by Hardy from multiple perspectives. “He tells how they see themselves and how that matches, or clashes with, how others see them. Then there is the perspective of the omniscient narrator, who reminds us that fate and coincidence play a large part in the lives of people. What if this had gone slightly different or hadn’t happened at all? Then life could easily have looked completely different. Finally there is a fourth layer in which the lives of the characters are put into perspective in relation to non-human nature. That is typical of Hardy; how little individual human affairs matter from a biological perspective.”

Even though the book is more than 130 years old, Wesseling thinks it’s anything but obsolete. “The interaction between the characters is very recognisable. Hardy had modern psychological ideas. For example, he clearly describes Tess’s position of being the eldest in a family in which the parents did not want to take their responsibility. They are the children and Tess has to be the parent. She has nobody who can advise her and this contributes to the fact that she does not always make the right choices.”

Hardy’s views on the relationships between men and women are modern too. “In the Victorian era, the male counterpart of the ‘fallen female’ was not publicised, but in Hardy’s novel that is completely different. The men in this book are depicted unbelievably wretched. Only two are portrayed as good people; Angel’s father, who is the paragon of integrity and the farmer for whom Tess briefly worked, who was the paragon of generosity. Otherwise, the novel makes it painfully clear how the men fail in love.”

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