Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a book of conflicting ideas and possibilities. From the clash between a person's ideal destiny and the reality of his or her life to the tensions between theology, philosophy and the natural world, Hardy sets all the things that make us human on a collision course in his tragic heroine's story.
The success of the book rests largely on the author's evocation of Tess. Voluptuous, sensual, intelligent and naive, Tess saunters forth from the pages of the novel with a warmth and substance that few literary characters share. We know Tess, down to the curve of her lip, the flutey tone of her voice and the little red ribbon she wears in her hair. She stands before us, real as any friend. Indeed, the lovingness of the descriptions Hardy lavishes on her have led some critics to claim that Hardy was in love with his creation.
Yet it's not just Tess who catches our eye. Alongside her come a host of powerful characters, from the idealist Angel Clare to the fickle and dangerous Alec D'Urberville; Hardy presents us with a range of fascinating people as we move through the narrative's twists and turns. When it comes to characterisation, what sets Hardy apart from lesser writers is his ability to present each person as a rounded, unique individual, driven by his or her hopes, desires, beliefs and fears. This is true even of the minor characters – the fanatical signwriter, the sinister Carr sisters, the infatuated milkmaids. Rather than creating a lead character and supporting cast, Hardy lets us into a world where everyone is the leading man or lady of his or her life and it is simply perspective that pushes a few into the limelight.
At the same time, however, Hardy is able to use his characters to represent bigger ideas. Tess, for example, is an ideal representation of womanhood, a whole sex 'distilled', so that her sad tale becomes an allegory for the broken relationship between men and women, and the limitations that social mores and conventions put on the natural expression of the self. Likewise, Angel Clare, with his harp and his books and his involved ideas, is an archetype of the educated, disillusioned young man caught up in the dismantling of received ideas about religion and humankind's place in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. This is a category of person Hardy clearly feels an affinity for, and he returns to it in greater depth in his last novel, Jude the Obscure.
Master of the missed chance, Hardy throws these characters and the ideas they represent into the threshing machine of his narrative, separating them out gradually from their hopes, ambitions and ideals, yet keeping before the reader a sense of what they might have been if only their star had not been 'blighted'. We watch as the letter goes under the carpet, the unspoken word hangs in the air and the hour for loving and the man to love fail to coincide, painfully aware of how narrowly happiness eludes our heroine.
For some, this sense of pessimism and perpetual gloom renders Hardy's works too melancholy to enjoy. But this is missing the point. While we may not share the writer's views on the cruel indifference of the universe to human suffering, and while we may find the unrelentingly sad fate of his characters hard to stomach, the sheer force of Hardy's creative talent, his lyrical descriptions of a strange, mysterious and infinitely rich natural world, and his loving attention to all the characters and situations he presents is in itself a kind of salvation. As his much later poem, 'Afterwards', suggests, noticing things, witnessing them and accepting them as they are is a way of embracing them and, perhaps, in Tess's blind, hard world, this is the closest connection between people and things that there can be.