Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Published in 1891, Tess is a nineteenth century novel that anticipates the twentieth century.  Thomas Hardy is known for his portrayal of the ache of modernism and his ambivalence toward the Industrial Revolution. Hardy's description of the grain thresher at Flintcomb-Ash as an ominous monstrosity which severs humans from their rightful place in nature foreshadows Steinbeck's discussion of tractors in The Grapes of Wrath. This reminds us that the ache of modernism was not unique to those residents of nineteenth century Britain and America who watched their traditional ways of life being steadily ground down by mechanical progress. The unfortunate Okies of the dustbowl 1930's saw their farms repossessed and consolidated by banks in the name of efficiency, a plague currently sweeping through India as farmers and residents lose property to government seizure for construction of paved highways, despite the fact that only 0.7% of Indians are car owners.
    Some Westerners are now reconsidering whether a highly industrialized lifestyle truly brings the greatest happiness, as can be seen by the American back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and its current echo in the 2010s, as well as the huge trend in DIY projects as people learn now to do everything from making cheese to cutting hair, just like Grandma did.  For those interested in more extreme challenges, YouTube features many videos on how to fill your own cavities and do sutures (stitches). I don' t know if Thomas Hardy would have made his own soap, but he did create the idea of Wessex (southwest England) as a separate, cohesive geographical and political identity, and is thus indirectly responsible for the birth of the secessionist Wessex Regionalist Party.  So take heart, aspiriing writers: you too may someday spawn minor political parties which garner 62 votes in a national election...but first please take steps to assure your notoriety by writing something controversial enough to be sold in brown paper bags and burned by a bishop
     But I digress. Back to Tess. Tess herself appears in many ways as a personification of nature; lovely, fertile and easily exploited. Tess is connected with the earth, soil and vegetation; she spends her life on farms and often appears in conjunction with animals (throughout the course of the novel she rides horses, tends chickens, works on a dairy farm and encounters wounded pheasants). She participates in land-based and pagan-influenced events such as harvest and May Day celebrations. Tess is nature, and she is spoiled by the son of a nouveau-riche merchant, which brings Sorrow (the name of their child) into the world.
     Besides presenting anti-industrial themes, Hardy explores the shortcomings of societal mores, particularly the sexual double standard which identifies Tess as a fallen woman despite the fact that she was a victim of force, while her attacker is not judged and suffers no loss of reputation, let alone legal consequences, for his actions. In fact, he eventually becomes a pietistic preacher, securing a place for his soul in heaven, while Tess stoically muses that she will likely suffer an afterlife of condemnation.  Even Angel Clare, who is enough of a freethinker to reject the liturgical trappings of the state church, still spites Tess for her circumstances even though he himself had exhibited far looser moral behavior than she in the past. Unfortunately, Hardy's readers did not agree with his designation of Tess as a pure woman and begin to socially emancipate women. Rather, the 1890s saw more burnings of Hardy's books than of corsets.

A pure woman: Tess Durbeyfield
Vaudeville-esque villain: Alec d'Urberville
Free-thinking prude (oxymoron?): Angel Clare
Dour Calvinist preacher:  James Clare
19th century groupies: Izz, Retty and Marion
Setting which is practically a character: Wessex
Unappetizing vegetable: swedes (rutabagas)
There was a lot of: descriptions of nature and its wildness and pagan-ness, moustache-twirling villainry, pietist ethics, unfortunate circumstances for the heroine
There should have been more of: rational thinking by Angel
This book makes you want to: milk a cow, build connections within a small community, visit Stonehenge at sunrise
This book makes you glad you don't have to: live as a woman in the 19th century, walk 30 miles to your new job, dig up frozen rutabagas all winter

p.s. I read this book three weeks ago, and followed it with The Grapes of Wrath and The Bell Jar.  This week is For Whom the Bell Tolls. On deck: Bleak House, East of Eden and The Brothers Karamazov; not necessarily in that order.

1 comment:

Sarah Beth said...

I was not a fan of this book, life is depressing enough, am I right? I actually got rid of it (something I never do with books) when I moved this year, I sent it back to Goodwill (where thankfully I only spent 25 cents on it in the first place).