Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reader's Diary #1120- Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Finally, I can no longer list Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles as the book that got away. Years ago I had started it but for some reason, now long forgotten, I didn't finish it. I know it wasn't that I wasn't enjoying it, I've finished plenty of those; maybe it was a library copy and the due date had come up? I really don't recall. And what I did recall it would seem I recalled wrong. I seriously remembered nothing of the plot. It turned out that I'd been confusing it with Pygmalion all this time and it's nothing at all like Pygmalion.

That all aside, I have finally read it. I started it again quite a while back, before the Bill Cosby allegations started ramping up again in the wake of Hannibal Burress's comedy routine where he called Cosby out, which a quick Google search tells me was way back in October. I bring this up not just as a weird time line marker, but I actually found myself thinking of Cosby and his accusers a lot while reading Tess.

Tess, as many of you know is raped somewhat early in the book by a man named Alec d'Urberville. (As a bit of a side note, I quite enjoyed most of Hardy's subtlety, but that particular scene was too subtleprobably due to censorship at the time and I actually didn't realize she had even been raped until a few chapters later.) Later, when Tess falls in love with Angel Clare, she can't bring herself to tell him about her past and why she's so standoffish. It was frustrating how long this dragged out and it was hard not to direct the frustration at Tess herself. "You didn't do anything wrong! Just tell him already!" Of course, then I would feel like a heel, blaming a victim for her psychological state in the wake of a crime. That was when I realized that there were similar whispers about the Cosby accusers as some people wondered why, after all the time that had passed, they would be coming forward now. To be sure, Hardy doesn't provide much deep description of Tess's psychological state following her rape. But it is not such an easy scapegoat to suggest that Tess's reluctance to come forward had much to do the time and setting. To suggest that Victorian England blamed raped victims and this is what held Tess back, is to shine a wholly unflattering light on today's society, you know the one where we like to think we're better than that in 2015 and yet some victims are still too afraid to come forward because of what society would think.

Big, heavy thoughts for sure and from a purely selfish, and only because Tess of the d'Ubervilles is a work of fiction, I almost welcomed when Alec, who disappears for a large part of the story, returned. He's a hateful, despicable man and yet I wanted someone to direct my frustration at, someone who really deserved it. Though, if I'm being honest, Angel Clare, the supposedly moral man who deserts Tess when she finally "confesses," also fills that void. The men in this book are truly, truly awful.

Saying this, it might seem odd for me to add that I really loved this book. Even if the issues are difficult, it's amazing to me that a book written in 1892 England could still provide insight and reflection on North American society today.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I am pretty sure I read this in high school, but also remember nothing of the plot. How timely that you reread it while these discussions were going on in society.

Anonymous said...

I read this book in a day, many decades ago, and loved it. I was frustrated with it as much as you were and for the same reasons, though I could not put it down. I really thought it was a page-turner.

You are right about how pertinent it is to today. While the situation is much better today it's still not good enough. The college classes that are reading Tess this year will certainly have very interesting discussions afterwards..

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Sadly, it's probably remained timely ever since it was written.

James: In a day? That puts my half a year to shame!

Buried In Print said...

I read this one a couple of years ago and was struck, as you've said, by how timely its themes are. Hard reading, perhaps, but it was beautifully told nonetheless, and I was glad to fill the gap.

Melwyk said...

I read this one in high school as well, and agree that it's still very timely. I also agree that both Alec AND Angel are really awful.