Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891) - Society and End Game

Now I want to talk about society at large, and how this book was accepted.  When I read this I kept thinking how crazy it was that people would really treat Tess so badly.  Hardy seemed to be overdoing it.  But then it turns out that this book was actually turned down by several publishers "on the grounds that it was immoral in its sympathetic depiction of a fallen woman."  What?  I double checked that source and its true.  That was a quote by Professor Patrick Allitt, Historian at Emory University.

So people back then considered Tess to be the villain?  Is that how I should interpret their calling her the fallen woman?  And we shouldn't be sympathetic towards her?  If that's the case, then Hardy was entirely correct in tackling this subject.  The book was savaged in the press.  But it was a financial success.  I get that.  I understand.  We see the same thing today, where the people in the media, reporters, Hollywood, politicians, whatever, those people are not always in step with the public.  If critics hated this book, then I am positive that the sort of slap in the face the book gave them was exactly what was needed.

However, I won't say the book stands up well over time.  The main theme might stand up if we can boil it down to the poor treatment of women over circumstances they could not control.  But the surrounding events that bring it all together are lost to history.  I'll list a few here.

First of all, the obsession with heraldry which is an underlying theme is lost on many people today.  America is such a mixed bag.  When two people fall in love and get married, they don't start asking about noble birth and that kind of crap.  We ask about lineage because we think it's cool or interesting that you're part Irish or part German, or your grandfather was a soldier in the Russian army, or your parents fled Vietnam into China in the 1970s.  Everyone, no matter what lineage, looks for something to be proud of.  But we are not defined by what someone did hundreds of years ago.

Second, I believe when this book was released, Angel was considered a good character, a man in turmoil trying to come to grips with his own love for his wife versus his moral teachings.  But to the modern mind, all we see is someone who deserted his wife the moment she told him her history.  He had some image in his mind of the perfect wife and thought she fit the bill.  But then we find out that other girls on the farm also fit that bill, and Angel would have been just as happy with one of them, only he thought Tess was prettier.

Third, this book is way too long for what it gives you.  Modern readers want to be entertained, not lectured.  The tedious descriptions can break you down.  You lose your place in the book.  You have no memory of reading the last few paragraphs.  Then you start skipping pages, looking for something to happen.

Finally, nothing happens in this book other than Tess's destruction.  From beginning to end, it's a long tale with a single purpose.  Think of Dickens with his multitude of characters and intertwined plots.  Does Hardy ever cut away, back to the farm to see Tess's father with some humorous scheme to make money?  Or Marian in some comical scene where she meets a man who buys her a drink and promises to marry her, then runs off with her favorite cow?  Hardy knew rural life so well, think of all the wasted opportunities.  But I guess we can't fault him too much since this was a serious book meant to do one thing and one thing only - shed light on the deplorable treatment of women.

In the end, things did not turn out well.  Tess was destined to die.  The fact that she was executed for murdering Alec doesn't mean anything.  The symbolism is that she was executed by society for being a "fallen woman", and that justice was done.  If Tess was guilty of anything it would be not telling Angel about her past before they were married.  She almost did, (it was maddening to have Hardy dance around it again and again...that was poor writing) and Tess knew that was important to Angel.  She knew it, but didn't tell him.  Whether she thought it was important or not, she knew he did.

To me, the best part of the book, actually what I consider the climax, is when Tess finally, finally writes a letter to Angel telling him what a jerk he was.  That symbolized all of her inner strength - for the first time in her life standing up to her poor treatment and telling the world to back off!
O why have you treated me so monstrously, Angel! I do not deserve it. I have thought it all over carefully, and I can never, never forgive you! You know that I did not intend to wrong you—why have you so wronged me? You are cruel, cruel indeed! I will try to forget you. It is all injustice I have received at your hands!
I actually cheered when I read that.  Thank you, Tess!  Thank you for saying what needed to be said.  I should have stopped reading there.  The book should have ended there, or with her finally standing up and being her own woman, telling the world she will not be put down.  But that wouldn't have had the impact Thomas Hardy wanted.

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