Thomas Hardy (was: Re: survey results, part 1)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Sun Jan 2 21:14:50 EST 2000


(see how I remembered to change the subject line? :)
(okay, long post with way too much literary content--this is an Official
Warning.)

On Tue, 28 Dec 1999 16:41:30 -0500, McMullin, Elise wrote:

>> Thomas Hardy - Melissa
>I've only read Tess, and only for school.  I was deeply offended by the
>ending.  I find, upon reflection, that I am Still deeply offended by the
>ending.  There must be discussion in that!

Maybe, but I've basically given up trying to explain this to people.  I
simply find his books positive and emotionally uplifting.  This is the exact
opposite of most people's reaction (and, to hear my English teachers talk,
the opposite of what Hardy wanted, but he's dead so we can't ask him and no
I don't go in for that ouija board stuff).

I remember studying Hardy in high school and college, and the way he's
usually summed up is something along the lines of "life sucks and then you
die."  Phrases like naturalism and man vs. uncaring nature are thrown around
indiscriminately.  And his books are like this from one angle--depressing
things happen, coincidence always falls out in the worst possible way for
the hero/heroine, people suffer in ways that make you want to scream because
it's all so UNFAIR.

So here's what I see when I read Hardy.  In the first place, his prose
appeals to me and I love his descriptions.  This sort of thing matters a lot
to me when I'm reading.  It's not the only thing I read for, but I would sum
it up like this:  good prose can't keep me reading a terrible or boring
story, but bad prose will turn me off in every instance no matter how good a
storyteller the writer is.  Anyway, that's the first and least important
point when I'm talking about Thomas Hardy.

The second thing is that I am *always* interested in the stories he tells.
There's never a point where I'm tempted to just stop reading; I always want
to know what happens next.  So, although I can read Hardy's books from a
critical standpoint, usually I'm reading them for fun.  This is a circular
point--I enjoy reading Thomas Hardy because I enjoy his books--so let me
rephrase:  Hardy's books are just like any other fiction to me, as opposed
to some "literary" book I have to read for a class.  They're something I
might pick up at any time just for something to read.  (That's sort of how I
divide books in my own head: books to dissect, books to enjoy (that may or
may not be dissectable) and mind candy.  But that's another post.)

And I like his characters.  Even the despicable ones.  Hardy captured both
the best and the worst in people, and he never shied away from letting his
heroes turn out to be jerks in some way.  Tess Darbeyfield may have been his
one truly pure character...but I still haven't read all his books.  Should
probably do _Jude the Obscure_ soon, see what all the fuss was about.

_Tess_ is yet another story.  Again, I don't know anyone who reads this book
the way I did.  Some of it is that I really relate to Tess; it's been too
long, time to reread the book, so I can't be more specific.  Maybe Jacob
remembers the details; we had to read the book for a class we had together
in college (in which, come to think of it, I really should have let my
fellow classmates have it with both barrels, they were just too stupid for
words.  Always looking for Christ imagery--as though this is the, sorry,
Holy Grail of literary symbology--and missing every other obvious symbol
there was).  After thinking about it for a while, this is what I came up
with.  Tess spends the ENTIRE book being acted upon.  Everything that
happens to her, everything she suffers, isn't her fault.  (Now *that's*
Christ imagery.  Did my classmates come up with that?  Of course not.)
She's just trying to live her life and things keep happening, and she never
fights back and never rebels.  Then, finally, she acts and she gets punished
for it.  (For those who haven't read it, Tess kills the man who's been her
nemesis throughout the book, a real villain, and is brought to justice and
hanged for murder.)  And I think it's a wonderful, true ending.  It sucks,
naturally, and the guy she kills is such a despicable snake that you keep
wishing Justice would for once say "Oh, obviously he needed killing" and
give Tess a medal.  But the fact is that for once Tess took action--and for
once she suffers justly.  Setting aside the mitigating circumstances, the
bare facts are murder, and the requisite punishment for murder.  This is one
of those evidences for Hardy's pitiless natural world out to get Man, and it
makes total sense.  But I never once read it that way.  Call me weird if you
must, but I got to the end and it was GREAT!

_Tess of the d'Urbervilles_ is really hard for moderns to read, I think.
There's just too much in it that we've rejected.  Hardy despised many of the
mores of his culture, particularly the sexual double standard, but he took
the Mark Twain approach and showed how utterly wasteful and stupid it all
was without ever directly condemning it.  It's subtle and lacks the pleasure
of a direct denunciation.  A lot of what happens to Tess is just
infuriating; why isn't there anything to protect her?  Like sexual
harassment laws?  Or a decent father who isn't a drunken slob so hung up on
his fantasies that he sends his oldest daughter off to be attacked by
wolves, so to speak?  Or assertiveness training--or better yet, karate
lessons?

But if ever there was an author who loved a character, this is it.  I really
think Hardy loved Tess and it makes it all the harder that she suffered the
way she did.  Sometimes I read it and it seems he's writing a biography,
something he can't change.  I don't know.  *Every* time I read it I'm hoping
that the ending will somehow have changed and Tess and Angel will make it to
the border or she'll kill Alec with a blunt instrument leaving no open
wounds to give her away or Angel won't be such an utter ass--he's such a
wuss, he doesn't deserve her anyway.  It's never changed yet, unfortunately.
And I keep rereading it.

See, I told you you wouldn't get it.  But you did ask.

Melissa Proffitt
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