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

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Jan 4 18:49:25 EST 2000


>	Yeah, this was definitely my experience in high school when we read
>it.  But my teacher said that, and I have to reach into the mists to try to
>paraphrase - that Tess was impure (my reaction: huh?) and a Marked Woman (my
>reaction: wha?) and therefore it was inevitable that she would do an evil
>deed (me: eh?) and that the punishment was somehow predestined from long
>before the crime (me: ???).  I don't know, it didn't make much sense to me.
>Somehow she had it that any christ imagery to be found was to be found in
>the character of Angel (???!!!) and emphatically not in that Sinner, Tess.
>Honestly, the farther I get from those years the more ridiculous it all
>looks.  No wonder she looked dyspeptic when I did that presentation on
>Brahma by Emerson.  I was very obtuse about that sort of thing at the time,
>not a worker of the system - I just thought I was dumb.

Please excuse me while I go breathe into a paper bag for a minute.

<long pause>

I'm back.  That has to be the stupidest interpretation I have EVER heard!
You had a real nutter for a teacher, huh? Wait, right, I forgot that being
raped makes you impure.  No doubt the death of her sickly illegitimate child
was part of her predestined punishment.
>
>	"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.)"
>> 
>	Your take makes a lot more sense!

And naturally, I am Always Right, so no wonder.  :)

>	Yeah, despite the confusion I was under thanks to the dissonance
>between the book and my teacher's interpretation, that Tess should be
>"brought to justice" wasn't what bothered me.  The part that bothered me is
>that she Gave Her Sister to Angel Clare, and he Accepted!!  What? What?!
>Aaargh.  

>	Now my teacher's take on that was that Tess knew she could never be
>good enough for Angel (impure, marked woman etc.) so she was making amends
>(to him - ??!!) by donating her sister to the cause, as it were - and this
>was right and just because her sister was Pure in a way she could never have
>been.  Somehow in some mysterious way, whatever good thing came Angel's way
>was meager recompense for his total wonderfulness.  And I believe there was
>something in there about this being Tess's, I dunno, redeeming action
>somehow - the best she could do in her miserable state.

This is sort of a weird part of the book.  The whole question about whether
her sister is really a more innocent version of Tess is doubtful.  I think
in Tess's mind she is, but Tess is too deeply immersed in her culture to be
rational about it.  From her point of view, she *is* a fallen woman, she
*is* to blame for her impurity, and she *does* deserve whatever she gets.
But in my opinion this is Hardy's way of poking holes in the whole
idea--since Tess's philosophy is exactly what the predominant culture was
saying about female sexuality.  She's so obviously an innocent, it's
ridiculous to blame her for what life has done to her.
>
>	I'm really glad that you addressed this because I honestly never
>thought about this again in the intervening years.  It may be that my
>distaste was largely to be ascribed to how my teacher construed the events.
>Did Tess commend her sister to his care for the reasons I took away in my
>head from that experience, or did she do it because he was a benign person
>and she didn't want her sister to be vulnerable in the way that she was? Or
>why?  Hey, I *will* read that book again.

I don't know.  Personally, I believe the latter.  I think she's also giving
Angel a second chance to finally be a good person, the slimy jerk.  (There's
a scene where he sees Tess at the dairy, and she's just woken up, and he
compares her red lips and tongue (she's yawning) to that of a
snake--implying the tempter of the Garden of Eden.  I really wanted him to
be real so I could whack him with a two-by-four.)  There was something in
there about her sister being a lot like her (I might be superimposing
_Mansfield Park_ on this, but that's kind of what I remember) and like I
said, her family gave Tess NO protection from worldly evil, so it's not like
they'll protect her sister any more than they did her.  From this book, you
get the impression that not only were women unable to protect themselves,
they also weren't allowed to know what kind of danger they might be in.
Tess really turns to Alec (at the end) because she thinks she has no other
choice: in a warped way, he's the only one who ever did take care of her.  I
know there's an essay by John Sutherland that does a strong reading casting
Alec d'Urberville as a wronged hero, in a book called _Is Heathcliff a
Murderer?_  I think I got the author and title right...anyway, he's written
four books of short critical essays on classic fiction, but my library only
has one of them (not the one with the Alec essay).  They're fun to read if
you know the books each is written about; mainly it pointed out to me how
little I've actually read.  :)

Anyway, I'm glad you're going to re-read it.  It's one of my favorite books.
Hmmm, maybe I should re-read it too....

>	Heh heh, according to my teacher I believe the idea was if she had
>been decently humble and had no trace of impudence or arrogance, none of
>those terrible things would ever have happened to her.  Honestly.  How
>dunderheaded - this is exactly the sort of environment that creates a spur
>posse type situation, if you ask me.  It's unclear to me if this was all her
>idea or if she thought Hardy thought that.  I took away with me that it was
>Hardy who thought all these things.

Definitely not.  My opinion, of course.  But come to think of it, a lot of
the idi-- I mean the people in my college course believed that Hardy hated
Tess, so I think it's a possible conclusion.  Just not a very good one.

>	"...or Angel won't be such an utter ass--he's such a
>> wuss, he doesn't deserve her anyway."
>> 
>	Those were my feelings exactly.  Imagine my chagrin at the school
>interpretation. And of course I always doubted my own take first and never
>the other people, sheesh.  What a dumb thing.  It's an outrage.  If I wasn't
>so sure my classmates never paid any mind to any of this hooey, I might be
>more outraged.

You know, this is a funny thing.  I started thinking about my public school
experience after this and I realized something interesting.  I learned to
read really young--like before I was three or something--apparently in some
spontaneous fashion.  So as far as I'm concerned, I've been reading all my
life and (this is the important part) been PRAISED for my reading all my
life.  I took my first literary criticism class when I was twelve, taught by
an excellent teacher who NEVER told us what any of our books meant.  I
didn't realize how good this was till much later.

Anyway, the point is that I realized the other night that there's never been
a time when I considered my teachers in general to be more expert at reading
and interpretation than I was.  I was a cocky little snot, but it was
generally true; if I had a teacher who could teach me about books, it wasn't
by virtue of their being a teacher and therefore more knowledgeable.
(Looking back, I'm almost embarrassed at how utterly arrogant I was in
school....)

See, your interpretation was a good one!  But it sounds like (from your
other post) you didn't have much choice other than to shut up.  I hate that.
That's not teaching, that's indoctrination.  And there's never been a
teacher who couldn't learn something from the students.

>	"See, I told you you wouldn't get it.  But you did ask."
>
>	Makes more sense now than before, that's for sure.  You should have
>heard what the teacher had to say about Young Goodman Brown and the Scarlet
>Letter.  I think we had to read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God that
>year, too. 

"Sinners" was one of those things that I look back on as minutes of my life
that I'll never get back.  :)  (I have a bad attitude about pre-1850s
American literature.)

> But enough about that, you have definitely given me reason to
>have a fresh look at Hardy.  Thanks!

Yay!

Melissa Proffitt
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