Monday, July 27, 2009

On Tess of the D'Urbervilles

"How can I pray for you," [Tess] said, "when I am forbidden to believe that the great Power who moves the world would alter His plans on my account?"

--Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Barnes and Noble Edition, p. 374)

On a theological level, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a worthy read. I like this question Hardy crafts in Tess' conversation in her troubled relationship with Alec D'Urberville because it makes so many statement about religious influence in human existence. Has Tess been poorly educated about doctrine? Does she merely have self-image issues? Has she been influenced somewhat by a deist way of thinking?

Some have written about Hardy's loss of religion in his lifetime; Hardy offers main characters who are clearly wrestling with their faith, if not lost it altogether. Yet it is evident that faith and religion have impacted each characters' lives. I'm not sure that after all of the tragic events in Tess that transpire whether Hardy is attempting to debunk Christian faith or religion in general, or critique the social structures that expose institutional Christianity as a deeply flawed social fabric contaminated with hypocrisy, further tainted when woven with the arbitrary cruelty of social class. Hardy exposes social class as a farce, while exposing how people buy into this construction without challenging it--to the point of their own destruction. I can relate to this--the contemporary financial philosopher Dave Ramsey says that we go broke and push our lives to the brink of destruction trying to impress people that we don't even know or like. In my other lost moments and days--I lived this way as well.

Tess' family lives in a world where they are slaves to social convention--but because these oppressive social boundaries appear rigid they don't really change their lives, even when it appears they have new opportunities when they learn they are part of the famous D'Urberville lineage and can shake their poor image as mere Durbeyfields. Tess ends up blaming herself for situations that she cannot control, yet she is fearful to act in situations that she could control out of fear of social structures. Unfortunately, the paralyzed Tess is felt in the pacing of the book--the only painful part of the book is the seemingly endless dance around social structures between Tess and Angel Clare in the middle 200 pages of the book. These pages can be summarized: In a dairy farm setting, Tess has a secret about her past that she is not sure she wants to reveal to her love Angel Clare. Clare loves Tess and can't imagine what is keeping them from getting married. I am no literature scholar, but this could easily be covered in 50 pages. The only explanation I can find for the length of this part of the drama is that originally was published in sections, and that extending this part of the story is a time-honored technique to keep readers holding on between issues. This type of story extension serves soap operas, and shows like Friends, Moonlighting, Grey's Anatomy, etc., well, but can be agonizing for followers. Some authors and screenwriters don't know when to move on (Hardy did it a little too late for my taste, but I was going to finish this book come hell or high water). Crafting stories in this way builds readership through word of mouth and public discourse. Though I can understand the technique, it doesn't work as much for a novel.

Some have written that Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of the finest novels written in English of all time. Indeed, the language is precise, and the book revealed the gaping holes in my vocabulary that I hadn't seen since I took the Graduate Record Examination a few years ago. Just because the language was precise didn't mean Hardy was overstated in his prose. I only had to look up more words in the dictionary than I had to in many years.

I don't know if I experienced redemption reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I have always harbored doubts to learn well from reading classic literature. I gained a little more confidence reading this book, and I was reminded about what I did learn from my blown opportunity in 2nd year literature in college: pay attention to characters, details and language. Be persistent and take your time. At least I can enjoy literature at a deeper level, and use it to engage in public discourse and reflect on important themes in life. I'm looking forward to watching the Tess of the D'Urbervilles film and consider the themes at a deeper level.

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