Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: The Woman Pays

Contemporary novelists foolishly sneer at coincidence, thinking it an outmoded convention of melodrama.  However anyone who has reached his dotage, like your correspondent, knows that coincidence is the very essence of life.  A great deal of who and what we are hangs on the merest chance, much of it coincidentally.

So it was a coincidence that I was rereading Thomas Hardy’s masterful Tess of the D’Urbervilles during the recent brouhaha of the Komen Fund for the Cure deciding to cut funding to Planned Parenthood – we at the Jade Sphinx largely see the world through the prism of art, and the bisection of our reading and current events was too delicious not to comment upon.

For those of you who have not read Tess in some time, here’s a brief recap: Tess Durbeyfield is a simple (very simple!) farm girl of the English countryside.  By chance her father – a ne'er do well who is something of the village joke – learns that he is descended from the venerable D’Urbervilles, a once powerful family of knights and landowners.  Like many fools before him, Durbeyfield takes on airs because of his now moldy ancestry, and takes to calling himself Sir John.

When the family learns of prosperous D’Urbervilles in a neighboring town, they send their beautiful daughter, Tess, to meet the family, claim kinship, and hopefully inspire them to part with some of their wealth.  Tess meets Alec D’Urberville, a swashbuckling rakehell who promptly seduces the simple girl.  (And to add insult to injury, Alec and his mother are not even really D’Urbervilles – but, rather, arrivistes who have taken the venerated name for themselves!)

Tess returns home and soon finds she is pregnant.  She gives birth to the child, whom she names Sorrow.  The baby soon dies – without the benefit of a church baptism as the now self-styled Sir John does not want to bring shame upon his new-found family name.  Tess buries the baby herself and vows to leave home and start life anew.

Which she does – working at a dairy farm.  There she meets Angel Clare, son of a parson, who decides not to go into the family business of religion because of his own crisis of faith.  Angel falls in love with Tess, who constantly rebuffs his advances.  Poor Tess, soiled by the evil Alec, no longer believes herself worthy of a good man’s love.  However, finally falling in love with Angel herself, she writes him a long letter detailing the tragedy of her past.  She slips the letter under his door.  When he later proposes marriage, she believes that he does not care about what happened in her past.

Of course, the letter slid under the door also went under the carpet, and Angel never read it.  On their wedding night Tess tells Angel what happened to her and … he decides to leave her while he considers what he should do next.  He leaves the country for Brazil, thinking that he has left Tess well-provided for.  What he doesn’t know is that Tess gives the money he gave her to her improvident family, and she essentially works as an indentured servant on a dairy farm that functions more as a slave factory than anything else.  While there, she once again meets Alec, who has had a religious conversion (!).  But, upon seeing Tess once again, he throws over his new religious convictions, consumed by passion for her.  (Not surprisingly – then or now -- Alec blames Tess for his own lack of self control.)

Angel at last returns, more than a year later.  Tess, believing that Angel has thrown her over for good, had no choice but to take up once again with Alec D’Urberville, who offered to help her family in exchange for sharing his bed.  When the three collide in a small, English countryside town, the novel comes to its heartbreaking, dismal conclusion...

Outlined in its barest plot, Tess of the D’Urbervilles sounds like the most ludicrous melodrama.  But melodrama is reality without art, and Tess is a novel of remarkable humanity, acuity and forgiveness.  Even more telling, the three main characters are written so true to life that there are as real and believable today as they were in 1891.

Angel is, of course, a prig of the worst kind.  A man for whom morality means that abstract mysticism always trumps simple human nature (let alone simple human forgiveness) is all too common today.  Reading of his atrocious behavior, as I did during the Komen Fund story, I was appalled at the number of Angel Clares running around our contemporary world.  To read commentaries by single men – many unmarried and all sexually active – railing against contraception funding seemed both a hypocrisy and mental disconnect closely akin to schizophrenia.  It seems that those voices that most damn women used and tossed aside like poor Tess are those of men; men who somehow fail to connect their own sexual pleasure with the fates of their female partners.  It’s no mistake that Hardy in his genius titled one of the chapters The Woman Pays.

Alec, of course, is more than a cardboard villain.  On one hand he is more admirable than the milquetoast Angel, but he also condemns Tess for making him feel sexual attraction during his religious conversion.  He also offers to care for her family and give her a life of sorts – a sort of twisted generosity that is still more than Angel offers her.

Finally, of course, we come to Tess.  Tess is a wonderful creation – it is not simply that she is long-suffering and sinned against, but Tess is the most admirable character in the novel.  She has a deeply-rooted sense of honor, behaves in a manner that puts all others before her self, and is deeply spiritual, if not religious.  However, the fact of her out-of-wedlock child and earlier sexual experiences mark her as eternally other – never to be ‘decent’ or ‘respectable.’  Sadly, some things never change.  One wonders if the hypocrites who advocate the de-funding of contraception or sex education have ever read Hardy (or anything, for that matter)…

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is one of the great novelists of the language. Like Charles Dickens he was an intensely political writer – his fiction reflected the world around him and sought to effect social change.  However, Dickens was also a master of characterization – he wrote novels influenced by politics, while Hardy largely wrote polemics supported by fictional characters.  His work is also afflicted with a deep and pervasive gloom – this is the man who, after all, had the children in Jude the Obscure (1895) hang themselves so they wouldn’t be a burden on their parents.

Despite Hardy’s weaknesses as a novelist, his power as a storyteller and critic of our culture is undeniable.  To read Tess is to dive deep into a tragedy of a sort that is still all-too-common today, and to deal with a double-standard and hypocrisy that has not changed.  If you want to understand the prejudices of today, it is sometimes best to examine those of the past.

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