Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

A Laugh at My Own Youth

Required summer reading in eleventh grade, I believe. Didn't read it until we came to it in class. I loved the book. Or rather, I loved the story. I read *most* of it, skimming the boring parts and missing chapters in order to catch up for the quizzes, but getting my mind around a majority of it. I took notes in class in my book. I kept the book always and regarded it as one of my favourites but never found the time to re-read it.

Until now.

Boy, is the situation different now. Not only is the book a completely different book than I remembered it, I now come to it from an entirely different perspective, with an entirely different worldview and with a vastly larger understanding of the context.

As a fifteen year old, I knew nothing about Victorian society. I hadn't read enough Victorian period literature to know how pertinent the story was. I also basically had no literary criticism experience. The notes I wrote were so painfully stolen straight from a teacher's mouth (and probably misquoted and horribly misused) and are really quite aside the point.

Reading the book now, the same copy as I used all those years ago, is quite an amusing, as well as enlightening, experience. I cannot help reading the notes scrawled along the edges, and each time, the notes make me smile at myself. "Foreshadowing". "Tess's Appearance". "Red means sex". Hehe. Did I even know what foreshadowing was?

Oh well, anyway, it's important to say I still love the book. Actually reading it makes a huge difference. And I read it now in light of all the other Victorian novels I've read between age 15 and 23, and it makes so much more sense.

In Victorian times (as well as probalby ALL the times, excluding the 20th century), it was rather common, and even expected (at least by those observant novelists and the majority of men, though most times not by the womenfolk) for a man to descend upon his wedding night with a bit (or a lot) of past conjugal experience. Women, however, were fully expected to approach marriage as innocent, frightened honeybees. Many, many novels involve a pure woman coming into marriage. Most often, we, the readers, are aware of the husband's past flings, but this is not usually important to the novel. It is a side note, it's mostly a given. We read on about the sweet wifey and her struggles with her husband or her affairs or whatnot and that's the crux of the story.

We rarely, if ever, spend anytime thinking about the woman our hero has his past experience from. She's insignificant, as she should be, Victorian novelists would believe, and we need not think of her anymore. That is what is so significant about this book. Thomas Hardy took one of those insignificant fallen women and told us her story for a change. And what do we find, but a woman, just like me, just like you girls, just like the innocent bride in other stories - a woman with a past, a present, a future and a sin.

It's no wonder Victorians cast so many stones at Hardy for this book. How dare you make us sympathise with such a woman? She's horrid, she's sinful, she's tainted, she's a bad example for our children and wives. But Hardy also understood that she was a woman. She was one of many women who fell and were thus cast out of society forever, out of sight, out of mind.

Which brings me to a point far more serious than I originally intended. Grace. Tess was denied grace because of her sin, and what is worse, was denied grace by a man guilty of that very same sin. It is so poignant and so clear to us how wrongly Tess is treated, yet it can go by without a single thought of ourselves and our own tendency to treat others with the same judgment. I think of how many people I deny grace to, on account of this or that, when really, that person is no different than I. How many times have I fallen but been allowed to rise again because of grace? Conversely, how many times have I labeled someone else as fallen and instead of holding out a hand to help them back up, have kicked the dust in his face and tottered off?

I think I'll leave it at that, since it's something I ought to think about.

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