Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

I read this novel several months ago, wrote my review, and then decided not to publish it.  Sometimes I like to discuss these things with people in person before I blog about them.  This was one of those things.  Anyway, here is my original review from May.

I recently read Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. This was recommended to me by a close friend, and while it's quite different from the sort of books I normally read, I really liked it.
The story is simple; it is about a young woman named Tess who is raped, and how that single event follows her through life, slowly leading to her destruction.
I didn't know that this novel would hit such a soft spot for me. I really had some strong feelings and impressions while reading this book.

Something about me, that probably only my closest friends realize, is that I am very protective, especially of women, and most especially for my close female friends. I'm not a violent person at all, and I rarely get angry, but if someone were to harm a friend of mine, I would probably go on a rampage.
Recently, I heard on a radio interview, that 1 in 3 college age women have experienced some form of sexual assault. 1 in 3! And that statistic is not for the nation, but for Utah! I know more than 3 women. I'm close friends with more than 3 women. Just thinking about my friends being made victims in this manner makes me shake with anger! This is getting a bit off topic though.

There are several things that I wanted to address about the book.
While it sounds depressing, there is a good portion of the book that is delightful and charming, and generally very happy. I liked this part. Tess is a fantastic character, and an amazing woman. The real tragedy of the story is that Tess cannot forgive herself in an era where victimized women were considered sinners.  Moreover, the people who know about her tragedy forever label her as impure, and without virtue.  This is unacceptable.

I am so glad that today we are beyond this false stigma.  Despite our cultural advances, I worry that even today, many women who find themselves in this kind of situation are unable to forgive themselves of something that needs no forgiveness.  I worry that women who have been made victims struggle needlessly because of a falsely diminished sense of self-worth.

I feel very strongly that one of the roles of honorable manhood is to safeguard the sanctity of womanhood. This book demonstrates this fact by giving us the example of a man who fails in this regard. If I learned that one of my close friends had been raped, the first thing I would do would be to assure her that she has done nothing wrong, and is still 100% pure. The second thing I would do would be hunting down the offender, and making him pay.  Ok, maybe not, but I would really really want to, and I would seriously consider it.  After those initial reactions, I would do everything within my power to help in any way that is needed, and to reassure my friend that everything can be made right again.

Another key point to this book is the importance of forgiveness. Forgiving others, and being willing to forgive yourself. Again, I remind you that Tess has no need of forgiveness, but considering the prevailing philosophy of the time, if she, and those around her, had been willing to forgive, her life could have been full and happy.

The book is very well written, and is full of symbolism, innuendo, and foreshadowing. Going back through some of the passages that I highlighted, I realized how shocking some of the foreshadowing actually is. I think that this is a book that would actually read very differently the second time through.

One of the interesting things about the writing and the characters, is that so much of the book consists of high praise for Tess. She is compared to women of scripture and mythology, and esteemed of all the highest virtues possible. It is tragic that when her past is discovered, suddenly all the previous praises are forgotten, and Tess is left alone and abashed.  I hope that this sort of thing would not happen today.
The story stands as a warning to anyone who would forget about all the praises for a person once one flaw is found, that the greater sin lies on the forgetful one.  Hypocrisy, in this manner, runs rampant throughout the book.

The book is also very interesting from a literary point of view. He did something towards the end of the book that is difficult to describe, but he created a sense of urgency without every saying that anyone was in a hurry, or rushing about from place to place. It felt like his descriptions became more brief, whereas before, he used to elaborate on everything. Before, he used to take up several pages talking about a character walking from one town to another, but now he just started saying that so-and-so traveled to such-and-such a place, and then proceeded with the events. He also introduced several new items, mainly the telegraph, and the train. Prior to the last few chapters people had only written letters, and drove in carriages, now suddenly, they have faster modes of travel and communication. The whole feel of the book changed near the end to create an overwhelming sense of urgency. It was a very interesting trick.

One final thought that I would like to bring up, is the interesting issue of confessing your sins to your spouse on your wedding night. Is this something that is commonly done?  Should it be done? If so, should it be done before or after marriage? How open should couples be about their past sins? What about repentance? How do married people address each others sins? Should they be aware of them? Or do they just figure them out over time?  I don't really have answers to any of these questions, but I do have my own opinions.  I feel like specific sins should not necessarily be addressed, but the more general topic of weaknesses should.  I think that these things should be addressed while courting, and well before the marriage.  I think that people need to go into a marriage with a mutual desire to forgive and start anew.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a very thought provoking, well written novel, and I highly recommend it, though I recognize that it is not for everyone.  It is pretty heavy stuff.


Emmy said...

Wow, Robby! That was a beautiful review! I read Tess in highschool, and honestly, I didn't give it the proper attention. I think I'll have to pick it up again; sounds like its totally worth it ;)

Robin said...

Did you watch the BBC miniseries of Tess that came out last year? It was really good.

Great review. I remember the sentence at the end- "'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess" that made my little 16-year-old self fall apart and weep at the unfairness of it all :)

Also- that 1 in 3 is a scary statistic.

Robby Spratt said...

I haven't seen any of the film adaptations, but I know that there are several. I will have to look for the BBC version. I generally like their work.
That statistic pretty much freaked the crap out of me!

Robin said...

Oh I was wrong, it was a Masterpiece miniseries, not BBC. Still good!