Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Still in Progress: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Dear Jenny,

The month is about 1/3 of the way over and I am about 1/3 of the way through Tess, so I feel like I'm on track. Plus, it's going waaaay better than I thought it would!

As predicted/feared, Tess does get raped. And, as predicted/hoped for, the Victorian writing style glosses right on over it. For a couple of pages, Hardy wrote about, basically, the fate that has most likely befallen more than one of Tess's ancestors. If I had not been expecting it, I might have even missed that it was happening. Excellent!

I now understand why there are seduction/rape debates about this, because she really didn't understand what was going on, the guy has been wooing her for months, and the language is so opposite-of-graphic, it's almost easy to miss. But I'm gonna say... 16 year old has sex with someone she doesn't really want to have sex with? Yeah. Rape.

She later reprimands her mother and says, "What the heck? You could have told me could happen!" (I'm paraphrasing, of course.) She's angry because she really had no idea that sex could even happen, so she was ill-equipped to either a) avoid the situation (by not going off alone with this guy) and/or b) defend herself in the situation (since she didn't know what was happening). Her mom doesn't have much to defend herself with and apologizes to Tess. This message still rings true today -- parents who don't tell their kids about sex because they are trying to "protect" them are not doing them any favors. Maybe Tess could do a PSA? Heh.

After she gets raped, she falls into a fit of understandable depression, so we ride that out for a bit. The writing here is really lovely, I must say, as Hardy describes Tess's distance from her family and those around her. Very evocative.

After this, a new section opens and there's talk of fields and crops and harvesting. I lost focus for a few pages here, as I had no idea what this had to do with Tess's story or where it was going. After re-reading the pages about the harvesting machine a few times to try to find what the heck I had missed, I decided to press on.

Finally, we find some folks working in a field. As we slowly zoom in on the workers, we find out that one of them is... Tess! As we continue to observe Tess, her sister comes by while she's on her lunch break and hands Tess a baby. To breast feed. Wow! Say what you will about the Victorian writing, but this was really beautifully done (after I got past the seemingly unrelated harvest talk). The "zooming in" was just, well, artistry. I didn't see it coming that Tess had a baby as a result of the rape. Perhaps if I was more experienced reading Victorian lit, I would have picked up the cues (all that harvest talk, maybe?) but I did not. So I was all, "Wow! Baby!"

Fortunately or unfortunately, the baby gets sick and dies almost immediately. This scene is very powerfully written. Tess is filled with angst that the baby is going to die without being baptized, and when her father will not let the parson into the house, Tess decides to baptize the baby herself. Totally heartbreaking. After the baby passes, she asks the parson if her baptism is "just the same" as if he had baptized the baby. I thought this passage was really amazing:
"Having the natural feelings of a tradesman at finding that a job he should have been called in for had been unskilfully botched by his customers among themselves, he was disposed to say no. Yet the dignity of the girl, the strange tenderness in her voice, combined to affect his nobler impulses -- or rather those that he had left in him after ten years of endeavour to graft technical belief on actual scepticism. The man and the ecclesiastic fought within him ,and the victory fell to the man.

"'My dear girl,' he said, 'it will be just the same.'" (112)
Unfortunately, he cannot take this too far and when Tess asks if the baby can be given a Christian burial, the parson has to do his job and refuse. Therefore, the baby is buried in the unconsecrated ground of the cemetery. Really heartbreaking, although Tess bears it all very stoically. She's a strong one, that Tess.

I continue to be surprised by this book -- I find myself getting more and more invested in Tess. How on earth is her story going to turn out? The flowery language can, at times, be difficult to wade through and I must admit that focusing on really reading can be exhausting (when I realize my mind has wandered, I have to go back 2-3 pages and re-read) BUT there are some parts where Hardy has really nailed it -- especially when describing the sky. I've been bookmarking these passages, so perhaps I will devote an entire blog post to Hardy's Beautiful Descriptions of the Sky. Really lovely stuff.


1 comment:

  1. Kelly,

    I'm happy to hear that you're finding Tess to be a good read. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that I hate the Victorians, I'd probably read it based purely on your description.

    That all does sound very sad, although like you I'm glad it glosses over the rape scenes. I'm left wondering what happened to the guy that rapes her. Is he totally out of the picture? I guess is that time, no one would really make him own up and pay child support, huh?

    I'd definitely be interested in reading sky descriptions. Amsterdam was full of beautiful writing about music and the composition of music. I marveled over it as I read. It was a short book, but there were long, dazzling passages where he movingly described music and the act of creating music.

    Lemon Cake---should we write about it or talk about it?