Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The Book: Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES. Airmont paperback reprint, 1965. Poor condition; pages are badly age-browned, cover is laminated and taped and pulling away from the book. Deaccessioned library copy, stamped "Norfolk Academy Library," inside front and back covers, acquisition information written on copyright page.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1981

It makes me angry when I hear literary novelists talk trash about crime fiction as a genre, as if plot, conflicts and violence disqualified a book from being taken seriously as literature. The essay for my Advanced Placement English exam asked us to discuss the role of an act of violence in a major work of literature, and any bright student would be spoiled for choice. You could write about anything from Macbeth to The Brothers Karamazov.

The Great Gatsby? Moby Dick? To Kill a Mockingbird? Invisible Man? Violent, violent, violent. Heart of Darkness is a thriller; The Scarlet Letter is a mystery. This was obvious to me as a girl of 16, and it's even more obvious to me now.

The book I wrote about was Tess of the D'Urbervilles. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I won't spoil it, except to say that the book ends with a shocking act of violence that in retrospect seems inevitable.

But it starts with violence, too, and a terrible emotional violence drives the plot. It must have been downright lurid in its day. Tess Durbeyfield, daughter of a peasant family, becomes her family's sacrificial lamb when she falls asleep while driving the family wagon, and the family horse is killed in a collision. Her guilt over the horse's death makes her agree to go to a wealthy squire to claim kinship, and ask for help.

In fact, the Stoke-D'Urbervilles are no relation to the Durbeyfields; they bought the name and the title, looking for respectability. But the son of the house, Alec, fixes on Tess like a snake on a rabbit. He seduces or rapes her, and she has a son who lives only a week.

Years later, Tess makes a new life for herself as a dairymaid in another county. Angel Clare, the son of a clergyman who is looking to learn the dairy business, falls in love with Tess, and the two plan to marry. But Angel thinks that Tess is a virgin, and she is tormented about whether she should tell him the truth. The night before the wedding, she writes him a letter telling him the whole story; he doesn't read it, and they marry.

That night, he confesses a youthful indiscretion to her. Tess forgives him, and tells him her own story -- but Angel can't forgive her, and ultimately leaves her to start a new life in Brazil.

What happens next is shocking, sad, and violent -- not only physically violent, but emotionally violent as well. Tess seeks nothing but refuge and love, and finds nothing but weakness, lies and destruction. Hardy's subtitle for this book was "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented;" she didn't deserve any of this, he implies, and is no more responsible for her own doom than the Durbeyfields' horse was.

If you put that plot into a modern novel, Harold Robbins or Judith Krantz would have to write it -- but it stands as one of the great classics of the English language. I'd say it transcends the genre.

Oh, and I scored a 5 (out of 5) on that AP exam.

Five Random Songs

"Desensitized," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones can play a swinging tune, but sometimes they're just loud. This is just loud. There's a place for that, though.

"Reptile," Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes Trent Reznor's just loud, too, but it usually has a purpose. This song feels very purposeful, and the industrial beat sounds like the movement of a giant alligator.

"State Trooper," Steve Wynn. A cool electronic cover of the Bruce Springsteen song.

"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," The Talking Heads. From the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. "Home/Is where I want to be/Pick me up and turn me 'round..."

"Chant to King Selassie I," Augustus Pablo. From a mix my friend Tom made for me, instrumental reggae.


Claire said...

The Arcade Fire does a great tribute/cover of Naive Melody, it's one of my favorite stuck-in-traffic songs. Also, I feel like my AP Lit question was something really similar, about symbolic violence, because I remember a lot of people wrote about King Lear and losing eyes...

AnswerGirl said...

See?? King Lear: violent. I'd love to see a production of King Lear that imagines Lear as a Godfather-style Mafioso. The dynamics are just the same.

Anonymous said...

I saw a production of MacBeth once by a young Japanese Theater company that re-imagined it in the world of the Yakuza. It was amazing, very edgy and punk rock but also true to the original material.