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Reading in 2013: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Way back when I was a youth, my sister was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for school. I picked it up and flipped it open and read a few random pages and it seemed so dramatic and moving and exactly all the things I loved in my romanticized view of the 19th century.

This is the memory I had, and in the back of my mind I thought I would one day read it. Fast forward a decade and a half, and I still hadn’t read it, but then I got a Kobo, and all of a sudden, the Gutenberg Project means ALL THE CLASSICS OF EVER are available to me, for free. Convenient.

So I downloaded twenty, and decided to start somewhere. With Thomas Hardy and the sure-to-be-fantastic Tess.

Well. It is engaging and engrossing and, folks, oh-so-depressing.

I am not opposed to depressing novels, but there was something about this one that just wouldn’t let me go. I pressed on, groaning and skimming and praying for things to have some little slice of hope…

On Sunday night, as I was trying to force myself onwards, I finally decided to quit. I looked up the book on Wikipedia, and thought, If it has any hint of getting better, I’ll finish the last 30%. And it turns out – the ending is SO MUCH WORSE than I had imagined. I swore out loud, into the silence.

It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that has evoked such a strong negative reaction in me, not because it is poorly-written or ridiculous, but because it is a well-told story that moves me beyond my emotional limits.

I haven’t been able to stop wondering what made it so difficult for me. So far, I’ve pinpointed these things:

  1. It is about a “fallen woman” in a culture where she has little to no agency 
  2. The concepts of honour and morality keep the powerful players from honest conversations and exhibiting grace or compassion. Legalism at its very worst. 
  3. At its publishing, the book was seen as sympathetic to Tess’ plight (and shocking for such sympathy). However, the heavy drama and feeling of unavoidable tragedy is rooted in such misogyny that it kept making my blood boil. 

In my last year of university, I studied the massive novel Clarissa. One of the longest novels in the English language, it is, in essence, about the unavoidable loss of a girl's honour/reputation. As a result of this semester-long intensive study, I have many, many thoughts on the portrayal of “fallen women” in classic literature. Essentially, they have to suffer horribly, and the only alternative is death. There is no redemption.

This bothers me, and I think, rightly so.

Now I am trying to come up with a list of books that have more redemptive (or at least more nuanced) stories around similar themes. Any ideas, either historic or contemporary? It doesn’t have to be happily-ever-after, but by-golly, a little bit of grace would go a long way. No more of this too-little-too-late crap.


Sarah said…
It's been almost 15 years since I read Tess, but I still remember it as being dark and disturbing.

Your question about other books with similar themes: my first thought was Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Also, what about The Scarlet Letter?
Beth said…
Sarah - it is those things, exactly.

Scarlet Letter! That is on my Kobo as well. Maybe I'll re-read it next (I read it way way long ago)...

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