Tess of the d’Urbervilles
400 pages; literary fiction
Quick Summary: Tess Durbeyfield and her family are poor, so her parents decide to send her to Alec d’Urberville to claim kinship and therefore receive some financial aid. The plan is disastrous; Tess comes home, but finding her home life unbearable, she decides to move and work at a farm. Years pass, and Tess falls in love with another man, Angel Clare. However, she is unable to marry him due to the secret she is keeping.
Discussion (Spoilers ahead):
So I read this book because I am teaching it to my AP classes in October. Otherwise, I probably would have thrown the book across the room halfway through. Alec is terrible person, and ends up raping Tess after drugging her. Because this is England and because it’s the 1800’s, Tess is suddenly not pure and hates herself. When she falls in love with Angel, she doesn’t want to marry him because she is not a virgin and this will reflect bad on her/him for marrying her. Still, they get married and on their first night as husband and wife, he tells her he’s not a virgin, she tells him the exact same thing, and he flips his shit. He goes to Brazil to try farming and basically is a terrible husband who never talks to his wife. The ending is even weirder, but I’ll save that for those who want to read it.
So the first thing I was angry about was that a white man was writing about a woman getting raped. Is he writing to help women gain sympathy? Is it trauma porn? One time in a college class of mine, my professor asked us this: “If you write about an experience, are you automatically aestheticizing it?” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about it in class, but the question lingers.
I think this reminds me the most of slam poetry. I remember Andrea Gibson saying something along the lines of “No girl grows up dreaming about writing poems about sexism,” but she said it had to be done. But the question is still valid: if we write about sexism, if we perform our poetry about it, are we trying to make an ugly thing beautiful? Obviously this applies to other types of art as well, and no clear lines have been drawn. Obvious, too, is the fact that writing can be healing.
I’m going to sidetrack here to a story from a friend.
So a teacher is starting his first year teaching history. He’s super woke, so he plans an entire curriculum talking about racism and sexism and how all these terrible things happened in the past. He thinks it’s going great. Then, one day, a few weeks into the semester, two young black girls approach him after class. “Mr. ______, we appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you always have to be so negative?” Why, they were asking, couldn’t he also focus on the achievements of people of color, and not just the trauma they experienced?
Another side note: the podcast Another Round discusses the idea of coming of age movies. What they found was that the white characters get to have a life-changing event (think Stranger Things where the girl is sacrificed) but come out ultimately okay, whereas the black characters and black girls in particular have stories focused around trauma, stories where they don’t get to be teenagers or adolescents at all, but rather skip from children to adults.
I wonder that about poetry, about stories, about writing. If young women grow up only hearing stories and poems about rape, sexism, and fear, how much will they think is available to them? How does one strike a balance between acknowledging victim-status and also acknowledging autonomy, power, and pride?
Is it okay for Hardy to write about rape, even though he’s a man? If it’s to inspire empathy? Is it just voyeurism? If we write about an experience, are we automatically aestheticizing it? How do we write stories that are both true to life and uplifting? Or rather, how do we write stories in which all paths are available to all people? Where minorities are not defined by their traumas, but neither are those traumas ignored?