heart_in_the_margins: (Counterproductive)
[personal profile] heart_in_the_margins
I have way more issues with this novel than I thought I was going to. Triggers for sexual assault and victim blaming as well as pervasive misogyny and all the worst parts of rape culture behind the cut.

I think the place to start with this is that I don't really think of myself as someone who has triggers -- at least not in the sense of "things that will set off an anxiety attack/feelingspiral/etc. that will keep me from functioning" -- and I have never been the victim of sexual assault (something I don't take for granted when something like 1 in 5 women has been). I mean, I certainly don't go around seeking out novels about sexual assault (in fact if they weren't written in the eighteenth century I mostly avoid them like the plague), but after managing Clarissa (described by one professor as "a thousand-page staging of a rape") I was pretty sure that I could handle whatever was thrown at me.

Tess proved me wrong. I didn't have any actual anxiety attacks, but my mood was way down for the three days I spent reading it -- to the point that I found myself not sleeping well and crying about really small things. (It probably didn't help that the weather followed my feelings in turning from sunshine to rain over this period.)

If I didn't have to talk about this novel with a professor I respect and admire, I would probably forget all about it. But since it's on my Victorian novel orals list and I have a meeting scheduled for the end of the month, I need to have more to say about it than simply "I can't take it anymore."  And in order to do that, I need to talk about the things that I maybe don't get to say in that meeting and try to figure them out and get them out of my system.

The major problem I have boils down to the fact that Hardy thinks he's doing something he's not. He thinks that he's being radical and (although this is an anachronistic way of phrasing things) feminist by writing a novel whose protagonist is a "fallen woman," since most Victorian fiction shunted them to the sidelines or gave them gruesome deaths or what have you. But while it's true that Tess is a very different kind of protagonist from those typically found in Victorian novels, there is nothing about Hardy's portrayal of her that is even marginally empowering. He seems to think that, merely by choosing to pay some attention to her story, he is giving her weight and depth, but his third-person omniscient narrator typically confirms, both explicitly and implicitly, the rape culture that produces her assailant: Tess will always be desired against her will by powerful men because she is beautiful, and she is in charge of regulating her appearance (she covers her face at one point and shaves off her eyebrows because she doesn't want to be looked and leered at!) so that men don't find themselves overcome by unstoppable passions. Even the loving relationship that Tess has during her courtship of Angel Clare is emphasized by the narrator as being lopsided (though not all-together one-sided) -- Tess loves Angel more than Angel could possibly love Tess -- and based entirely on notions of physical beauty and moral purity that show Angel to be inextricably part of the conventional society that he nonetheless tries to convince himself (and Tess) he is above and beyond. 

Hardy's attempts at recuperating Tess are no better. He falls into the trap of generalizing and universalizing in order to suggest that all women are really closer to nature than to culture and so they should find it easier than men to realize that all of the trappings of conventional society (particularly conventional morality as put forth by Christianity) are unnatural. Never once does he seem to realize that, thanks to patriarchy, it's actually impossible for women to ignore conventional society without becoming absolute outcasts, doomed to starve and die for lack of income.

And maybe part of my anger with Hardy is that I just don't do tragedy -- I don't do hopelessness and despair, I don't understand how you could find any solace in a novel that basically wants you to believe that the happiest possible ending for Tess is to (finally) murder her rapist only to be caught, tried, and executed for her crime. (All offstage, of course. We couldn't possibly show a woman in a moment of actual agency or make her death something that is about her and not about her lover. And in fact, in general, this novel is reticent to allow itself too far inside Tess's head...) 

I feel like a lot of these issues come from the fact that Hardy can't seem to conceive of a woman who is actually intelligent, either about the ways of the world or in a more "book-learning" sense. Tess parrots Angel's ideas back to anyone who will listen, not because she believes them or disbelieves them but because she loves him! She is so worried that he won't love her because she's not smart enough, and spends so much of her time with him asking him to teach her the things that she's convinced make him her superior. When the narration dips into Angel's consciousness it seems right at home, and when I first met Angel I thought, "Oh god, it's a Thomas Hardy self-insert!" But the narrator seems incapable of spending time in Tess's head without commenting on how very little there is there, or at least foregrounding the distance between the narratorial perspective and Tess's perspective. (One way this occurs is through the narrator's heavy citationality -- comparing Tess's thoughts to famous sayings of slightly obscure educated dead white men doesn't actually elevate Tess, it shows up the gap between her and the kind of learning that this society expected as a ground for intellectual respect!) More often, Tess is merely described from the outside, the narrator acting as the purveyor of the male gaze and sexualizing Tess to the point that the narrator himself sounds more like her rapist than anyone else in the novel!

Ultimately, although I suspect Hardy thinks his novel is supposed to critique conventional perceptions of women, it only reinforces them, in the novel's form as well as its content. And that is NOT OKAY WITH ME.

And now the brief list of things I should probably also talk about in my orals meeting:
-- loss of rural ways of life and livelihood (especially with the advent of more mechanized farming) 
-- nature vs. culture as Pagan vs. Christian (+ convention)
-- science, history, and "deep time" (both the d'Urberville lineage and the temporal span of nature)
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